Steele Departure Raises Questions

There is almost no one outside of Clemson, S.C., who doesn't think that Kevin Steele made less than a lateral move when he accepted the job of defensive coordinator at Clemson. Steele had been associate head coach and head coach of defense at Alabama. The questions include "Why did he go?" and "Who will replace him?"

Kevin Steele is a native of Dillon, S.C., but that hardly seems to be the stuff of making a career move.

Let's see: Alabama, one of the nation's premier programs, and Nick Saban, national coach of the year for a second time and headed to the hall of fame. Clemson, sort of the Auburn of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Dabo Swinney, one of my all-time favorite players, but nonetheless a head coach of about half a season.

The answer may lie in something Alabama Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart said in New Orleans during a Sugar Bowl media opportunity. Smart, who is secondary coach for the Tide, often hears Saban talk of being Smart's graduate assistant. That came up again when Saban was asked in New Orleans about how Steele and Smart helped him.

"Help me?" Saban said, then explained that he helped Smart, that Steele and Smart were the brains of the defense.

Smart had an "aw, shucks" for that. He said that Saban was the boss and all the defensive coaches were equal in Smart's eyes, that they worked together to construct a game plan.

That seems to be the more likely reason for Steele's departure. Swinney's background is entirely in offense. He's the kind of coach one would expect to hire a defensive coordinator and turn over the defense to him.

Swinney got a good one. Steele has 23 years of college experience at the FBS level and four years of experience in the NFL. He has coached under former National Championship Head Coaches Tom Osborne, Nick Saban, Bobby Bowden and Johnny Majors in his career as a full time assistant coach that dates to 1982.

He has coached in 16 bowl games, including eight appearances in bowls that are now considered Bowl Championship level games. That includes six appearances as a coach in the FedX Orange Bowl. He has been a part of 11 teams that have finished in the top 20 of the national polls at five different schools. That includes this year's Alabama team that was sixth.

He has also been an assistant coach on six different teams at four different programs that have finished in the top 10 in the nation in scoring defense.

"Kevin Steele is one of the most respected coaches in the nation," said Swinney. "He has served under Hall of Fame head coaches who have won national championships and also has experience in the NFL. He has also been ranked as the number-one recruiter in the nation and has coached in eight BCS level bowl games. He has recruited this state for many years and is respected by the high school coaches of South Carolina. He is a perfect fit for this staff." Steele will coach Clemson's linebackers in addition to serving as defensive coordinator..

"I am very excited to join Dabo Swinney's staff at Clemson," said Steele. "It feels great to return to the state of South Carolina. I have recruited this state for many years and feel at home in this area. Clemson has an outstanding tradition and I am excited about the opportunity to work for Coach Swinney who is one of the bright young coaches in the game."

Saban said, "Kevin is an outstanding coach and really did an excellent job with each and every responsibility he had while he was here at The University of Alabama. We appreciate all that he did in terms of his time and his dedication.

"We've known each other for a long time and he has always been a close friend through the years. Although we are sorry to see them go, we wish Kevin and his family all the best at Clemson. He will do a great job as he always has."

Steele spent the last two seasons at Bama. He was the defensive coordinator in 2007 before assuming the title of associate head coach and head coach of the defense for the 2008 season. Alabama finished the regular season with a 12-0 record and won the Western Division Championship of the Southeastern Conference.

Alabama ranked third in the nation in total defense (256.9), fourth in rushing defense (78.85), sixth in scoring defense (13.0) and 13th in pass efficiency defense (101.63 rating points) at the end of the regular season (final rankings won't be released until next week) The Crimson Tide led the SEC in rushing defense and total defense. Steele tutored the linebackers each of the last two years at Alabama in addition to his other defensive coordinator responsibilities.

Steele served as head coach at Baylor University from 1999-2002. Saban has said on more than one occasion that Steele would make an excellent head coach. Somehow, one thinks Alabama under Saban might be a better springboard to head coach.

The rumor of Steele's departure for Clemson was one of the worst-kept secrets of the season. Reports surfaced while the Crimson Tide was in New Orleans.

Almost since the first whispers, there has been conjecture (sought and offered) as to who will replace Steele. It is likely that Smart will be the clear-cut number one man on defense with Saban adding another coach, possibly to coach inside linebackers.

It is a fool's errand to speculate on candidates. The combination of Alabama and Saban means the Tide head coach will be able to select from a large pool. He knows hundreds of coaches, both candidates and confidantes, and he has shown the willingness to do due diligence in assembling and rebuilding his staff.

It would not be a surprise if Saban waits until after Signing Day, Feb. 4, to name a replacement.

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