A young, pretty girl sitting near the front of the room had a question for the Florida coach.
“Coach, I’m getting married soon and he’s a Georgia fan and …”
“That’s not my fault,” Will Muschamp said, playing to the crowd.
“My wedding is on the same day as the Florida-Georgia game,” she continued. “I was wondering: Can you guarantee Florida will win?”
Muschamp, the native of Rome, a long-time Georgia resident and former Bulldogs safety, smiled.
“I certainly can,” he said (and then he turned in my direction and alerted the crowd that this pronouncement almost certainly would be used in the local newspaper).
This should end any lingering debate about whether Will Muschamp has divided loyalties.
The annual meeting of the Atlanta Gator Club was held Thursday night. Atlantic Station was crawling with reptiles. More than 360 Florida fans crammed into a hotel ballroom, the largest turnout in years, to greet their new leader.
This was the safe room for Muschamp. But outside the walls, he’s same guy who was branded “traitor” or “Benedict Arnold” by some hard-line Bulldogs fans who believe once you’ve worn the “G” on your helmet, any career movement – especially to the mother of SEC rivals – is borderline sacrilegious. (Or over the border.)
“I’m loyal to who signs my checks,” Muschamp said earlier. “All of that other stuff, I don’t get into. In our
profession you’re loyal to the people you work for. I’ll do the best job I can for the Gator nation.”
Go easy, folks. The man’s gotta earn a living, you know.
It may have been a shock in Athens when Muschamp, the official coach-in-waiting at Texas for Mack Brown and a possible unofficial coach-in-waiting for Georgia, was tabbed as Urban Meyer’s replacement at Florida.
But it shouldn’t have been. Yes, he lived in Rome up until age 5, and then he returned before his ninth-grade year. But during that period in between, orange blood ran through blue veins. He walked to Gators games as a kid. He watched Wilber Marshall. Even when he went to high school in Rome, he was a Florida fan.
Fact is, Muschamp might never have stepped foot on the Georgia campus if he hadn’t broken his leg while playing in high school.
“All of the big schools backed off,” he said.
His choices: Enroll at West Point or try to walk-on at Florida or Georgia.
“My dad was a school teacher,” he said. “The [cost of] in-state education was a factor.”
So if he didn’t break his leg or his father was a surgeon, he would’ve attended Florida?
“Hah — I’d rather not play what-if,” he said.
Muschamp waited 15 years for a head coaching job. So far, he wears it well.
The fact he was one of the nation’s best defensive coaches at Texas, LSU and Auburn doesn’t guarantee success. Even he acknowledges that he’s in a honeymoon period with Gators fans. (“Everybody has been great. But we haven’t played a game yet.”).
But if he doesn’t succeed, it won’t be for a lack of confidence. He brought in Charlie Weis to run his offense. Most new head coaches would balk at such a move, believing the former Notre Dame coach and New England and Kansas City offensive coordinator might be scheming behind his back for the top job.
“I have confidence in myself. I want the people I hire to have tremendous confidence in themselves,” he said.
Last month, Muschamp kicked his best player, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, off the team after his third arrest (and second in three months for marijuana). It was a stunning move at a program that had its share of legal issues between SEC and BCS championships under Meyer.
“I didn’t look at it as sending a message early,” Muschamp said. “I look at everything as an isolated situation. Each player will have to [act] right.”
He has learning the hard way of the demands of being a head coach and fielding endless advice from fans (“My email works, I can tell you that.”). But this feels like Utopia.
After the questions, he planned on flying back to Austin, Texas. His family hasn’t moved yet and his 5-year-old is graduating from kindergarten Friday. Then it will be back to Gainesville.
“As coaches, we move around so much,” he said. “Home is where the house is.”
That’s not in Georgia anymore.
By Jeff Schultz