Kevin Steele's long, winding road leads to LSU-Alabama showdown

LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele learned a long time ago the importance of living and coaching in the moment.

He also has coached long enough to know one game or one season or even one coaching stop doesn't define a career.

To the casual fan, Steele's career is marked by a few dubious distinctions. He was Clemson's defensive coordinator in the 2012 Orange Bowl when West Virginia shredded the Tigers, 70-33. He also was Baylor's head coach from 1999 to 2002 when the Bears went 1-31 in the Big 12.. The game everybody remembers from Steele's time at Baylor was from his first season when the Bears had UNLV beaten and only needed to down the ball in the final seconds, but tried to tack on an extra score instead and lost a fumble that was returned 99 yards the other way for a touchdown. And there was the time Kevin Greene lost his cool and grabbed Steele on the sideline in a 1998 game when Steele was coaching linebackers for the NFL's Carolina Panthers.

Those snapshots have endured, and they're not going away.

But if you look closer and examine Steele's 34-year coaching career, and talk to some of the legendary names he has worked with, there's a reason he keeps popping up at programs defined by success.

"There isn't anybody in this profession that doesn't respect what he's been able to do and the way he's gone about doing it," said Florida coach Jim McElwain, who worked with Steele at Alabama under Nick Saban. "He's been a great fit at LSU, but Kevin would be a good fit anywhere."

He has worked for some of the biggest names in the sport -- Bobby Bowden, Tom Osborne, John Majors, Saban and now Les Miles. He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Tennessee in the early 1980s, working under then-defensive backs coach Dom Capers. When Capers got the head coaching job with Carolina Panthers in 1995, one of the first people Capers called was Steele.

Saban hired Steele twice at Alabama, and when Saban lost Steele to LSU at the end of last season, Saban knew his Western Division rival was getting somebody who could teach and coach the game as well as he could recruit.

"It's no surprise to us that he's doing a really good job," Saban said.

Or to anybody else who has had a front-row seat to Steele's career.

Osborne, Nebraska's Hall of Fame coach, said it's easy for coaches to get pigeonholed when they coach for as long as Steele has.

"It's always in the eyes of the beholder," said Osborne, whom Steele worked under in 1989-94. "What one person remembers about you might not be what other people remember about you. Kevin has had way more success than he has bumps in the road. He's been an outstanding coach and person, and I have nothing but great admiration for him."

Bowden, yet another Hall of Famer whom Steele worked under at Florida State in 2003-06, said Steele got a raw deal at Clemson. The Tigers did struggle on defense that last season under Steele in 2011, but they also won their first ACC championship in 20 years before the West Virginia debacle (a 70-33 loss in the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl). And the year before, Clemson ranked 13th in the country in scoring defense.

"He's an outstanding coach and as strong as anybody I've ever seen in recruiting," Bowden said. "But he has one bad game in the bowl, and all of a sudden, they replace him? It's not my call to make, but that's not fair. There's always two sides to something like that, what the offense is doing and whether they're turning it over.

"Sometimes, in a game like that where you really get it taken to you, everybody's looking for somebody to be the fall guy, and that's a tough label for any coach."

Steele, 57, offers a hearty laugh when asked if he's the Bill Buckner of football coaches. Buckner won a batting title, appeared in an All-Star Game and hit over. 300 eight times in his 22-year major league career, but is best remembered for the ground ball he let go under his glove in the 1986 World Series.

"I don't know about that. I just know that in coaching there are ups and downs. That's just the way it is," Steele said. "After you've coached a while, you realize the ebbs and flows of coaching. There have been defensive or offensive coordinators who were at the top of the world, and then five years later, it's like, 'Wow, they've disappeared.'

"So you really start focusing on being in the moment, being where you are right there."

Nonetheless, Steele isn't naive. Even when he was hired at LSU, he answered more than his share of questions about the way his career at Clemson ended with the 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. It didn't help him any that the Tigers turned it over four times that night and were playing a handful of freshmen on defense, most of whom are now playing in the NFL. Even worse for Steele was that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney got wind of Tennessee's courtship of Steele prior to the bowl game.

"It's all about perspective," Steele said. "Was that a debacle that night? Absolutely. Will I step up and take responsibility? Absolutely. If that's what people want to focus on, then I'll take responsibility for it. But I know that those guys won the ACC championship that season, the first one in 20 years. So to be part of that and watch those players experience winning a championship, that's what I remember. Were there lessons in that night? Sure there were. But there were also some accomplishments in that year that were pretty gratifying."

One of Steele's closest friends is Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis, whom he replaced at LSU. They played high school football together in Dillon, South Carolina, and also played college football together at Tennessee. They're like brothers, although they don't talk much shop these days while they battle it out in the SEC West.

Chavis bristles at the notion Steele's body of work is somehow overshadowed by one game or even his failed head coaching stint at Baylor, a program that was a football wasteland before Art Briles arrived.

"The world's full of critics. We all have them," Chavis said. "If you coach long enough, you're going to have those things happen to you. They were ready to run me out of Tennessee my first year as coordinator when we gave up 62 points to Florida. Sometimes, the folks on the other side of the ball have something to do with that. You win and lose as a team, and what Kevin has done everywhere he's been speaks for itself. It starts with the kind of person he is. That's what makes him such a great coach."

The transition from Chavis to Steele at LSU has been seamless, as Steele didn't come in and try overhaul something that wasn't broken. The unbeaten Tigers checked in at No. 2 in the first College Football Playoff rankings but face their toughest challenge of the season Saturday night at No. 4 Alabama.

LSU's defensive numbers are similar to what they were a year ago. The Tigers are banged up in the secondary and are using some younger players, but they have given up only 19 touchdowns on defense in seven games and are tied for first nationally with Minnesota in fewest number of plays allowed of 20 yards or more (19).

"The thing that has never changed with me is the joy I get in seeing the looks on kids' faces when they have success, when they win a championship and helping them experience things they've never experienced," Steele said. "That's why I'm in it and what keeps me in it. Coaches are going to come and go. The way they're viewed from year to year, school to school and league to league is going to change. I get it. But having said that, it's really not about the coaches. It's about the players."

If you don't believe so, listen to some of the players Steele both recruited and coached.

"He was relentless and full of integrity," said Tommie Frazier, who quarterbacked Nebraska to a pair of national titles and coached under Steele at Baylor. "So many recruiters come to your house and tell you what you want to hear. Coach Steele was honest and direct and never once promised me anything other than I would get a chance to compete. He won me over.

"There are a lot of players at Nebraska that will tell you that he made a difference in their lives, both as people and football players."

Frazier and Steele still talk regularly. But so do Greene and Steele. Yes, the same Greene (and same future Hall of Famer) who went after Steele on the sideline nearly 20 years ago.

"The thing about that is there was never anything to it," Steele said. "It was just one thing, Kevin's emotions got the best of him, and then it was over. He was an intense player, and it's an intense game."

Steele and Greene talked recently about a particular blitz the Green Bay Packers used to run when Greene was on the Packers' staff. And when Steele was coaching at Alabama, Greene would stay at Steele's house when Greene was coming through Tuscaloosa to scout players for the Packers.

Former Florida State star linebacker Ernie Sims is another player who swears by Steele. Sims was the ninth overall selection in the 2006 NFL draft and said Steele helped shape him into that caliber of player.

"He taught me the game, taught me technique, taught me how to play at that level," Sims said. "A lot of coaches try to mold a player into what they want him to be. Coach Steele let me do what I do best. He let me be a baller but refined me. I can't say enough about everything he did for me, and it wasn't just football."

Sims and Frazier both said they frequently leaned on Steele for advice, oftentimes for things that had nothing to do with football.

"I will forever thank him," said Sims, who's now retired and running a training facility for young athletes in Tallahassee. "He's just a good dude and was like my father there on campus.

"I played for some good coaches, but he's my all-time favorite. We need more like him."