As Will Muschamp finds his happy place at South Carolina, his alma mater stands in his way
Muschamp is 1-5 against Georgia as coach at Florida and South Carolina
Fired SEC head coaches usually don't get second chances … being SEC head coaches. Certainly not like the opportunity Will Muschamp has gotten at South Carolina.
"No doubt, very fortunate," the Gamecocks coach said this week.
Muschamp is a couple of days away from one of the biggest games of his career. His old school, Georgia, comes to town with an old friend, Kirby Smart, in charge.
And somehow, it doesn't quite feel like the end of the world. Sure, the inside track in the SEC East is a stake, but either way the sun is coming up on the Muschamp's serene lake house the family has come to love.
"We're going to retire here," the coach told me this week.
These are some of first thoughts that come to the mind of the 47-year-old defensive mind who developed his eye-bulging alter ego -- "Coach Boom" -- years ago.
The years have brought an appreciation for life, family and SEC second chances. In four seasons as Urban Meyer's replacement, Muschamp went 28-21 at Florida. In those final two years with the Gators, things went south on the field (4-8 and 6-5) but not off of it. There may have never been a classier and less acrimonious firing of a coach than the way Florida parted ways with Muschamp.
"It wasn't like it was awful," Muschamp said, repeating a familiar timeline. "In the third year, we were decimated with 15 [injured] starters we lost for more than half the season. We didn't have a lot of answers.
"The fourth year, our record wasn't what it needed to be. When it happens at a place like Florida, you're going to be fired. I didn't improve the offense. Call it like it is. But it wasn't awful, and we left a pretty good team down there."
This second chance has almost vindicated Muschamp: Florida is still struggling to find an offense and a quarterback, although there is plenty of optimism with the arrival of Dan Mullen.
Muschamp posted a surprising nine-win season in 2017, finishing second in the SEC East. Almost four years after his firing, Muschamp is chasing the high of beating a top-five team. He has done it only once, in 2012 at Florida when the Gators knocked off No. 4 LSU.
"I still talk to Jeremy Foley," Muschamp said of Florida's former athletic director. "He texted me this week. I don't let -- like so many people -- get caught up. They let their personal feelings get involved in business. I had nothing but great memories at Florida."
Remember, this was the former coach-in-waiting at Texas. This was the coach who once won 11 games at Florida. This is a veteran of staffs at five SEC schools, at one time a top Nick Saban lieutenant.
And now Columbia, South Carolina, is his retirement home?
"I live on a lake," Muschamp reiterated. "The house was in foreclosure. When Carol and I first got here, we were sitting here eating dinner one night. We said, 'This is like Austin.'"
Austin being eclectic Austin, Texas, where Muschamp was supposed to be Mack Brown's successor. That didn't work out for a lot of reasons. Texas has never been the Texas that Muschamp coached at from 2008-10.
Whether any of this leads to a win over Georgia is unknown. Muschamp is 1-5 against his alma mater at both Florida and South Carolina. A win on Saturday is less of a second chance and more of a new beginning.
Consider how few SEC head coaches get this sort of opportunity. In the modern era, Ed Orgeron may be only other fired SEC head coach who got a second chance at another SEC school. But 11 years elapsed between Coach O's firing at Ole Miss and his full-time hiring at LSU. (In between, Orgeron was an interim coach for eight games at USC in 2013.)
Only Saban and Mullen have coached longer than Muschamp in the SEC among current conference head coaches. Saban sustained excellence at both LSU and Alabama. It was Mullen's choice to leave Mississippi State for Florida.
Bill Curry beat the posse out of town at Alabama in 1989, winding up at Kentucky. Houston Nutt resigned at Arkansas in 2007 to go to Ole Miss. Gerry DiNardo left Vanderbilt following 1994 for LSU, a definite promotion.
Does all that institutional knowledge make it easier to coach in the SEC?
"Good question," Muschamp said. "It's never been easy."
It certainly isn't this week. Smart and Muschamp crossed paths for a few months at Georgia. Later, Muschamp persuaded his bosses at Valdosta State (Chris Hatcher) and LSU (Saban) to hire Smart.
A South Carolina win might not be the biggest of Muschamp's career -- Florida contended for a BCS berth in 2012 -- but it would be some sort of statement.
"When you were growing up and you're in your neighborhood, you don't want to get whipped by your buddies," Muschamp said. "That ain't fun."
When Muschamp arrived at South Carolina, he was seen as sort of a fall back. Athletic director Ray Tanner had been pursuing Smart, then Alabama's defensive coordinator. But that courtship reportedly motivated Georgia to move quickly and snatch up Smart.
Does Muschamp care?
"When we started talking well in my interview, my big question was commitment," he said. "Hell, I've been fired once. I don't want to do it again."
South Carolina is ready to debut a 110,000-square foot football facility. But waterfalls and nutrition bars don't win championships. They just make it more possible.
"Our fan base has been so supportive," Muschamp said echoing scores of Gamecocks coaches before him. "When we got here, we weren't a very good football team. [But] it was so positive. I'm sitting here watching the cut ups of our Georgia game two years ago, and we got delayed because of a hurricane. The stands are full."
That Hurricane Matthew anecdote lends a bit of hope. Few, if any, current Bulldogs have seen Williams-Brice Stadium at full throat.
Georgia is 1-3 in its last four visits to South Carolina.
Junior quarterback Jake Bentley gives the Gamecocks their best chance to win. But the angle at South Carolina remains permanence. There is a feeling of it with Muschamp. The coach might already have his next signal caller.
Ryan Hilinski, the No. 2 pro-style QB in the country out of Orange, California, is expected to enroll in January. Ryan is the brother of former Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski. Tyler died of suicide in January. https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/washington-state-takes-different-route-in-hopes-of-moving-past-tyler-hilinskis-suicide/
Ryan and his family have searched the country to carry on part of Tyler's legacy.
"Then we got to South Carolina," said Ryan's mother Kym. "There was something about that group, about the town. I felt like, 'OK, that's a good place.'"
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