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 SEC, 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.”
But if he couldn’t fix that problem at Florida, why would Muschamp be able to do it at South Carolina? This is, after all, a school whose last conference title came in 1969, recruits from a relatively small in-state talent pool and has historically struggled to pull top players away from the traditional SEC powers much less in-state rival Clemson, which has become one of the nation’s hottest programs.
The run of in-state recruits who fueled South Carolina’s streak of three consecutive 11-win seasons between 2011-13 — players such as Alshon Jeffrey, Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney — will be difficult to duplicate.
That’s why when Spurrier abruptly retired halfway through last season, Muschamp would have seemed an unlikely and uninspired choice to get the program back on track.
South Carolina, in fact, first targeted Houston’s Tom Herman and was so far down the road toward an agreement, according to two people familiar with the process, that the school’s administration had essentially shut its search process down.
Those same people, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity, said Herman’s mind changed after South Carolina lost to The Citadel on Nov. 21 and it became clear the next coach would have a massive rebuilding job on his hands. Herman decided to stay at Houston for a deal worth nearly $3 million per year and, presumably, wait for a more high-profile situation.
South Carolina, meanwhile, turned next to Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who instead went to Georgia, and talked extensively with Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, who turned down an offer he did not view as legitimate, according to people familiar with the process.
That left Muschamp, who had the endorsement of Spurrier and was favored all along by South Carolina president Harris Pastides, whose comfort level was bolstered by the endorsement of high-level administrators in the SEC office.
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.
And if success eventually comes, it will have less to do with some epiphany about coaching and more to do with simply doing a better job at what he’s always done. To underscore that point, Muschamp’s staff at South Carolina is filled with coaches he’s worked with previously, including Roper, whom he steadfastly believes would’ve been successful at Florida given more time to integrate his system.
He also said he has no interest in toning down the “Coach Boom” sideline antics simply to give off the perception that he’s changed something fundamental about his approach to coaching.
“It will change zero,” he said. “I think you play to your strengths and passion and energy is a strength.
“It’s amazing how many recruits' homes I’ve been in or parents I’ve met or boosters of whatever school I’m working at and they go, ‘You know what? You’re really a pretty nice guy.’ At the end of the day, the arena’s the arena. When I step on the field, it’s about developing young men and coaching them and on the defensive side of the ball, I don’t think anybody does it better.”
Through his crazy-fast ascent, shocking fall and warp-speed rebound into an SEC head coaching job, it's refreshing in a way that Muschamp refuses to wallow in cliches about learning from failure. He knows why it didn't work at Florida and matter-of-factly plans to fix it this time while remaining true to who he is as a coach. The beauty of landing at South Carolina is we’re about to find out if that's enough.