JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — “Wherever I played has no bearing on this game at all.”
“There will be a lot of wasted ink on the fact that I played at Georgia and I’m now coaching at Florida.”
“I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone, but I’m loyal to people, not places.”
This is what we’ve heard Will Muschamp, the Florida Gators’ first-year head coach, say this week about his ties to Georgia. Those ties are pretty strong, as most folks can tell you. Raised in Rome and married to a girl from Thomaston, he played football and earned his degree in communications from the University of Georgia.
But Muschamp has downplayed those connections at every turn, understandable considering his current address. Instead he tells the Gator Nation that he really wanted to play football at Florida, having spent the early part of his childhood growing up in the city in which that university resides. Circumstances were such that, after breaking his leg playing baseball, only Georgia would give him the opportunity to play big-time college football. So he went there instead.
And that may well be the truth. But Muschamp also forged some lifelong relationships during those four years in Athens and his latest move in a whirlwind coaching career has left them in a conflicted state.
Whit Marshall, who played linebacker for the Bulldogs with Muschamp, was probably his closest friend while the two were in college. As it turns out, Muschamp also chose to marry Marshall’s first cousin, the former Carol Davis.
“I’ve been good friends with him for a long time,” said Marshall, who works in real estate and is raising four kids in Atlanta. “But it’s been funny seeing my in-laws become Gator fans. They were Georgia fans. Two my cousins went to Georgia, but now that Will’s the head coach they’re all big Gator fans.”
Muschamp also roomed with quarterback Eric Zeier all four years they lived in Athens. Zeier, one of Georgia’s most beloved players, is color analyst for the Bulldog Radio Network. Seeing one of his best buddies dressed in orange and blue and leading the Gators’ onto the field is something Zeier is still trying to get used to.
“For the record I called him up on day one and firmly announced that he was a traitor,” said Zeier, an executive with Bank of America. “But the serious answer is, as players and teammates, the minute you go into coaching your loyalty lies with the team that you’re on and with the players that you’re leading every day and you recruit to come to your school. We all realize that.”
Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and Muschamp have remained close in the years since they were at UGA. They used to talk almost weekly – that is, until Muschamp landed in Gainesville.
“We haven’t talked, except when he first got the job,” Bobo said. “Georgia-Florida’s a little different.”
Coaching a former rival against your alma mater is not unusual in the business. Auburn grad Vince Dooley led the Bulldogs for 25 years and Georgia grad Pat Dye coached Auburn during some of its most successful years. In each case, they downplayed their school ties when it came to the games.
“That’s the way you’ve gotta approach it, or try to approach it,” Bobo said. “Especially the magnitude of what fans think of the Georgia-Florida game.”
The fact of the matter is, as defensive coordinator at LSU and Auburn, Muschamp has coached against Georgia five times already. He’s 2-3 in those games.
Some have wondered if Muschamp’s presence in Gainesville has in anyway softened the rivalry between the two schools. On the contrary.
“Just the way this game has played out over the years, this game is as big as it gets for Georgia,” Zeier said. “It’s one that we want to win because we haven’t had success lately. The fact that Will is the coach heightens that to some degree and from a fan perspective it should. That’s what makes college football in the South so great.”
Meanwhile, no one buys Muschamp’s “it’s no different than any other game” spiel.
“It’s definitely one that means a lot to him just simply from the fact that he went to Georgia,” Marshall said. “But the reality is he’s been to so many different schools since then, it’s probably as not as big as if it’d had been a couple of years after he finished at Georgia. But I know deep down inside it means something to him, for sure.”
The whole thing is more than a little aggravating for Marshall, who said he always hoped Muschamp would remain at Texas, where he was “head coach in waiting” before taking the Florida job. Nevertheless, Marshall makes it clear that he “bleeds red and black.”
“It makes it tough, for sure,” Marshall said. “I’m always pulling for Will, but it’s hard to pull for him in this game. I have to pull for Georgia.”
|– Chip Towers