Student, teacher to meet as Florida takes on 'Bama in Swamp matchup
Nick Saban and Will Muschamp will meet as peers when Florida takes on Alabama
Muschamp adopted a similar approach to defense and recruiting to that of Saban
Saturday's game will show just how much the student learned from the master
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Will Muschamp drove north to Atlanta in December 2000 to visit his buddy, watch a major college program practice and possibly borrow some ideas that would help him in his job as defensive coordinator at Division II Valdosta State. What Muschamp didn't expect was a life-changing moment.
As LSU practiced for a Peach Bowl date with Georgia Tech, Muschamp visited the Tigers' practice on the invitation of LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, whom Muschamp had befriended when the pair worked together on Terry Bowden's staff at Auburn when Muschamp was a graduate assistant fresh off an overachieving career as a safety at Georgia. After practice, Fisher introduced the 29-year-old Muschamp to his boss, Nick Saban. "It was a casual conversation for about 20 minutes about football," Muschamp said this week.
Anyone even remotely familiar with Saban knows he doesn't typically (willingly) strike up 20-minute conversations with strangers. But he did with Muschamp. "We just kind of hit it off," Muschamp said. The encounter set Muschamp on a path that led him to the head coach's office at Florida. Saturday, when his Gators face Alabama in The Swamp, Muschamp and the man who helped mold him as a coach will meet for the first time as peers.
Less than two months after that practice in Atlanta, Saban remembered that conversation when Fisher and LSU defensive line coach Pete Jenkins lobbied him to consider Muschamp for the Tigers' linebackers coach opening. Saban offered Muschamp the job on the day he interviewed. Less than 14 months later, Saban named Muschamp LSU's defensive coordinator. "He didn't even apply for the job," Saban said. "I just called and told him he was going to be the coordinator."
Saban didn't need long to decide Muschamp was a future star. "Will, of all the guys that we have had on our staff through the years, probably worked the hardest, did the best job, had the most passion, was probably as well liked by the players as anyone," Saban said this week. Saban obviously left an impression on Muschamp as well. "I probably wouldn't be standing here today if it wasn't for the opportunity he gave me at LSU to be a position coach and then naming me the coordinator," Muschamp said. "Philosophically, we're on the same page as far as what we want to be defensively from an identity standpoint. But the guy does a great job managing his program top to bottom, from recruiting philosophically, offense, defense and special teams."
Indeed, Muschamp has brought many of the philosophies learned under Saban to Florida's program. "If you work for Nick long enough, you take on a lot of his personality traits," said Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart -- a former teammate of Muschamp's at Georgia -- in a 2010 interview. "A lot of them are successful traits. Will's taken on a lot of those roles."
Like Saban, Muschamp runs a chameleon defense that can morph from a 3-4 to a 4-3 even as the quarterback calls his cadence. Like Saban, Muschamp identifies a physical and mental archetype for each position and does his best to recruit players that match those archetypes. Like Saban, Muschamp works a brutal schedule.
But like fellow Saban acolytes Fisher (Florida State) and Derek Dooley (Tennessee), Muschamp is not a carbon copy of his former boss. Fisher is more gregarious and folksy. Dooley clearly inherited his sense of humor from his sidesplitting mother, Barbara. Muschamp, meanwhile, folds in traits learned working for Saban, Tommy Tuberville at Auburn and Mack Brown at Texas. It's easy to imagine the opinionated Tuberville or the politically savvy Brown holding down normal jobs and living normal lives. That isn't a common trait among major college football coaches. But like his two most recent former bosses, Muschamp also has managed to keep from being completely transformed by his job.
In the spring of 2010, I visited with Muschamp at Texas, where he was the defensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting. During a conversation about recruiting, we laughed at the amount of mollycoddling basketball coaches must do to land a coveted player. I asked Muschamp how he would handle such a requirement. "Shoot," he said. "I'd be coaching pee-wee football in South Georgia." Even though he makes millions at Florida, it's easy to envision Muschamp in Cordele or Cairo, chest-bumping his 10-year-old players and then climbing into his work truck to head home.
Muschamp is at Florida because he didn't want to wait around for Brown to retire at Texas. In fact, Muschamp has never been one to wait around for anything. When Saban left LSU for the Miami Dolphins after the 2004 season, Muschamp followed. Muschamp called the Dolphins' defenses in 2005, but when the time came to name a new defensive coordinator for the 2006 season, Saban passed over Muschamp in favor of NFL veteran Dom Capers. "I just made a mistake," Saban said in a May interview. Saban explained his own difficulties as a young defensive coordinator in Cleveland. He said he didn't want to put Muschamp through that meat grinder before he was ready. Saban now believes Muschamp was ready. "Dom did a wonderful job, but Will probably deserved to get that job," Saban said. "It was me trying to protect him. I wanted to give him another year or two before he was out there."
After leaving Saban's staff, Muschamp went to Auburn as defensive coordinator. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley learned quickly who he was when Muschamp's defense stoned Urban Meyer's offense twice in two years. In 2006, Auburn handed eventual national champ Florida its only loss. In 2007, the Tigers shut down eventual Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow in an upset win at Florida Field. Later that season, Muschamp's defense held Saban's first Alabama team to 225 yards and 10 points in an Iron Bowl win. Saban exacted his revenge on Muschamp in January 2010, when the Crimson Tide beat Texas for the BCS title in Pasadena, Calif.
Don't expect either coach to get sentimental when they meet at midfield before Saturday's game. It isn't their style. On Monday a television reporter tried to make Muschamp get philosophical about his relationship with Saban by describing their relationship as a "master vs. Padawan thing." Muschamp, as one might expect, is not enough of a Star Wars geek to appreciate the reference. "I watched Star Wars I [a geek would know the first movie was actually Episode Four] and after that, I watched The Empire Strikes Back, and that's it," Muschamp said with a smile. "I ain't seen nothing since that. I don't know what a Padawan is. You didn't call me a bad name, did you?"
At that point, Muschamp had clearly had his fill of Saban questions. But he had warned everyone earlier in his news conference. "He and I will not take one snap Saturday night," Muschamp said.
But each team will bear its coach's stamp and play with its coach's personality, so it will be fascinating to see exactly what the student learned from the master. Besides, that reporter may have been onto something with her awkward Jedi reference. When Padawan Luke Skywalker trains with master Yoda on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda offers some harsh advice. "Try not," Yoda says. "Do. Or do not. There is no try."
Sounds like something Saban or Muschamp might have said at practice this week.