GAINESVILLE, Fla. — South Carolina coach Will Muschamp knew all the questions that were about to come and tried to pre-emptively address the matter Sunday during his teleconference with reporters.
Muschamp makes his return to The Swamp this weekend as the Gamecocks’ first-year head coach, taking on a Florida program he led for four seasons before being fired in 2014.
It’s the obvious story line, one that will spawn plenty of takes and copious commentary leading up to kickoff Saturday, but he insists that angle is not a big deal to him.
He’s not seeking revenge, he says. Holds no ill will regarding the decision that ended his tenure in Gainesville. And, he wants to make clear, he’s not looking to prove anything this week, other than to show his Gamecocks (5-4, 3-4 SEC) are an improving team heading into this clash with the No. 22 Gators (6-2, 4-2).
“I’m sure there will be a lot of questions about us going back to Florida. And, you know, we had four great years at the University of Florida and I have tremendous respect for the university, for the program. I grew up in Gainesville. I grew up a Gator,” Muschamp said. “I’ve got tremendous respect for (former athletic director) Jeremy Foley and (former UF president) Dr. (Bernie) Machen and the wonderful opportunity they gave us to be at the University of Florida. We’ve got great memories, we’ve got great friends that are still friends to this day that we stay in touch with and we talk to a lot.
“And in this profession, if you don’t win enough games, you get fired. And that’s part of it. There’s no hard feelings, there’s no animosity, there’s no grudge. It’s part of our profession. And it’s an important game for us because it’s an Eastern Division game. We’re still alive in the race.”
Muschamp, who attended Oak Hall School in Gainesville before ultimately finishing high school in Georgia, had returned to town prior to the 2011 season tasked with the unenviable challenge of succeeding Urban Meyer as Florida’s coach.
After peaking with an 11-2 campaign in 2012, the wheels came off the following season as the Gators tumbled to 4-8 and got upset at home by Georgia Southern. It was the program’s worst season since going winless in 1979. A year later, after a 6-5 regular season in 2014, he was fired, leaving his record at 28-21 with the program.
In reflecting back on his 25-year run as athletic director last week, Foley noted that situation as one of his regrets, that it didn’t work out for all involved and ended so poorly for Muschamp and his staff.
After spending last season as the defensive coordinator at Auburn, Muschamp got his second chance as a head coach at South Carolina. Ironically, that opportunity came as the Gamecocks were searching for their full-time replacement for Steve Spurrier, who had retired at South Carolina during the 2015 season and is now back in Gainesville as an ambassador and consultant.
Pressed further for what this opportunity Saturday will mean to him, Muschamp wasn’t biting.
“Well, I mean obviously you’d like to go win the game. But if anybody knows me they know that this game is really important to me because of our players and the University of South Carolina,” he said. “And that’s No. 1, and that’s just the way it’s going to be for me. I know that’s boring and you don’t want to hear that, but that’s the way I feel.”
It’s not just a story line for fans and the media, though. Many of Florida’s key players this fall were recruited and signed by Muschamp and his coaching staff.
Responding to a question Sunday night, Muschamp recalled how he found Gators star linebacker Jarrad Davis. He talked about knowing so many of those players and their families and how it didn’t dawn on him until this week that it will be senior night for Florida.
Those seniors will play their final game in The Swamp competing against the coach who brought them there in the first place.
Muschamp said he won’t know until Saturday what that dynamic will be like for him.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said. “I haven’t thought about it much. I haven’t heard from anybody. But seeing those guys on the field and having been in their living rooms and recruited them and all that, heck, I didn’t realize it was going to be senior day until today. It’s their last home game. There’s some great young men on that football team. Guys I’ve got tremendous respect for. I admire a lot of those guys, recruited them to Florida …”
Muschamp faced an obvious rebuilding challenge in taking of a South Carolina program that bottomed out at 3-9 last season.
After a 2-4 start and a switch to true freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, the Gamecocks have started to build momentum, picking up consecutive wins over Massachusetts, a big upset of Tennessee and then a 31-21 victory over Missouri last weekend.
At 3-4 in the conference, they do have an outside chance at the SEC East title. That goes for most every team in the division, for that matter, but this Florida-South Carolina matchup certainly looks a little different than it projected to be a few weeks ago.
That’s where Muschamp says his thoughts are focused.
“When the game starts it doesn’t really matter who’s standing across that sideline,” he said. “You’re going to call your offense, your defense and your special teams. You’re going to prepare your team regardless of who’s standing on the other sideline, and that’s the way I approach it.”
He also dismissed the notion that he could draw an advantage of any sort from his familiarity with some of Florida’s personnel.
Once more, he reiterated, this game is not about him.
“Oh, I don’t know if it means that much. Jim and his staff have done a fantastic job, they’ve got a bunch of good coaches down there that are doing a good job,” he said. “Does it help? Sure, in some areas it can help you (regarding) speed and things like that, but at the end of the day your players play the game and they’ve got to execute, and that’s the most important thing.”