Kevin Steele joins Tennessee football staff as defensive assistant

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

Veteran defensive assistant Kevin Steele is returning to his alma mater.

Tennessee on Tuesday announced the hire of Steele as a defensive assistant. Steele came on the market after Auburn fired coach Gus Malzahn.

Tennessee did not specify what position Steele will coach. He received a two-year contract that will expire on Jan. 31, 2023. He'll earn $450,000 annually.

Steele was among the finalists Vols athletics director Phillip Fulmer considered for UT's head coach position in 2017, when he hired Jeremy Pruitt.

Steele was under contract at Auburn for two more seasons, but new AU coach Bryan Harsin hired former Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason to run the defense.

Auburn owed Steele about $5 million in buyout over the next two years. His Tennessee salary will mitigate the damages, but that still leaves Auburn on the hook for more than $4 million.

Steele's $2.5 million salary in 2020 tied then-Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian for the highest assistant coach salary in the country. He emerged as a candidate to replace Malzahn as head coach, but AU opted for an outside hire.

At Tennessee, Steele's hire serves as a stabilizing force for a staff that's in flux.

The Vols have openings at the defensive line and offensive line positions, and the contracts for inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer and wide receivers coach Tee Martin are set to expire Jan. 31, with no indication that Tennessee plans to extend either deals.

As a player, Steele transferred from Furman to Tennessee, and he was on the roster as a linebacker in 1978 and '79 under coach Johnny Majors before starting his career as a student assistant and then graduate assistant at UT. He had two stints as a position coach under Majors. Fulmer also was an assistant under Majors during that time.

"Tennessee is a special place to me personally," Steele said in a news release. "I am truly grateful to Coach Pruitt and Coach Fulmer for this opportunity, and I am eager to get to work alongside them once again. I look forward to helping create an environment where our players are successful and truly embrace what it means to be a Volunteer."

Steele, 62, has been a defensive coordinator at Auburn, LSU, Clemson and Alabama. He was Baylor's head coach from 1999-2002, compiling a 9-36 record.

Steele worked with Pruitt at Alabama in 2007-08, when Steele was defensive coordinator and later linebackers coach and Pruitt was Alabama's director of player development.

"Kevin is someone I have respected and admired for a long time on and off the field," Pruitt said in a news release, "I had the opportunity to learn and work with him during our time at Alabama and our friendship grew from there. He has outstanding knowledge of the game and understands what it takes to be successful in this conference. Having coached under the great Johnny Majors, he has a sincere appreciation for what it means to be a Tennessee Volunteer."

Steele becomes the most experienced member of Pruitt's staff, which trended in a youthful direction for a miserable 2020 season in which the Vols went 3-7, leaving Pruitt's job in jeopardy.

Tennessee has offered no public assurance about Pruitt's status for next season, and the football program remains under investigation into allegations of NCAA violations pertaining to recruiting and impermissible benefits.

Adding Steele is a positive development for Pruitt, although not a guarantee Pruitt will be retained. As an assistant with a solid reputation, Steele could be viewed as a veteran, affordable assistant coveted by Tennessee regardless of who is the coach.

He would provide a boost to Tennessee's inside linebackers if he winds up coaching that position. The inside linebackers struggled in their first season under Niedermeyer, a converted tight ends coach.

Steele spent five seasons as Malzahn's defensive coordinator. In 2017, he was a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in the country. That season, Auburn limited Georgia to 17 points in an upset of the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs and held Alabama to 14 points in toppling the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

Auburn ranked in the top four in the SEC in scoring defense in four of his five seasons on staff. The lone exception was 2019, when it ranked sixth.

Auburn allowed more than 20 points per game under Steele for the first time in 2020, surrendering 24.7 points per game, but it still ranked fourth in the SEC in scoring defense as offensive production surged across the conference.

When Malzahn hired Steele away from LSU ahead of the 2016 season, Auburn hadn't produced a national top-45 scoring defense since coach Tommy Tuberville's last season in 2008.

Steele quickly produced results. The Tigers ranked seventh nationally in scoring defense in his first season, and although it trended down throughout his tenure, AU never ranked outside the top 40.

Tennessee's defense ranked seventh in the SEC and 69th nationally this season, allowing 30.1 points per game.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.