On Thursday, Tennessee announced Mike Ekeler as its new outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator, filling spot No. 10 on Heupel's 10-man staff. Unless he's retained in an off-the-field capacity, this will close an odd chapter in one of the strangest hiring cycles for any coach -- Kevin Steele, acting head coach of two separate SEC institutions within weeks of each other, is now without an on-the-field job.
In a conference whose hiring practices border on incestuous, where who you know matters just as much as what you know, where the most valuable ability is a proven ability to get it done in the S-E-C, one of the league's most proven defensive coordinators is now without a job and it's not clear when he'll pick up his next one. It's generally acknowledged Steele's defenses carried the final Gus Mazlahn Auburn teams; this past season, the Tigers ranked fourth in the league in scoring defense. And the guy behind it hasn't landed an on-the-field job.
A guy who served as interim head coach at two SEC institutions over the course of one winter is now on the outside looking in.
Let's walk back through the timeline to outline how we got here.
Dec. 30, 2015: Auburn names Steele its new defensive coordinator. "We're extremely excited to have a guy with his experience, his character, his work ethic," Malzahn said at the time. "He'll fit in very good and I think he's got a chance. He's going to take over a very talented group. We're excited."
Inheriting a Will Muschamp-led defense that placed 11th in the SEC in scoring defense, Steele's units would rank fourth, third, fourth, sixth and fourth in that metric. He would help Auburn go 41-22 (26-16 SEC) with one West title and three AP Top 25 finishes.
Dec. 13, 2020: Auburn fires Malzahn; Steele named interim head coach.
Dec. 16, 2020: In a signing day press conference, Steele outwardly campaigns for the job, telling the press an untold number of unnamed recruits are chomping at the bit to commit to Auburn... so long as they like the new head coach. Trust him.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that we had so much fun that we actually had two of them flipped,” Steele said. “They wound up flipping back, but we had two of them flipped.” Immediately after, Auburn fans begin a #StopSteele campaign.
Dec. 22, 2020: Auburn hires Boise State's Bryan Harsin as head coach.
Dec. 23, 2020: AL.com publishes a story outlining the pro-Steele camp of Auburn boosters in their failed attempt to muscle the school into handing their man the full-time job.
“Those people had no vote,” a source told the site. “They had no say and it frustrated the hell out of them. They tried intimidation, they tried everything, and it just didn’t work.”
Jan. 1, 2021: Steele's first and only game as Auburn's head coach ends in a 35-19 Citrus Bowl loss to Northwestern. Auburn owes him a $5 million buyout.
Jan. 12, 2021: Tennessee hires Steele as a defensive assistant coach. He signs a 2-year contract worth $900,000. This hire happens while Tennessee is in the midst of investigating its own football program, with Jeremy Pruitt's future very much in doubt.
Jan. 18, 2021: To the surprise of no one, Tennessee fires Pruitt. Six days after joining the staff, Steele is named acting head coach. Of note, Steele was a candidate for the job last time around, ultimately losing out to Pruitt.
Jan. 22, 2021: Fresh on the job, new AD Danny White says he's scheduled to meet with Steele later that day.
Jan. 27, 2021: Tennessee names Josh Heupel its next head coach.
March 4, 2021: Confirming a formality, Heupel fills his first Tennessee staff in hiring Ekeler. There's always the possibility Steele remains in Knoxville in an off-the-field role, though there's been no indication of such an arrangement at this time.
According to the terms of the contract he signed less than two months and zero games ago, Steele would be owed a $900,000 buyout from Tennessee. He's due $5 million from Auburn regardless; the Auburn buyout would be offset by Tennessee's.
So now here we are, at the tail end of the 2020-21 coaching market, and a guy who served as interim or acting head coach at two schools and has previous coordinator experience at Alabama, LSU and Clemson is without an on-the-field job.