One of these days, if Will Muschamp can turn South Carolina around and start winning big games the way it did just a few years ago, the question is going to be as predictable as a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1.
Even now, a little more than two months into his second act as a head coach in the Southeastern Conference, it follows him to every news conference, every booster event, every interaction with someone who brings up his firing at Florida following the 2014 season.
“I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me what I’ve learned,” Muschamp said last week from his office overlooking the north end zone at Williams-Brice Stadium. “What did I learn? You need to score more points. It’s real simple. We’re not splitting the atom.”
Which brings us to the central issue of the SEC’s most-criticized offseason coaching hire, which will prove whether Muschamp was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time when his Florida tenure soured or whether South Carolina has tied itself to a coach whose reputation as a defensive genius simply does not translate to the lead chair.
It’s a fair question, particularly given the almost unprecedented opportunities Muschamp has been given in a still relatively young career.
At 37, he was designated as Mack Brown’s successor at Texas. At 39, he was handed the keys to a Florida program coming off two national championships in the previous five years. And even when that experiment ended in a way that could have done significant long-term damage to most careers, it took only a year for Muschamp to get another head coaching job in the SEC.
In a business where reputations are built and dismantled in record time, where athletics directors chase splashy names and are increasingly enamored with high-powered offensive backgrounds, it simply defies convention that he wound up here following Steve Spurrier.
But in an era where people so easily get defined by snapshots — whether it’s Muschamp’s 10-13 record in his final two seasons after some initial success at Florida or his eye-bulging, meme-worthy sideline outbursts — it’s clear there’s more to him than what fans see in a three-hour window on Saturday afternoon. You simply don’t get three jobs like Muschamp has before age 45 without having qualities that important people believe in.
“I think whether we talk about the coaching profession or the business world, it comes down to people and relating with people,” Muschamp said. “I think it’s a strength I have, working with people, being very frank with people, being open and honest and doing things the right way. I think that appeals to a lot of people including administrators and presidents I’ve dealt with before. I had a great working relationships with everyone from that standpoint, and from a coaching standpoint we have had great success everywhere we’ve been. I feel very comfortable about that. Things didn’t end the way we wanted it to at Florida, but again, I’m very proud of the accomplishments we had.”
Those accomplishments, to be precise, include an 11-1 regular season in 2012 and a general detoxifying of the off-field culture that Urban Meyer let fester in his final two years. Muschamp appeared well on his way toward superstar coaching status until 2013 when Florida hit a bizarre run of injuries to key players and lost seven consecutive games to finish 4-8.
Knowing he had to turn it around in 2014, Muschamp fired his offensive coordinator and brought in Kurt Roper from Duke. It wasn’t enough, as Florida beat rivals Tennessee and Georgia but lost every other key game, including a 23-20 overtime loss at home to South Carolina on Nov. 15, 2014. The next day, Muschamp was fired.
“We weren’t as skilled as we needed to be,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
And while the initial reaction to Muschamp here was somewhat rooted in bewilderment, it has turned into unconditional acceptance and hope from South Carolina’s fan base. Truth be told, they’ll need it.
“We’re putting our guys through a very difficult offseason and finding out who’s willing to fight and who folds the tent,” Muschamp said. “You are what your record is. I’m a 3-9 head coach right now. Whether I was here or not doesn’t matter. I’m taking ownership of the fact I’m at South Carolina, and it’s no different from these players. That’s where we are. It’s not about why. It’s not about who. It’s not about how we got here. It’s about how we’re digging out of the hole, and it’s gonna take work. It’s going to take toughness and great effort and great discipline.”
It’s also going to take recruiting, which Muschamp did well enough on short notice to land the nation’s No. 26-ranked class according to rivals.com. Even in an unforgiving SEC, Muschamp feels South Carolina has the ingredients to raise the ceiling even higher on signing day, touting its new facility investments and the ability to offer an experience that combines traditional campus elements with living in a fairly vibrant state capital.