COLUMBIA, S.C. — Two types of college football fans live in the South:
Those who believe in Will Muschamp becoming a long-term fixture at South Carolina … and those who believe the defensive-minded tactician could someday coach at every SEC institution.
The second belief, of course, comes with tongue firmly planted in cheek; but at the same time, it wouldn’t be a stretch to surmise that Muschamp — just the 14th full-time head coach in South Carolina history — could be staring at his last Big Kahuna opportunity in SEC circles.
If this experience mirrors his time with an old SEC East rival.
From afar, Gamecocks fans undoubtedly recall Muschamp, as a coordinator, leading nationally renowned defenses at LSU (one BCS national title), Texas (one BCS title-game appearance) and Auburn (multiple stints) over the last two decades.
They also remember Muschamp working his sales-pitch magic as Florida’s coach (28-21 record from 2011-14) to land a slew of blue-chip recruits, including All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. There’s also the landmark upset of Florida State in 2012, knocking the vaunted Seminoles out of BCS national title consideration.
Now for the bad memories …
**At Florida, Muschamp went 3-9 overall against the Gators’ three biggest annual rivals — Florida State, LSU, UGA.
**During Muschamp’s final campaign in Gainesville, Florida inexplicably trailed Missouri by 42 midway through the second half — at home. Soon thereafter, an overtime loss to South Carolina sealed his fate with Gators Nation (fired before the season ended).
This ambivalent cloud seemingly follows Muschamp at every coaching stop. As a prominent branch from the Nick Saban coaching tree, Muschamp’s successes have been enriching, while the failures have been maddening.
This makes Muschamp one of the more polarizing coaches in college football — from a success/epic fail standpoint, not the upset-the-apple-cart, anger the SEC-masses ways of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.
And yet, Muschamp leads the life of a coach who’s completely comfortable in his own skin, whether it’s hotly contesting a holding call during South Carolina’s Garnet & Black spring game on Saturday (the Black squad won, 35-14), or offering refreshing candor about the state of the Gamecocks in Year 1.
When asked if the Gamecocks were conservative with play calls during the scrimmage, Muschamp said there “wasn’t a whole lot of scaling back,” minus the gap-scheme running plays that can lead to unwanted spring injuries.
When asked about his quarterbacks’ state of readiness for Saturday, in terms of dealing with live-game situations and frenetic tempo, the coach replied, “It’s good for the gameday operation. I like to see how quarterbacks handle things. I want to see the communication upfront on offense, and to see where the defensive players’ eyes are … that’s been an issue for us this spring.”
When asked about Jamari Smith‘s on-the-fly transformation from defensive back to wide receiver to running back, Muschamp matter-of-factly muses, “(Smith — five catches, 49 yards on Saturday) has made a smooth transition, and he’s a very intelligent man.”
And when pressed about any major concerns with the Gamecocks roster, in advance of the time gap which separates spring practice and fall camp, Muschamp briefly removed his Nick Saban School Of Minimal Revelations hat and broke down three key areas:
1) Find a quarterback from the heated competition of Perry Orth (last year’s starter in conference play), Lorenzo Nunez, Connor Mitch (108 yards passing, one TD on Saturday) and freshman Brandon McIlwain (three touchdowns).
2) Unearth more offensive playmakers, like sophomore receiver Deebo Samuel.
3) Shore up the “coverage-ability” concerns with the defensive secondary — a daunting task when pondering South Carolina’s 2016 opponents log of Vanderbilt (receiver Trent Sherfield), Mississippi State (receiver Fred Ross), Texas A&M (the SEC’s best 1-2 receiving punch of Christian Kirk/Josh Reynolds), UGA (hybrid receiver Terry Godwin) and Clemson (shepherded by all-everything quarterback Deshaun Watson, the nation’s best dual-threat passer).
Which brings us to this: The next four months can be nerve-racking for most coaches, having little control over their athletes during this period. But Muschamp, who maintains a youthful look at age 44, doesn’t mind the potential pratfalls that comprise the total college experience.
“Being a college coach keeps you young, being a part of that vibrant atmosphere,” said Muschamp, a veteran of five SEC programs (LSU, Auburn, Florida, South Carolina and UGA, as a player). “I think it’s really important to embrace that.”
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.