Gamecocks’ Muschamp may have easiest path to success among new SEC East coaches
Football memories are typically different things to different people. Take the case of South Carolina fans:
The optimistic Gamecocks zealot likely has fond recollections of new head coach Will Muschamp leading nationally renowned defenses at LSU (one BCS national title), Texas (one BCS title-game appearance) and Auburn (multiple stints as defensive coordinator) over the last two decades.
They might also recall Muschamp signing a flood of blue-chip recruits during his four-year run as head coach at Florida (2011-14), including All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. And don’t forget about that landmark upset of Florida State in 2012, knocking the vaunted Seminoles out of BCS national-title consideration.
The pessimistic Gamecocks fan, in turn, likely remembers how Muschamp, as Florida’s head coach, went 3-9 overall against the Gators’ three biggest annual rivals — Florida State, LSU, UGA.
There’s also two notable low points from Muschamp’s final campaign with Florida — trailing Missouri by 42 points at home midway through the second half … and ultimately getting fired after the Gators’ overtime loss to South Carolina (the coach stayed on through the end of the regular season).
Such ambivalence is understandable among the Gamecocks faithful. On one hand, the program landed a prominent name in Muschamp, one of the more famous branches of the Nick Saban coaching tree. However, they’re also welcoming a coach who seemingly had every advantage at Florida — warm weather, top-notch facilities, fertile recruiting ground, unlimited resources — and yet, collected eight-plus victories just once with the Gators (11-2 campaign in 2012).
But even that breakthrough season was marred by a blowout loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
So, what to make of Muschamp’s Monday introduction as the Gamecocks’ new leader, succeeding coaching legend Steve Spurrier in Columbia?
Is he the right guy for the job?
Better yet, is there a wrong guy for this job?
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Charting the program’s football history, the Gamecocks actually lost their first eight bowl games — spanning from 1945 (the first-ever Gator Bowl) to 1988 (Liberty Bowl drubbing to Indiana); and until Lou Holtz arrived on campus in the late 1990s/early 2000s, no South Carolina coach had tallied consecutive bowl victories.
Yes, Jim Carlen (45 wins from 1975-81) and Joe Morrison (39 wins from 1983-88) had moderate success as head coaches during the Gamecocks’ prolonged phase as a conference-free independent.
And yes, George Rogers (1,781 rushing yards, 14 TDs as a senior) claimed South Carolina’s only Heisman Trophy in 1980; but even that distinguished honor had its share of skepticism, given the national hysteria surrounding Herschel Walker’s amazing freshman season.
(For the record, Rogers topped Walker in rushing yards and yards per carry in 1980, with the latter enjoying a slight edge in touchdowns.)
In reality, the “illustrious” part of South Carolina’s history really didn’t kick in until Spurrier’s arrival.
In Year 1 (2005), the Head Ball Coach knocked off Florida, where Spurrier previously won a Heisman (1966), coached a Heisman winner (quarterback Danny Wuerffel in 1996) and led the Gators to a national championship (’96).
In Year 2, Spurrier’s Gamecocks rolled rival Clemson and then capped that campaign with a Liberty Bowl win over Houston.
And from 2010-13, South Carolina enjoyed an unprecedented level of success, collecting one SEC East title (2010), 42 total victories (including three consecutive 11-win seasons) and three straight bowl triumphs from 2011-13 — otherwise known as the Jadeveon Clowney Era.
Which brings us to this: Should Muschamp be feeling any extra pressure to fill Spurrier’s immense shoes, knowing the Gamecocks’ winning tradition doesn’t run so deep?
The Spurrier comparisons aside, he’s basically looking at a clean whiteboard.
“Coach Spurrier has raised the expectation level here, and we’re excited about meeting that challenge and that opportunity,” said the 44-year-old Muschamp during Monday’s press conference. “We embrace everything, as far as the expectations of winning championships here in Columbia, and that’s going to happen.”
Muschamp has experience fielding Spurrier questions from the media. He had to endure endless legacy queries about Spurrier at Florida — while also following the act of Urban Meyer (two national titles with the Gators). Not exactly a plum spot for a first-time head coach.
“As I told the players, change is inevitable and growth is optional. We’re going to do things a certain way. But again, it’s hard. There’s only one Coach Spurrier, let’s be honest. I’m going to be Will Muschamp, and that’s what I need to be in this situation, and that’s what I will do moving forward.
“I’m going to reach out to him because even though there’s 80,000 people who can give me advice on Saturday. He’s a guy that’s been behind the chair and knows what it’s like to be there,” said Muschamp, who had a 1-3 mark against Spurrier during his own Florida tenure. “I certainly will cherish those opportunities to talk to (Spurrier).”
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The SEC, as a single entity, has too much influence, prestige and pride to tolerate the perception of being weaker than the Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12 — even for one year.
But the notable shift toward youth in the East division raises a viable question: Are the East schools unwittingly ceding the spotlight to iconic head coaches Nick Saban and Les Miles, with the full-bore anticipation of overtaking Alabama and LSU, once Saban and Miles retire in a few years?
(Don’t believe the speculative noise of Saban going to the NFL later this winter. His next job will likely entail a seat on the College Gameday set.)
The average age of the East head coaches (from oldest to youngest — Jim McElwain, Mark Stoops, Butch Jones, Muschamp, Derek Mason, Kirby Smart, Barry Odom) stands at 44 years, 10 months. On the flip side, the average age of the West coaches (Saban, Miles, Kevin Sumlin, Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze, Bret Bielema, Dan Mullen) lies at 50 years, 2 months … with Saban (64 years old) and Miles (62) bringing up the average.
Former UGA quarterback David Greene, who piloted the Bulldogs to one SEC championship, two division titles and three 10-win campaigns from 2001-04, was a popular interview on Atlanta sports radio last week, in the wake of Mark Richt’s “mutual parting” from UGA. On the air, Greene repeatedly referenced how high-stakes recruiting — especially in SEC territory — had become a “young man’s game.”
The inference wasn’t a direct hit against the 55-year-old Richt, per se, but it did reaffirm the apparent blueprints for success within the new SEC: The greatest tactical advantage involves out-recruiting and out-hustling Saban and Miles, two titans within the ‘salesmen’ realm.
(LSU may own the nation’s best prep class for 2016 come February; and under Saban’s watchful eye, the Crimson Tide have universally notched top-three recruiting rankings for each of the last five years.)
In previous stops, Muschamp has drawn rave reviews for his recruiting acumen. In earnest, he did an admirable job of supplying McElwain with major bowl-level talent in his inaugural season with Florida.
But can Muschamp balance that desire to be simultaneously intense and commendably patient with the Gamecocks?
“The first year there’s a little adjustment, and that fifth year you’re doing a little better. It’s no different than being a father. The first couple things that pop-up you look at and you’re thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, I have to do this?‘ … then you start moving forward, and you understand it a little bit more,” explains Muschamp, once the head coach-in-waiting at Texas (never came to fruition). “It’s no different than being a defensive coordinator. The first year, you see that there’s a lot to this. Then, the game slows down for you a little bit. The more experience you have at it, the more things you see.”
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The logistical components of South Carolina’s future schedules should buy Muschamp sufficient time to build the program in his own image.
The Gamecocks have Texas A&M as a permanent crossover partner through 2025, and they won’t encounter Ole Miss, Alabama or LSU until the 2018-20 regular seasons. Conversely, Florida and Tennessee have LSU and Alabama as daunting crossovers for another 10 years.
On the nucleus front, South Carolina could have as many as 18 returning starters next season — a high number that doesn’t even account for wide receiver Pharoh Cooper (66 catches, 973 yards, nine total TDs in 2015) possibly reversing course on his decision to enter the NFL draft.
And along the recruiting trail, the Southeast region consistently accounts for a big chunk of 4- and 5-star recruits — with the Palmetto State alone producing transcendent talents like Clowney, A.J. Green, Albert Haynesworth, DeAndre Hopkins, Donnie Shell (Hall of Famer), Roddy White, Levon Kirkland, Lawrence Timmons, Robert Quinn and William “The Refrigerator” Perry, among others.
Simply put, Muschamp might have stumbled onto the perfect setup, which is quite rare for second-chance head coaches. Most “failed” first-timers either have to return to their roots as collegiate coordinators for a sustained period (not one transition year at Auburn), or accept a backward head-coaching role in a lesser conference.
But not Muschamp. Either he’s made of Teflon — where nothing bad sticks in the long term — or his second go’round in the Spurrier Shadow will be very fruitful for the Gamecocks.
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.