GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The competitor we’ve seen in those highlights on the sideline was born in all those backyard battles with his older brothers, Mike and Pat.
The coach Florida fans saw standing in the middle of the field observing the spring game closely was born in high school and college when Will Muschamp fell in love with the concept of team and the intricacies of the game.
The head coach within began to blossom in those staff meetings at LSU when Muschamp worked under Nick Saban and alongside Jimbo Fisher and Derek Dooley on a staff that helped the Tigers win the 2003 BCS championship.
Muschamp turns 40 today, a milestone often defined by reflection and a man questioning if his life is where he imagined as a twentysomething when the mind raced with possibilities and all dreams seemed within an arm’s reach.
As Muschamp sat relaxed on a couch inside his office at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium last week – his first game as head coach only weeks away – he looked confident and content with his place in life.
On his 39th birthday a year ago, Muschamp envisioned a much different future as coach-in-waiting at Texas under Mack Brown. And then Urban Meyer resigned after the season. And then Jeremy Foley called. And then he told Brown about an offer to take over the Gators and how it all seemed to fit perfectly into his plan.
The next thing Muschamp knew he was standing in front of a packed room at the Swamp in December as Florida’s new head coach. The plan was always to take over a high-profile program like the Gators someday.
“I decided during my time at LSU that’s what I wanted,’’ Muschamp said. “That’s where I wanted to be. I did have some interest in the NFL when I was at LSU, and when Nick took the Miami job, I really enjoyed that but I’m really more suited for college football.
“When I got back [into college coaching] and went to Auburn, I didn’t change my goals of where I wanted to be. I wanted to be head coach at one these schools by the time I was 40.’’
When Muschamp talks about how he got here, he starts by going back to those sweaty battles with Mike and Pat. It didn’t matter what sport they were playing, the Muschamp boys went at each other hard.
Will was the youngest and always out to prove himself. They played football in the fall, basketball in the winter and early spring, and baseball in the spring and summer.
By the time Will played football in high school in Rome, Ga., Mike was out of college and an assistant coach with the team, coaching the brother he used to tackle in the backyard. Will paid close attention to how much Mike seemed to enjoy the job. They talked about coaching as a future option for Will.
There was no doubt the game was in the Muschamps’ blood. Both Mike and Pat played college football, following in the footsteps of their dad, Larry, a former player at North Carolina who became a teacher and coach after college.
“That’s where it all starts – at an early age learning about competing, learning about hard work, discipline, commitment,’’ Muschamp said. “Those are easy words to say, they’re hard to do.’’
Muschamp’s interest in coaching grew into a real career option during his college career at Georgia. A walk-on safety, Muschamp’s tenacity and team-first attitude earned the respect of Bulldogs coach Ray Goff and his assistants.
Muschamp eventually earned a scholarship and often spent extra time watching film and learning all he could about the game, knowing that his future in the game was most likely on the sideline and not on the field.
“I wasn’t good enough to play after college, and then you get in that crossroads, ‘Well, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ ’’ Muschamp said. “I was always close to my coaches at Georgia. I was always very appreciative of the extra input they gave me about coaching.’’
As he searched for the next door to open after his playing career ended, Muschamp worked briefly at a lumber company the summer after he graduated. There was no way that was going to last because of his relationship with football, so he explored his options and talked with his former coaches about the best way to break into coaching.
Muschamp got his first break when he took a job as a graduate defensive assistant at Auburn under Terry Bowden. That’s where he first met Fisher and Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett, future colleagues at LSU under Saban who later recommended Muschamp to for a job opening.
“It really soothed that yearning for competition, building a common purpose and being a part of something special,’’ Muschamp said. “I’m very team-oriented. I love the team concept and football in my opinion is the ultimate team sport.’’
Following his two-year stint at Auburn, Muschamp landed his first full-time job as secondary coach at West Georgia. A year later, he joined Roy Kidd’s staff at Eastern Kentucky. The next year, he was named defensive coordinator under Chris Hatcher at Valdosta State, quickly making a name as a strong defensive mind full of energy and ideas.
Muschamp wasn’t quite yet on the fast track to the big time, but he would be very soon.
The story of how Muschamp and Saban first met has been well-documented. LSU was in Atlanta preparing to face Georgia Tech in the 2000 Peach Bowl.
Muschamp, shortly after his first season at Valdosta State, was in Atlanta visiting in-laws and called up Fisher to see if he could stop by the Georgia Dome and watch LSU practice.
So on Christmas Day, Muschamp dropped by and was introduced by Fisher to Saban.
“I can remember plain as day,’’ Fisher told the Birmingham News in 2010 prior to Saban’s Alabama team defeating Muschamp’s Longhorns in the BCS title game. “Nick pulled me aside and said, ‘Who’s that?’ I said, ‘Coach, he went to Georgia. Don’t worry. He ain’t gonna tell Georgia Tech anything.’ ’’
A month later, LSU linebackers coach Sal Sunseri left for a job at Michigan State. Fisher urged Saban to consider Muschamp for the opening.
The big break Muschamp needed had arrived. It came via a phone call from Fisher.
“Would you be interested in coming to LSU?’’ Fisher asked.
“Of course,’’ Muschamp replied.
“Well, we’ve recommended you for the job here coaching linebackers,’’ Fisher told him.
Much like the way he landed at Florida, the wheels started spinning fast.
“Within that night I talked to Nick and the next morning I was on a plane to Baton Rouge and was offered the linebackers job that night,’’ Muschamp said. “In less than a 24-hour period my career certainly took a huge swing in a positive way.”
Working for Saban is when Muschamp began to formalize his plan to eventually take over his own program. Saban was the perfect teacher at the perfect time.
“I learned total program management. He always talked to the staff about career advancement – be careful what you ask for, take the right job, be patient, it’s a marathon not a race. All of those things really resonate with me today,’’ Muschamp said. “I’ve had some head coaching opportunities, some that I didn’t even pursue and some I had point-blank offered and turned down until the Florida job.’’
Muschamp’s career has been stuck on fast-forward since he joined LSU. After a season coaching linebackers, Muschamp took over as defensive coordinator from 2002-04. When Saban left for the NFL, Muschamp served as Miami’s assistant head coach for defense in 2005.
Knowing college football was where he belonged, Muschamp returned to Auburn for a two-year stint on Tommy Tuberville’s staff as defensive coordinator. Next stop was Texas, where after a season as defensive coordinator under Brown, Muschamp’s star reached another level when he was named Brown’s future replacement in late 2008.
The future was set – or so it seemed.
“I’ve gotten beat up a little for saying it, but I said, ‘I’m going to be at Texas until they fire me.’ I really at the time felt that way and I was really comfortable at Texas,’’ Muschamp said. “It was flattering. I was really humbled by the opportunity. The University of Texas people were great to me. To have that opportunity was exciting, but when Jeremy Foley calls at the University of Florida, that’s an easy decision.
“This really came out of the blue, especially after a 5-7 season.’’
As he searched for a replacement for Meyer, Foley also had a plan, one that included someone with a stellar reputation and familiarity with the SEC. Muschamp fit like a glove, and after a face-to-face meeting, Foley was sure he had found his man.
Meanwhile, Florida was a perfect fit for the vision that Muschamp had of his first job as a head coach.
He wanted a recruiting base that included a talent pool within a three- to five-hour radius from campus with which you could win the SEC. Check. He wanted great support of the football program from the administration, starting at the top with the school president. Check. He wanted resources and facilities in place to attract the kind of recruits you can win a national title with. Check.
The deal was done as soon as Foley offered the job in Muschamp’s mind – and that’s not even factoring into the equation his roots in Gainesville. The Muschamp family lived here for 10 years when Will was growing up.
Muschamp’s hiring drew the attention of his SEC colleagues, including Saban and Dooley.
“Will is one of my favorites,’’ Saban recently told reporters. “He's got great principles and values personally and philosophically as a football coach.’’
“I had mixed feelings,’’ Tennessee coach Dooley said at SEC Football Media Days. “I was proud of him. He deserved it. He's earned it. But I'd rather him been at Texas because he's a friend of mine. I mean, that's just how it is. He's going to do a great job, there's no doubt in my mind.
“But we got to play each other every year and that's a big game for both programs.”
Muschamp’s reputation as a stickler for details followed him to Florida.
In his first staff meeting once his new coaching staff was complete, Muschamp handed out notebooks with the plan for his first 100 days as head coach. He has since devised a plan with George Wynn, his former Georgia teammate and Assistant Athletics Director of Football Operations for the Gators, which is mapped out all the way through next summer.
Muschamp traces some of his attention to detail back to those meetings with Saban and watching him lead the program on a day-to-day basis, what Saban called “playing with a purpose and planning with a purpose.’’
Muschamp’s plan focuses on everything from recruiting and play-calling to booster functions and the best training methods for the players.
He talked about doing things the Florida Way when he was introduced as head coach, and much of that means Will’s Way.
“I don’t want to just be the CEO of the company, I want to help run it,’’ he said. “I really enjoy being the football coach. I like to have things mapped out. I want to be part of the defense. I want to be part of the staff. I want to coach on the field. I like doing that. I don’t like standing there and watching.’’
As he turns 40, Muschamp’s master plan adds another milestone a month from today when he leads the Gators onto the field against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 3 – his first game as a head coach.