3 qualities Auburn should be looking for in next football coach

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

A week has passed since Auburn fired football coach Gus Malzahn after eight seasons. But it feels like a lot longer than that.

The last few days has been chaotic. When defensive coordinator and interim coach Kevin Steele seemed to emerge as the leading candidate, a #StopSteele movement trended on Twitter. When reported interest in Mario Cristobal surfaced, Oregon locked him down with a six-year, $27.3-million contract. Tigers players made their feelings felt by tweeting train emojis, which could mean only one thing.

More:Changing coaches might fix one of Auburn's biggest problems, but not the other

But it seems things have settled down, at least for the moment. Auburn announced Tuesday that it had hired Parker Executive Search Firm to assist an eight-member advisory board led by athletics director Allen Greene in the search for a new coach.

The names that have been most commonly tied to the job have been Steele, Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Louisiana coach Billy Napier, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. UAB coach Bill Clark and West Virginia coach Neal Brown have also been mentioned in various reports.

Each one has positive attributes that could make them fits for the job, but none stand out as a surefire, home-run hire.

So, rather than dive too deep into their résumés in this stage, let's rather identify three qualities that Auburn should be looking for as it goes through the search process:

Ability to recruit at a high level

Only six programs have won a game in the College Football Playoff since it begin in 2014 – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, LSU, Oregon and Georgia.

So it probably isn't a coincidence that those six schools also make up the top six in the 2021 recruiting rankings, too – landing elite recruits is how they got there and how many of them have stayed there.

If Auburn wants to get to that level – and it does – that's where it starts. The Tigers had consistently good recruiting classes under Malzahn, ranking no worse than 12th between 2013-20 and finishing in the top 10 six times, but fell short of elite.

Sarkisian and Brown are the only two reported candidates who have recruited as Power 5 head coaches over the past decade (Steele was the head coach at Baylor from 1999-2002).

Sarkisian signed three top-25 classes at Washington from 2009-13 (the best came in at 18th nationally), then classes ranked No. 10 and No. 2 in his two seasons at Southern Cal from 2014-15. He also recruited five-star quarterback Bryce Young to Alabama. Neither of Brown's two classes at West Virginia have ranked better than 38th, but he did sign four straight classes at Troy that ranked top four in the Sun Belt.

Napier has signed two consecutive classes at Louisiana that ranked No. 1 in the Sun Belt and played a role in the recruitment of such five-stars as Calvin Ridley, Jerry Jeudy and Tajh Boyd while at Alabama and Clemson, respectively.

Venables and Elliott have never been head coaches, but they've been key parts of helping Clemson secure its place near the top of the recruiting food chain. Some of the players they've helped sign include Christian Wilkins, AJ Terrell, Clelin Ferrell, Travis Etienne, Wayne Gallman and Deon Cain.

A plan for how to create a high-scoring offense

This is why Auburn hired Malzahn in the first place. It's what he did during his first season at the helm in 2013, when the Tigers averaged 6.9 yards per play (eighth nationally) and 39.5 points per game (12th) on their way to an SEC championship and national title game appearance.

But Auburn's offense never reached those heights again, which ultimately proved Malzahn's demise. Offense wins championships, and the Tigers' – while successful at times – wasn't consistently good enough.

There are candidates on Auburn's list that have much better track records over the past few seasons. Sarkisian's Alabama offense ranks second nationally scoring 49.5 points per game, though a lot of that credit should be given to the NFL-level talent that permeates the roster. He coached only three top-30 offenses over his first six seasons at Washington and USC, and the Atlanta Falcons' offense got worse under his direction.

Elliott, in his first season calling the plays full-time, has Clemson averaging 46 points led by Etienne and five-star quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Napier's Louisiana offense ranks 29th nationally averaging 33.9 points but was top-10 scoring at more than 37 last year. Brown led three-straight top-51 scoring offenses at Troy, but both of his at West Virginia have ranked outside the top 75. Still, the Mountaineers' 26.8 points per game this season were better than Auburn's 25.7.

The rest of the candidates are defensive coaches by trade. One of the search committee's first questions to them should be about which potential coordinators they would target to run the offense.

The ability to build not just a team, but a program

Auburn has a lot of things going for it already. It's a consistent winner that hasn't had back-to-back losing seasons since the 1990s. It has won won five division crowns, three conference titles, played for two national championships and won one over the past two decades. A new football facility finally appears to be on the way.

But Auburn wants more than that, which is why it made the decision it did last week. The goal, Greene said, is to "consistently compete at the highest level." So it seems he needs to find either a coach with a proven track record of improving a program, or one deserving of the opportunity to try for the first time.

Is that Sarkisian? He did elevate Washington from 0-12 to 7-6 in two seasons, but he's never won more than nine games as a head coach. What about Napier? The Ragin' Cajuns went 5-7 the year before he arrived and have since gone 7-7, 11-3 and 9-1. Or Brown? West Virginia has won only five games each the past two seasons, but he led Troy to three consecutive 10-win campaigns. Clark just coached UAB to a second C-USA title in four years since the program was reinstated.

Play on the field is only part of that – leadership, culture, financial commitment and the ability to get everyone from players to coaches to administrators to power brokers pulling in the same direction matter, too.

If it's Steele, he needs to lay out what his plans are. Improving recruiting and offense will help Auburn become a better team, but truly elevating the program to the next level requires vision.

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.