“Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.”
It’s an old adage. It typically refers to a contest where a team makes an improbable play or comeback to win a game late.
Over the years, the converse “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” gets used once in a while. In his first home game as an FBS head coach however, Kevin Steele took it to a new level.
Worst Coaching Decision Ever?
After stints as an assistant with Tennessee, Nebraska and the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, Steele finally got the chance to prove himself as a head coach in 1999. Hired at Baylor, Steele inherited a program coming off back-to-back 2-9 seasons.
In the season opener, Baylor performed admirably. On the road against Boston College, the Bears pushed the Eagles to overtime before falling on a missed extra point, 30-29.
In the home opener in Waco against UNLV on Sept. 11, 1999, Steele’s first career win was in the bag. With just 20 seconds to go and UNLV out of timeouts, the Bears had a 24-21 lead. With a first down on the UNLV 8-yard-line, Steele’s first victory was essentially wrapped up.
All it took was a knee to run out the clock. Steele decided against that.
It would be a decision that will live in infamy.
Instead of running out the clock and taking the 3-point victory, Steele wanted to score. The ball was handed off to running back Darrel Bush, who try to barrel his way into the end zone.
Before he could get there, he was stripped of the football by UNLV linebacker Tyler Brickell. The ball squirted into the end zone where it was picked up by UNLV’s Kevin Thomas.
When Thomas picked up the football, there was nothing but green grass in front of him. He raced the distance of the field the other way as time expired to give the Runnin’ Rebels an improbable 27-24 victory.
A Sign of Things to Come
It was Bush who put the ball on the ground, but Steele took responsibility for the decision.
“It was just stupid on my part,” Steele told reporters after the game. “We were trying to create an attitude of toughness and we tried to hammer it in.”
Bush was nearly the hero for Baylor, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with more than six minutes to play. For UNLV, it served as the second straight road win after losing 26 straight away from home. The Runnin’ Rebels had defeated North Texas the week before.
Instead of just taking a knee and accepting a 3-point victory in his debut in Waco, Steele would win just one game during his first season at Baylor. That came over the same North Texas team that UNLV had defeated the week prior.
In four seasons, Steele went just 9-36 and an egregious 1-31 in Big 12 play. His lone conference win was a 35-32 victory over Kansas in Waco during his final season of 2002.
Steele has managed to coach at a number of big-name schools since then, including Florida State, Alabama, Clemson, LSU and Auburn. He hasn’t been a head coach since with the exception of an interim label for a bowl game at Auburn and briefly during a transition period for Tennessee although he never coached in a game for the Volunteers.
Soon-to-be 63 years old, Steele has been a staff member for many great teams, including Nebraska’s 1994 national championship squad. Unfortunately, his head coaching legacy will be defined by a bad decision for the ages.