Clemson University

Defensive coordinators: a rise, a fall

Clemson assistant coach Kevin Steele during the teams practice Wednesday,  March 25, 2009 at the teams practice field.
Clemson assistant coach Kevin Steele during the teams practice Wednesday, March 25, 2009 at the teams practice field.

CLEMSON - Kevin Steele says he embraced a new way of life when Baylor fired him as coach in 2002.

He started taking runs after breakfast and lunch and sometimes dinner, and wasn't worried he was sitting around doing nothing.

Then his cell phone rang, and "FSU marketing" appeared on caller ID.

"I picked the phone up and they asked me what I was doing," Steele said Monday. "It was coach (Bobby) Bowden and coach (Mickey) Andrews, and they were riding in the car together. And I said, 'Not a whole lot.'

"To make a long story short, I was told to get on a plane and come down and see coach Bowden and bring enough clothes to go recruiting. So I hung the phone up, and my wife asked me what that was all about. I said, 'I don't know, but I think I just took a job at Florida State.' "

Steele worked for four seasons as linebackers coach under Andrews (2003-06) then spent the past two years as Alabama's defensive coordinator, before taking his current post as Clemson's coordinator.

The Tigers (5-3, 3-2 ACC) square off against Florida State (4-4, 2-3) Saturday, and there is perhaps irony in the fact Steele's defense has flashed dominance in a fashion comparable to the units of Andrews' glory days - especially if Andrews, as expected, announces today he will be leaving the Seminoles at season's end after 26 years.

Steele is fond of suggesting we are products of our environment, noting his philosophy and methodology are a compilation of his experiences under the likes of Dom Capers, Tom Osborne, Johnny Majors and Nick Saban.

He declined to reveal specific aspects of Clemson's system that were influences of his years under Andrews; they appear to employ vastly different schematic packages but rely on athletic defensive lines combined with man coverage in the secondary to wreak havoc via pressure.

Andrews said Florida State used more zone blitzes during Steele's stint, a reflection of Steele's NFL background.

"He's a high-energy guy," Andrews said.

Whether by inspiration or coincidence, there is no mistaking the fiery disposition Steele displays on the practice field, specifically when lighting into a player - a trait for which Andrews is known.

"Learned so much from him about handling players," Steele said. "And those players love him to death. I've never been at a place where everyone comes back so much, and the first person they want to see is coach Andrews.

"I will say this about him, and I say it affectionately, but he has a split personality. There's something about white lines that changes his personality. Off the field, he's about as easygoing as he can be. But on the field, he demands and commands excellence at every snap. And he's pretty good at getting it."

Until recently.

Florida State is surrendering 29.8 points and a league-high 428.9 yards per game - its worst marks since 1973, three years before Bowden's arrival. And Andrews' departure has been presumed imminent as Florida State prepares for its transition to offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, Bowden's predetermined successor.

Clemson, meanwhile, ranks in the top 12 nationally in the major defensive categories - total, passing, scoring - except for rushing (No. 55), and has done so featuring a number of players (ends Da'Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp, safety DeAndre McDaniel, corner Chris Chancellor) Steele recruited while at Florida State.

Steele didn't go so far as to admit feeling sorry for Andrews, but the two have spoken a handful of times this season.

Their relationship has various roots, as Steele's uncle played with Andrews at Alabama in the early 1960s. And when Andrews served as coach at Livingston (now West Alabama) from 1970-72, he had several players whom Steele's father coached in high school.

"I can remember fifth, sixth grade, going to Livingston games and seeing coach Andrews after the game," Steele said. "I used to tell him that every now and again, and he'll tell me it didn't happen, but it did.

"He probably wouldn't appreciate me telling this part of the story."

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC