by Pat Dooley
Back then, there was no Hampton Suites in downtown Gainesville. Back then, the place where Will Muschamp lived during the first four months on the job as Florida’s football coach did not exist. The hotel where he shaved and showered before working deep into the nights has only been open for a year.
Back then, Gainesville was so different. So was Florida football. When Muschamp was a young boy growing up in Gainesville, there was a parking lot across from Lillian’s where the Hampton now sits. Back then, his hero was Tony Lilly. When his older brothers Mike and Pat would play football in the yard of their home a few blocks away from Florida Field, the youngest boy would always pretend he was the Florida defensive back.
Back then, Florida was a classic underachiever with no SEC titles and not a whiff of a national title. The expectations are different now.
“I understand that,” Muschamp says. “I want to win now. There’s no five-year plan around here.”
Since 1990, Florida has won eight conference titles and three national championships. That’s what Muschamp is walking into — a fanbase that feels entitled to confetti rain. And a fanbase that still is reeling from the events of the last 18 months.
He also is succeeding an ultra-successful coach in Urban Meyer. The good news — he’s not following a two-time national championship winner as much as he is succeeding a guy who lost five games a year ago. And that guy loves the hire.
“When (Florida athletic director) Jeremy (Foley) was talking about a number of people after I stepped away, that was the one I really liked,” Meyer says. “Not that they needed my approval, but I was really pleased when they hired him.
“The biggest reason is that he understands what he’s getting into. He’s been around the SEC. He’s not going to get blown away by it. And he has respect for what we’ve done here.”
Muschamp was a surprise hire that took Gator fans a little bit of time to warm up to. They were convinced that Foley would hire a big-name coach who had been in the big boy’s seat. Instead, Foley went to sleep one night with a bunch of names in his head and woke up with one he hadn’t thought of yet.
His sell to the Gator Nation — Muschamp was good enough for Texas, which made him the coach-in-waiting. So he’s good enough for Florida.
“Everybody was expecting him to be the next head coach at Texas, so I don’t think it’s a gamble,” says Foley. “I think he’ll fit here. He reminds me a lot of Billy (Donovan), he reminds me a lot of Sully (baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan), and he reminds me a lot of Urban. Time will tell, and at the end of the day, he has to win some football games.”
Foley never offered the job to anyone else or talked directly to another coach. Once he had Muschamp’s name, he realized he had the perfect fit.
“He talked about a fit,” Muschamp says. “When he started describing exactly what he was looking for — he wanted a good fit for Gainesville and our community. And he wanted somebody that understood the expectations of the program. And the expectations of Florida is winning championships, and believe me, I understand that.
“When he described that to me on the phone, it got me more and more excited because I felt like he was describing me, the perfect fit for Florida.”
Muschamp spent some of his formative years in Gainesville before moving to Rome, Ga. He wanted to play for the Gators, to be a real-life Tony Lilly. “I went to see Coach (Steve) Spurrier, but he wasn’t there for our appointment,” Muschamp said at his introductory press conference. “I think he was 2-under.”
Not so fast, said Spurrier. “You tell Will we never had appointments for walk-ons,” Spurrier said. “And I haven’t been 2-under for a long time.”
Muschamp was being recruited as a defensive back until he broke his leg while playing high school baseball. His old coach at Oak Hall School in Gainesville, John Clifford, remembers calling the hospital where Muschamp was having a 17-inch steel rod (which hangs in Muschamp’s office) inserted into his leg. Muschamp bragged that he caught the fly ball despite the injury.
With no Division I-A schools vying for his services, Muschamp went to Georgia as a walk-on. He’s coached at Auburn and LSU. So he gets the league. And he gets The Swamp.
“I’ve coached in there a few times,” he says. “I got goosebumps running out of the tunnel for the spring game. Florida is a special place.”
Muschamp made a huge splash when he lured Charlie Weis to Gainesville to be his offensive coordinator. His staff is a combination of coaches with NFL and college experience. Some of it can be traced back to his time with the Miami Dolphins under Nick Saban. “It was a great experience,” he says. “I’m a better coach because of it.”
Muschamp’s journey to the big office in the stadium started with a graduate assistant job at Auburn followed by stops at West Georgia and Eastern Kentucky. Each experience along the way had an affect on him. “I appreciate where I’ve been and where I’ve come from,” Muschamp says.
All of those experiences and all of those games have led him here, to one of the toughest jobs in college football. The Gator Nation is still trying to wrap its arms around this guy who closed all of spring practices for the first time.
They like what they hear most of the time. While Meyer preached speed and wanted the fastest team in America, Muschamp wants toughness. “You don’t win in the SEC if you can’t control the lines of scrimmage,” Muschamp says. “I want to be known as a blue-collar, overachieving unit.”
He has kept many of the traditions started by Meyer, like the Gator Walk and the singing of the fight song after wins. But he is also putting his stamp on the program with every meeting.
A player who will remain nameless felt unappreciated by the previous coaches despite being a letterman. He claimed they never knew his name. He had decided to quit. One day, he walked by Muschamp’s office. The new coach had been on the job for a little more than a month and was busy recruiting. He called the player by name and invited him into his office. They talked for 30 minutes. The player will be back this year.
It’s those kinds of communication skills that sold Foley on Muschamp. It’s his passion for the game that sells players on Muschamp. That he was able to keep last year’s recruiting class in the top 15 in the country and is on his way to a top-10 haul in 2012 has sold the fans on his recruiting ability.
But, as Foley says, at the end of the day, he has to win football games. And that is still the great unknown.
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2011 Florida Preview
Athlon's 2011 SEC Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-SEC Team
2011 Transfers to Watch
2012 Transfers to Watch