Updated hot board: Potential candidates to replace Gus Malzahn as Auburn football coach

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

AUBURN — Gus Malzahn was fired Sunday after eight seasons as Auburn’s head coach, during which he led the Tigers to eight consecutive winning seasons, two SEC West crowns, a conference championship and a national title game appearance.

Athletics director Allen Greene said the university will “begin a search immediately for a coach that can help the Auburn program consistently compete at the highest level.”

On Tuesday, the athletics department announced Parker Executive Search Firm, based out of Atlanta, will assist an eight-member advisory board through that process.

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On Sunday, we published a rundown of some potential candidates for the job. Here's the latest look each of their candidacies (updated 10 p.m. CT Thursday):


Kevin Steele (Auburn interim head coach)

2020 salary: $2.5 million

Why he might fit: He’s had great success during five seasons as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, leading top-20 scoring units in each of the first four. He also has incredible experience in the business, working under the likes of Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden, Nick Saban an Dabo Swinney.

Why he might not: He’s 62 years old and has operated mostly outside the spotlight during his career. He had a 9-36 record over four seasons as Baylor’s head coach from 1999-2002.

Tuesday update: Steele has reportedly emerged as one of the favorites to land the job given the support he has from the Auburn power brokers he has gotten to know during his time on the Plains. The record at Baylor shouldn't be held against him, given how long ago that was and how poor a program that was at the time. But Auburn would surely face plenty of questions – both nationally and from fans – if it paid $21.45 million in buyout money to fire Malzahn only to hire someone who already worked in the building.

THE LATEST: Steele looked the part Wednesday when he spoke during Auburn's early signing day press conference, though he did not take any questions about the job he's vying for. While he may still have support from power brokers, he doesn't from the portion of the fan base that has made #StopSteele trend on Twitter.


Steve Sarkisian (Alabama offensive coordinator)

2020 salary: $2.5 million

Why he might fit: His Crimson Tide offense has been one of the best in the country this season, averaging 548.3 yards and 49.2 points per game behind a pair of Heisman Trophy candidates. He has head coaching experience at Washington (2009-13) and USC (2014-15).

Why he might not fit: He's 47-35 in his career as a head coach, with only one season above eight wins. He also falls into the "former Saban assistant" camp – none of those have ever beaten the Crimson Tide.

Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss head coach)

2020 salary: $3.9 million

Why he might fit: Gifted offensive mind whose Rebels attack has posted video-game numbers in his first season in Oxford. Could become a fan favorite for his personality off the field, which is almost the complete opposite of the introverted Malzahn. Would bring new meaning to "Chaos Auburn."

Why he might not: He just got to Ole Miss. Would he want to make a move to a new program so quickly? He has done it before, spending only one year at Tennessee before making the leap to USC.

THE LATEST: Kiffin has reportedly shown interest in Auburn. It's not clear whether Auburn has interest in him. Players do, though.

Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Billy Napier watches from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Iowa State, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Ames, Iowa.

Billy Napier (Louisiana head coach)

2020 salary: $1.005 million

Why he might fit: Seen as one of the hottest, young up-and-comers, he is a Tennessee native with experience coaching and recruiting in the southeast at Clemson (2006-10) and Alabama (2013-16). The Ragin' Cajuns have improved from 7-7 to 11-3 to 9-1 under his watch.

Why he might not: He's young at 41, and after becoming a candidate for the recently-filled South Carolina job, Napier announced that he was staying with Louisiana. Does that mean he's not looking to make a move to a bigger program yet? Or is he just waiting for the right opportunity?


University of Alabama Birmingham head coach Bill Clark before the Alabama State game at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., on Thursday August 29, 2019.

Bill Clark (UAB head coach)

2020 salary: $1.5 million

Why he might fit: Arguably no one knows the state of Alabama better. The 52-year-old was born in Anniston, attended Jacksonville State and hasn't coached anywhere but here. He ;s capable of building something, too – since the Blazers restarted their program in 2017 they have gone 8-5, 11-3, 9-5 and 5-3 playing out of Conference USA.

Why he might not: Those records are good, not great. Clark has never coached in the Power 5. Plus, his UAB offenses have been middling, ranking no better than 59th nationally over the past four seasons.


Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal talks to his players during a game against Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium. on Nov. 23, 2018 in Corvallis, OR.

Mario Cristobal (Oregon head coach)

2020 salary: $2.7 million

Why he might fit: Though he’s in Oregon now, he’s a Miami native and spent four seasons as the offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator under Saban at Alabama from 2013-16. He’s known as a great recruiter and has plenty of ties to the territories in which the Tigers deal. He's also a former offensive lineman with a long track record of producing some of the best units in the country, something Auburn is in desperate need of.

Why he might not: Last year’s 12-2 record with the Ducks was the first season of his career where he didn’t suffer at least four losses as a head coach. That season began with a loss to Malzahn’s Tigers in Arlington, Texas, with a senior quarterback in Justin Herbert. Oregon is 3-2 so far this year. He has reportedly been in discussions about an extension to stay in Eugene, but those terms have not been agreed to.

Tuesday update: This has been the name tied to the job most frequently besides Steele's. It's a great fit on paper for all the reasons listed above. The question is whether he is actually legitimately interested, or using Auburn's reported interest to leverage a contract extension from Oregon. Asked about the job opening Monday, Cristobal said he hadn't been contacted, didn't know if his agent had, and that "I think it will be worked out and I’ll be coaching here (in Eugene)." The Ducks play in the Pac-12 title game Friday.

THE LATEST: Oregon's board of trustees unanimously approved a six-year, $27.3 million contract extension on Thursday and the university has already announced it.


Liberty Head Coach Hugh Freeze celebrates after they defeated the Virginia Tech in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 7 2020, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)

Hugh Freeze (Liberty head coach)

2020 salary: $3 million

Why he might fit: He has five seasons of SEC head coaching experience from his time at Ole Miss (2012-16), boasts two wins over Saban’s Alabama and has a history of producing high-octane offenses, including one at Liberty quarterbacked by Auburn transfer Malik Willis.

Why he might not: Ole Miss committed a series of recruiting and academic violations under Freeze, which led the NCAA to vacating 27 of Freeze’s wins and banning the program from postseason play for two years. He resigned after officials discovered that he used a university phone to call escort services multiple times. Hiring him would bring scrutiny from the NCAA and the SEC, which Auburn already deals with in basketball.

THE LATEST: Though Freeze was almost immediately anointed as the betting favorite based on multiple national reporters connecting him to the job, Auburn reportedly does not – and never did – consider him to be a serious candidate.


Former Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn answers question before Super Bowl 51 on Feb. 2, 2017.

Dan Quinn (former Atlanta Falcons head coach)

2020 salary: $4.5 million

Why he might fit: He led the Falcons to the Super Bowl and was the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks during two seasons of the "Legion of Boom" era, which carries some clout. He also has SEC coaching experience, having served as the defensive coordinator and line coach under Will Muschamp in 2011-12.

Why he might not fit: Those two seasons at Florida are the only two he has spent as a college coach since 1994-2000, when he coached at William & Mary, VMI and Hofstra. The Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in that Super Bowl.


Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott during Spring practice at the Poe Indoor Facility in Clemson Friday, February 28, 2020.

Tony Elliott (Clemson offensive coordinator)

2020 salary: $1.6 million

Why he might fit: The former Broyles Award winner (nation's top assistant coach) has been a key part of Dabo Swinney's offensive staff since 2011. That offense has won two national championships over the past five seasons.

Why he might not: He didn't take over as the sole play-caller until this season after Jeff Scott left to take the head job at USF. He also has no head coaching experience at any level. This would be a huge leap.

Central Florida head coach Josh Heupel, left, watches warmups before an NCAA college football game against Tulsa, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Josh Heupel (UCF head coach)

2020 salary: $2.3 million

Why he might fit: His UCF offenses have been dynamic, ranking top-10 nationally in averaging more than 43 points per game in each of his three seasons at the helm. He also has SEC experience stemming from his two seasons as Missouri's offensive coordinator in 2016-2017.

Why he might not: Though he has spent the last three years in Florida, he doesn't have many ties in Alabama and Georgia, which are the areas Auburn typically recruits – most of Heupel's prior experience came in the Midwest and West.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.