BATON ROUGE, La. -- Certain coaching departures hurt more than others.
When a position coach makes what appears to be a post-signing day lateral move, it is typically little more than a line in the sports transactions fine print for most fans. But when that coach is leaving his alma mater -- a school where he ranks among the most beloved players of the past 20 years -- for a division rival? That’s when such a move starts to sting.
This was the scenario in play when Auburn wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig accepted the same job on Les Miles’ LSU staff on Sunday, one day after Miles parted ways with Tony Ball.
Miles didn’t just hire away one of Gus Malzahn’s most charismatic assistants and top recruiters, he stole the player who carried Auburn to its first SEC championship game appearance in 1997, a quarterback who still holds multiple school records and a guy who more than a few Auburn fans in their late 30s or early 40s would list among their favorite Tigers ever.
At least he was. There might be a few Auburn fans reconsidering Craig’s status after his departure for the bayou. Nonetheless, Craig did his best to leave on good terms rather than make his exit feel like a knife in the back to those from his alma mater.
“My decision to make this career move is in no way a reflection of Auburn or the Auburn family,” Craig said in a statement that LSU released on Sunday. “It is strictly a professional decision. It’s about growing as a coach and, hopefully, one day becoming a head coach. Auburn has played a pivotal role in my professional and personal life. Words can’t express how grateful I am to the Auburn family and all of the incredible people who are part of that wonderful community.”
Malzahn also took the high road, wishing Craig “nothing but the best” in a statement while vowing to “work quickly to search for his replacement.”
Replacing him as a recruiter will be a tall order, however. Craig just helped Auburn land an elite crop of wide receivers -- ESPN’s No. 2 wideout prospect Nate Craig-Myers, plus No. 5 Kyle Davis and No. 14 Eli Stove -- adding to his history of success on the recruiting trail. He was the recruiting coordinator at Florida State from 2010 to 2012, helping stock the Seminoles’ roster with prospects -- Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, for one -- who would claim the 2013 BCS title.
Craig was the No. 4 assistant coach in 247 Sports’ 2016 football recruiter rankings, giving LSU three of the nation’s top 17 recruiters from the most recent class (No. 6 Bradley Dale Peveto and No. 17 Ed Orgeron were the others). Having to coach against him on one Saturday each fall is one thing for Malzahn & Co., but going head-to-head against Craig and LSU’s other star recruiters is another. That will be the long-term headache that accompanies this departure.
This will not be Craig’s first stop in Baton Rouge. He started his college coaching career as an LSU graduate assistant under Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher in 2004. He followed Saban to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins the next year before returning to the college ranks in 2006.
Throughout his coaching career, Craig has frequently found himself coaching in familiar locales. Following a five-year pro career, Craig’s first coaching stop was at the high school, Blount, where he became a high school legend and championship quarterback. He was later quarterbacks coach at Tuskegee, a short drive down the road from Auburn, from 2006 to 2007. He spent two years coaching South Alabama’s wideouts in his hometown, Mobile, in 2008 and 2009. And after a three-year stint at FSU, he spent three seasons working under Malzahn as Auburn’s receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator.
Now he returns for a second go-round at LSU, where he earned arguably the most memorable win of his college career: a thrilling 31-28 victory at Tiger Stadium in which Craig passed for 342 yards and drove Auburn for the game-winning touchdown with 30 seconds to play.
Even if he will not have any responsibility coaching quarterbacks, his presence on LSU’s staff can’t hurt. He was a dual-threat quarterback in the SEC before it was all the rage, and current LSU quarterback Brandon Harris on his best day could be what Craig was for Auburn in the late-'90s with additional guidance.
Only 41, Craig’s coaching legacy is still to be determined. But as the dust settles following his most recent hire, it appears as if Miles has pulled off another coup in what has been an outstanding offseason for LSU.