Updated: Apr 24, 2020
Will Muschamp was the hottest coaching hire at the time and given a roster full of talent. So what went wrong?
BY FRANZ BEARD
The proverbial cupboard was anything but bare.
What Will Muschamp inherited from Urban Meyer was a roster that included 34 players who would eventually spend at least one year in the NFL plus a quarterback (John Brantley) who had understudied three years behind a Heisman Trophy winner (Tim Tebow) and started 11 games in 2010. Muschamp supplemented that group with a freshman class that included two quarterbacks (Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett) who are still in the National Football League although neither one finished his career as a Florida Gator.
Muschamp’s first recruiting class at UF was his worst – ranked 11th in the national rankings – but the subsequent three classes were all top 10. The Gators turned in back-to-back classes ranked third and a 2014 class (Muschamp’s last) that was ranked ninth. If you aspire to the it "isn’t about the Xs and Os, but all about the Jesses and Joes" theory of winning football, then Will Muschamp should have been wildly successful at Florida and should still be the football coach. Muschamp had plenty of Jesses and Joes but there was a strong need for better Xs and Os on the offensive side of the ball all four years. The best the Gators ever did offensively in the Muschamp era from 2011-14 was 2014 when the Gators averaged 30.3 points and 367.6 yards per game for a team that finished 7-5.
It’s easy to point a finger at the offense and say that’s where it all blew up for Muschamp, whose career record at Florida was 28-21, hardly what was expected after Meyer’s six year run of 65-15 that included national championships in 2006 and 2008. The first three years of Muschamp the offense was bad a lot of the time, mediocre most of the time. In year four there were signs of life under offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, but the Gators lost five games and patience wore thin in the fan base which had a lot to do with athletic director Jeremy Foley pulling the plug.
So what went wrong? Muschamp was engaging and funny. Kids loved him. There were very few incidents off the field, a welcome change after the last two Meyer years in which what happened off the field tainted the on-the-field success. He recruited well. Thirty-seven of the players he signed went on to spend at least one year in the National Football League. If not for the offense, which, was inconsistent at best, dreadful at its worst, Muschamp seemed to have everything going for him. Lots of coaches succeed who are focused more on one side of the ball than the other, so there has to be another reason why it didn’t work for Will Muschamp.
Maybe the place to look – the real cause of Muschamp’s demise – was head coaching experience, or, as in his case, none before he came to Florida. Muschamp was viewed as a can’t miss future head coach as he was making his way up the ranks as an assistant to Nick Saban at LSU and the Miami Dolphins, Tommy Tuberville at Auburn and Mack Brown at Texas. He was so valued at Texas that Mack Brown named him the head coach in waiting but there is a huge difference in being the guy ready to succeed the HBC and the one who actually has to deal with all the day-to-day responsibilities when you’re the guy sitting in the hot seat.
Florida’s two most successful head coaches in the modern era are Steve Spurrier and Meyer. Spurrier was the head coach at Duke prior to returning to his Florida roots in 1990 where he won the 1996 national championship, six SEC titles and went 122-27-1. Meyer had two-year pit stops at Bowling Green and Utah before he became Florida’s head ball coach in 2005. At UF, Meyer won the 2006 and 2008 national championships and was 57-10 before his 8-5 swan song in 2010.
Ron Zook, who succeeded Spurrier, had no head coaching experience when his three-year stint began in 2002. Zook went 23-14 (he didn’t coach the Peach Bowl game against Miami, which the Gators lost to finish 7-5 in 2004). He was a great recruiter. The kids loved him. But he didn’t win.
Would Zook and Muschamp have had greater success at Florida had they spent a few seasons at lower profile programs where the expectations aren’t nearly as high? Almost certainly.
“It’s almost impossible to take a premium job with no head coaching experience,” Meyer reflected. “(Bob) Stoops, (Lincoln) Riley and (Ryan) Day seem to be the only ones in my lifetime. Riley and Day took over programs that were performing at high level and infrastructure was in great shape.”
Jimbo Fisher, who won a national championship at Florida State (2013), had no head coaching experience prior to FSU but he spent three years running the program (2007-09) with Bobby Bowden more or less the figurehead before taking over.
The Gators were performing at a high level and infrastructure was in great shape for both Zook and Muschamp, but dig a little deeper and the key to understanding why they didn’t succeed becomes evident. It has very little to do with coaching.
Back in the 1970s when Lou Holtz was making a name for himself as the head coach at North Carolina State, he remarked one day that football practice was his sanctuary. Those two or three hours at practice were all about football and his escape from all the non-football things he had to deal with on a daily basis. Things like dealing with disgruntled parents. Things like players who have a problem going to class or making good enough grades to stay eligible. Things like players ready to quit and go home because they broke up with a girlfriend. Things like taking time to field a call from a high dollar booster. And on and on and on.
Stuff is what Meyer calls it.
“As a head coach you have to deal with ‘stuff’ all the time,” he said. “If it is serious ‘stuff’ it takes you away from the day-to-day preparing for a game then obviously it will impact the game. Our best teams [at Florida and Ohio State and at Bowling Green and Utah before that] had very little ‘stuff.’”
You could also file filling out a coaching and support staff as stuff, too. As head coaches prior to coming to Florida, Spurrier and Meyer already had coaches they had worked with and knew exactly what they were looking for when it came to bringing in the kind of staffs that could transition easily to the culture of a high profile SEC program.
This was Muschamp’s first head coaching job and it showed that he had spent his entire career fully engaged in defense. His coaching staffs were always loaded with defensive assistants who went on to be head coaches elsewhere such as Dan Quinn (defensive coordinator 2011-12; now head coach Atlanta Falcons) and D.J. Durkin (defensive coordinator 2013-14; went on to be head coach at Maryland).
Over on the offensive side it was a different story completely. Muschamp’s first offensive coordinator was Charlie Weis and that was a disaster, both from a productivity and personality standpoint. Rumors of clashes between Weis and Muschamp were not unfounded. Weis brought with him as his O-line coach, Frank Verducci, who lasted one disastrous season. Next came Brent Pease and O-line coach Tim Davis. They lasted two years of ultra-conservative play calling and minimal results. Muschamp had four wide receivers coaches in four years.
The combination of Kurt Roper (OC) and Mike Summers (OL) got good but not overwhelming results in 2014, but theirs might be a case of too little too late. Perhaps if Muschamp had those two from the beginning this story might have had a different ending but they never got a chance to implement their ideas for a second year.
Time ran out, however. Could it have been different if Muschamp had been given another year? Perhaps Jeff Driskel would have stayed and performed at the level at UF that he did when he transferred to Louisiana Tech. Driskel is about to begin his sixth year in the NFL. Future NFL QB Will Grier would have been a redshirt freshman. Future NFL running backs Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor would have been back along with future NFL receivers Demarcus Robinson, Brandon Powell and Tevin Westbrook. The defense, Muschamp left behind was NFL caliber. Jim McElwain inherited 18 players who make their living playing defense for money on Sundays.
The what if question will always remain for Will Muschamp, just as it will for Ron Zook. Zook left behind 21 kids who were starters on the Florida team that Urban Meyer won a national championship with in 2006. Muschamp left behind a lot of NFL talent for Jim McElwain. Neither Zook nor Muschamp got the chance to see the talent they assembled win at the high level that would have allowed them to remain on the job. That’s the cruel aspect of being a head football coach, especially in a league like the Southeastern Conference that has produced 10 national champions since 2006.
The only plausible answer to why it didn’t work, particularly for Muschamp since his four-year reign was part of a seven-year stretch in which a formerly championship-level program struggled to find its bearings, goes back to experience. Florida is not and never will be a place for on-the-job training. If you want to know where to begin when figuring out what went wrong for Will Muschamp, that is not only the place to start, but the place to dwell.