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Family ties, childhood connection bring defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to the Plains

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Kevin Steele offered a history lesson during his introductory press conference as Auburn’s new defensive coordinator Tuesday at the university’s athletic complex.

In detailing his reasons for leaving Auburn’s SEC rival LSU to come to the Plains, Steele looked to his past. The 57 year old spent his formative years growing up less than an hour from Auburn’s campus in Prattville. 

Steele fondly remembers his father Pete taking him to his first football game at Jordan-Hare stadium and can even recall where he sat watching Larry Blakeney play quarterback for the Tigers.

“I wore No. 7 in junior high, and I was a quarterback at Prattville Junior High,” Steele said with a smile. “I don’t think I need to tell you why I wore No. 7. The guy won a Heisman trophy here, Pat Sullivan. Those kinds of things I experienced as a youngster in this state following this program.”

Steele lived in Alabama until the eighth grade when his dad accepted an offer to coach high school football in South Carolina, but the family’s connections to the area remain to this day.

 “I only know two relatives that don’t live within about 100 miles of where we’re standing right now,” Steele said at the podium.

An opportunity for a homecoming made leaving LSU midway through a two-year contract “a very easy decision.” It helped that Steele’s brother Jeff is an associate athletic director at Auburn and his daughter Carolina graduated from the school.

For coach Gus Malzahn, Steele’s connections to Auburn made him an attractive candidate to fill the vacancy left in early December by coach Will Muschamp leaving for South Carolina.

One of Malzahn’s top priorities in his search was finding someone who would provide stability for the Tigers’ defense.

Auburn has cycled through defensive coordinators in the last decade with five in the past six seasons while Malzahn has hired a new defensive coordinator each of the past three offseasons. 

Steele views himself as the long-term solution for Auburn’s coach.

“I want to be here the duration of my coaching career and I’ve never been able to say that before,” Steele said. “I saw my first game here and it would be just fine with me that I coach my last game here.”

Steele’s introduction capped a lengthy four-week hiring process for Malzahn and Auburn. The defense spent almost the entire month of December without a defensive coordinator.

Lance Thompson called plays for the defense in the Birmingham Bowl, but wasn’t named “interim” coordinator.

Thompson joined Muschamp’s staff in South Carolina less than 24 hours after coach Malzahn announced Steele during his postgame press conference for the bowl game.

Earlier in the month, Auburn defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson left the program to be the Gamecocks new defensive coordinator.

Steele declined to address the vacancies on Auburn’s defensive staff or the status of the program’s remaining defensive assistants.

“That's a little bit of a head coach question, but coach (Malzahn) has afforded me the opportunity to have some input in that,” Steele said. “We're still in the process of it. When coach decides that has come to the final point, I'm sure he'll pass it along.”

Steele inherits a group that finished 54th in scoring defense (26 points per game) and 71st in total defense (405 yards allowed), but showed improvements late in the year culminating with a dominant performance against Memphis.

The Birmingham Bowl was one of two games Steele rewatched this week along with LSU’s 45-21 win over Auburn earlier in the season.

“It was a defense that grew and matured,” Steele said. “It got better and better and better as the year went on. I thought the last couple games really was a totally different defensive unit than the one that started the season.”

With less than a week on the job, Steele isn’t ready to lay out his vision for the defense, but is convinced the program has a foundation in place for immediate success.

“I am very confident that from players all the way to the head coach, that we have what it takes to be champions,” Steele said.

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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