Will Muschamp is closing out his fourth season as South Carolina’s head football coach with murmurs from fans and University officials about his future with the Gamecocks. Credit: South Carolina Athletics
By Zach Sweat and Tyler Walters
After a disastrous fourth season as the head football coach of South Carolina, Will Muschamp could be on his way out. It would be his second failed head-coaching stint in the SEC. Everyone from University President Bob Caslen to the team’s rabid fanbase has made comments about Muschamp’s job status.
No one knows what will happen after the final seconds of the Clemson-Carolina game Saturday night.
While Muschamp’s tenure at South Carolina hasn’t been ideal, there might be reason for optimism for Gamecock fans going forward if Muschamp survives. Muschamp has proven a variety of different things throughout his coaching career, everything from phenomenal accomplishments to and disastrous defeats.
But it’s certain that Muschamp’s future will be measured against the past.
Will Muschamp’s beginnings are rooted in the Southeastern Conference. Muschamp played safety at Georgia in the early 1990s, then became a graduate assistant at Auburn. Muschamp made a coaching connection at Auburn that would prove to pay off for him: Jimbo Fisher.
Muschamp left Auburn after earning his graduate degree and got a gig at West Georgia. He stayed there for one year and moved on to Eastern Kentucky as a defensive backs coach. His first taste of real coaching power came at Valdosta State as the defensive coordinator in 2000. Other notable coaches on the 2000 Voldosta State coaching staff? Current Georgia football coach Kirby Smart.
Muschamp was at Voldasta State just one year before he got a shot at a big-time university. His friend from Auburn was now at Louisiana State as an offensive coordinator for Nick Saban. Jimbo Fisher was instrumental in convincing Nick Saban to hire Muschamp.
Muschamp joined LSU as a linebackers coach in 2001. He became the defensive coordinator just one year later. In 2003, the LSU Tigers, powered by its defense, won the BCS National Championship. LSU led the country in scoring and total defense and led the SEC in nearly every defensive category that year.
The Miami Dolphins hired Nick Saban in 2005 as the franchise’s sixth head coach. Nick Saban took Muschamp along for the ride in Miami, but it didn’t last long.
Muschamp left Miami after just one season and went back to Auburn to be the defensive coordinator under Tommy Tuberville. Instant success. Auburn’s defense gave up only 21 touchdowns in 2006. They were ranked in the top 10 in multiple defensive categories that year and the 2007 season was no different.
Muschamp left Auburn for the second time after 2007. Mack Brown hired Muschamp as Texas’ defensive coordinator in 2008. He became the highest paid assistant in the Big 12. What happened near the end of Texas’ 2008 football season would change Will Muschamp’s life and his college football coaching career forever.
On Nov. 18, 2008 Texas named Will Muschamp head-coach-in-waiting at Texas. His yearly salary jumped from $425,000 to $900,000.
Clemson had just fired Tommy Bowden as the head coach of their football team. Muschamp’s name was floated as a potential Bowden successor. Clemson was never able to interview him. The same goes for Auburn who had just fired Tommy Tuberville and for Tennessee who had just fired Phil Fulmer. Had Texas never made the decision to name Muschamp head-coach-in-waiting, it’s anyone’s guess as to what school would have hired him as head coach that year and how different his career would be.
Perhaps the strangest element of the Texas/Muschamp debacle: Mack Brown still had eight years on his contract when Muschamp was named to be his successor.
“For me, it’s not any immediacy. I have eight years on my contract and plan on being here. It’s exciting that Will would wait until the right time to move forward. Not many people would do that. I hope people don’t think it’s a twilight for me. It’s a new beginning for all of us,” Brown said in 2008.
Brown said years later that he made a mistake by suggesting the Texas administration make Muschamp head-coach-in-waiting. He said that the move made it look like he was ready to retire from coaching, but that was not his intention and Muschamp was named head-coach-in-waiting in order to help win more national titles at Texas.
Texas’ plan to keep their defensive genius and head coach for years to come backfired. Just two years after the announcement, Florida hired Muschamp away from Texas as its head coach. Texas had just had its first losing season in the Mack Brown era and Muschamp couldn’t pass up returning to the SEC.
Muschamp was tasked with filling the shoes of two-time national champion Urban Mayer, along with handling the new pressures of being the head coach of a prestigious SEC football school like Florida. After an average first season, ending with a 7-6 record, Muschamp’s 2012 team was stellar. That Gator squad finished the season 11-2. Had the College Football Playoff been implemented in 2012, this team would have been competing for a national championship, as Florida went into the bowl game ranked fourth in the country. Florida lost that Sugar Bowl to Louisville by 10 points.
The next season, the wheels on the Muschamp bus started to fall off. Coming into the 2013 season ranked 10th in the country, the Gators ended the season with a 4-8 record, including seven straight losses to end the season. One of those losses was to FCS school Georgia Southern, who beat the Gators in The Swamp without even completing a pass. It was the first time Florida had ever loss to an FCS school. Mediocrity continued in 2014 for Muschamp’s Gators. Following a heart-wrenching overtime loss to South Carolina, Florida announced he would no longer be head coach at the conclusion of the regular season.
After his failed head coaching stint at Florida, Muschamp went back to his roots, becoming the defensive coordinator at Auburn again for a year. The next year, Muschamp got another crack at a head coaching job.
South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier stepped down as the head coach during the 2015 season, leaving the position open. South Carolina hired Muschamp and, at the time, it seemed like the logical hire to make. Muschamp had coached in the SEC for most of his career, had head coaching experience, and proved that he could lead a team to a high level bowl game in 2012. Other coaching candidates that offseason simply hadn’t proven themselves in the SEC. Muschamp was the only one with SEC head coaching experience.
Once again, Muschamp found himself succeeding another legendary head coach, taking over for Spurrier at South Carolina. After an awful season that saw the Gamecocks end with a 3-9 record, Gamecock fans were willing to give Muschamp some time and mostly agreed they should not expect immediate success. The team Muschamp took over was abysmal, damaged by decommitments and struggled in recruiting because of the record and the sudden retirement of Spurrier. Recruiting is the life blood of college football, and the Gamecocks were at the start of a complete reset.
Considering these negatives, Muschamp actually put together a decent first season. After starting 2-4, Muschamp made a change at quarterback and started third-string true freshman Jake Bentley. The Gamecocks won four of their next five, including a win over No. 18 Tennessee, and finished the season with a 6-7 record. While the record might not be that glamorous, when you consider the previous season and the way this season started, Muschamp was able to turn some heads and surprise a lot of people by doubling South Carolina’s wins in just one year.
The following year, Muschamp did the nearly unthinkable and led the Gamecocks to a 9-4 record, capping off the season with a thrilling win in the Outback Bowl against Michigan. Two of those four losses came against top four teams. In just two years, Muschamp took the Gamecocks from a three-win team to a nine-win team, marking only the seventh time in school history the Gamecocks won nine or more games in a season. The way this season ended made Gamecock fans more optimistic about Muschamp’s future at South Carolina. Given what happened at Florida, however, what followed that season shouldn’t have been a surprise.
The Gamecocks came into the 2018 season with what seemed to be justified optimism. They just came off a nine-win season, they had a lot of returning players at key positions, and they were getting arguably their best player back in Deebo Samuel who missed the last 10 games of the previous season with injury. Their first real test came in week two when the third ranked Georgia Bulldogs came into Columbia. The Bulldogs crushed the Gamecocks, winning 41-17 and the Gamecocks failed to make a statement in a big game. The Gamecocks finished the season at 7-6, but failed to win a “big game,” losing to every ranked opponent they faced. The season ended with a 28-0 loss to Virginia in the Belk Bowl.
Given the way the previous season ended, there were murmurs among Gamecock fans about Muschamp and his assistant coaches, wondering if they could take the Gamecocks to the next level of competing for SEC East Championships. This season, those murmurs turned to outright denunciation.
The Gamecocks currently sit at 4-7 and are staring 4-8 in the face with powerhouse Clemson coming to Columbia for the annual Thanksgiving weekend cross-state showdown. For the first time under Muschamp, the Gamecocks will not go to a bowl game. While they did manage to pull off a monumental upset over Georgia in Athens — a game Gamecock fans will remember for years to come — this win has been trumped by some devastating losses. The Gamecocks opened the season as favorites against North Carolina and blew a 20-9 fourth quarter lead to lose 24-20. North Carolina won just two games last season. Combine this with 20+ point losses to Tennessee and Missouri, two teams South Carolina had beaten three years in a row, and fans have started to lose faith in Will Muschamp.
On the chopping block?
South Carolina may or may not move on from their head coach at the end of the year, and there are a variety of validations on both sides of the argument.
Will Muschamp’s tenure at South Carolina has been a roller coaster. Right now, that roller coaster is at its lowest point and some Gamecock fans have completely lost the belief that Muschamp can be a long-term, successful head coach. Let’s look at some possible reasons for and against his firing.
Historic start at South Carolina
In his first three seasons as the head coach of South Carolina, Muschamp won more games than any other head coach in program history. Yes, that includes Steve Spurrier and Lou Holtz, both of whom had won national championships prior to becoming the head coach of South Carolina. Muschamp’s start is an impressive feat, no matter how you slice it.
Rather than improving on those first three seasons, this fourth year version of Muschamp’s South Carolina team has regressed dramatically. While it should be noted that the Gamecocks 2019 schedule was widely regarded by many national outlets, including ESPN, as the toughest in the country, some of the losses have been inexcusable for a fourth year team. The losses to North Carolina, Missouri, Tennessee, and Appalachian State were a brutal pill for fans to swallow.
Steve Spurrier’s abrupt departure in the middle of the 2016 season made it difficult to revive South Carolina recruiting. Muschamp has always been known as a great recruiter as both a head coach and defensive coordinator and his recruiting classes have shown that. While at Florida, Muschamp had two top-five recruiting classes in the country, according to 247Sports. Every year at South Carolina, Muschamp has finished with a top-25 recruiting class, including their first five-star prospect in Zacch Pickens since Gamecock great Jadeveon Clowney. If Muschamp is fired, you risk these high caliber players decommiting and essentially hit the restart button on the recruiting trail. You’ve got to have to horses to run the race.
However, if those horses aren’t trained properly, they won’t be able to keep up. While Muschamp has landed great recruits and turned some of them into NFL talents, the results as a team haven’t been ideal. If Muschamp is consistently putting together top-25 recruiting classes, it would make sense for his teams to be consistently ranked in the top-25. In his four years at South Carolina, the Gamecocks have spent a total of two weeks ranked in the top-25. They immediately lost both games after being ranked.
One of the biggest criticisms of Muschamp at South Carolina has been his inability to win, and sometimes compete in “big games.” Prior to this year, Muschamp at South Carolina had failed to beat Georgia, Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Clemson. Muschamp was a repulsive 1-12 against ranked teams at South Carolina. This year, even though they did beat a highly ranked Georgia team and Kentucky for the first time in five years, the Gamecocks were blown out by Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. Combine that with continuing to lose to ranked teams and Muschamp’s record against them currently sits at 2-14. Perhaps the record that gets under the skin of Gamecock fans the most is the 0-3 record vs. the Clemson Tigers. If the record against the rival school isn’t bad enough, they’ve been outscored 146-52 in those three games.
Last year, Gamecock fans were quick to excuse some of the late season losses due to the surreal amount of injuries the team had. In all, the Gamecocks had 14 season-ending injuries during the 2018 regular season, and 14 Gamecocks who have starting experience missed at least one game because of injury. By the time the bowl game rolled around, the Gamecocks were starting their third string running back at cornerback. Injuries are uncontrollable, so it’s hard to blame Muschamp for them but easy to blame losses on them.
Again, injuries. While one season full of injuries was just viewed as bad luck, this season has been a lot of the same. Last season, South Carolina players lost at least 116 games to injuries, that’s about 8.9 per game. The number of games lost to injury this year won’t be final until after the Clemson game, but as of right now that number is 7.8 per game, according to ‘The State’. While one season full of injuries is excusable, back-to-back years of it have people wondering if Will Muschamp’s coaching/conditioning can be directly linked with the borderline unbelievable amount of injuries, or if it’s just sheer bad luck.
Arguably the biggest reason you might find Muschamp on the Williams-Brice sidelines again in 2020 is his buyout. If Muschamp is fired before Dec. 31, the university will have to pay him $19.4 million on his way out. While that amount isn’t completely unpayable, the surprising aspect of the buyout is how high it is for a guy who was fired from his previous head coaching job.
Muschamp’s contract buyout is higher than Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente’s ($15 million), Illinois head coach Lovie Smith ($4.6 million) and Missouri head coach Barry Odom ($1 million). All of those coaches were hired the same year Muschamp got his job at South Carolina. Muschamp’s buyout ranks fifth among SEC head coaches, ahead of Florida head coach Dan Mullen ($12 million) and LSU head coach Ed Orgeron ($7.75 million). LSU currently sits at number one in the college football playoff poll, Florida at number 11. Muschamp has beaten Florida just once in his four years at South Carolina.
The Caslen catalyst
Bob Caslen is in his first year as president of the University of South Carolina. He has quickly stirred the pot and become a part of the “Fire Muschamp” saga, along with Athletics Director Ray Tanner. Tanner has openly supported Muschamp and has given him his vote of confidence saying, “I want to make it clear that Will Muschamp is our football coach and will be our coach going forward. President Caslen and I are fully supportive of his leadership and his development of student-athletes on and off the field.” This statement came after the inexplicable loss at home to App. State on Nov. 15.
Caslen then followed Tanner by saying, “Coach Muschamp is my coach. That’s the message. He will be my coach through the end of the season,” and said they will do an end-of-year assessment to further discuss Muschamp’s future. On Nov. 18 Caslen revealed in an interview with the Florence Morning News that Tanner reached out to Florida State about how they handled their former head coach Willie Taggart’s buyout. Taggart was fired earlier this month and had a similar buyout to Muschamp.
Caslen has since come out and said the question was “misinterpreted” by him. He also added, “I misspoke and the mistake was mine, and I apologize for any confusion my comments have created with Gamecock fans or our program.” Caslen capped off his apology by again openly supporting his head coach.
“Our Athletic Director and I support Will Muschamp, and we look forward to him being our coach next year and for seasons to come.”
That comment implies that Muschamp will be back next year. At this point, however, no one knows what is going to happen. Not an ideal situation for the Gamecocks, who have the biggest game of the season this Thanksgiving weekend.
South Carolina host the 122-year-old rivalry game with the defending national champion Clemson Tigers on Nov. 30. A stunning upset might right the ship for Muschamp, but a highly likely blowout loss could mean the end of the Muschamp era in South Carolina.
As of Nov. 26, Will Muschamp’s record at South Carolina is 26-24, a better winning percentage (52 percent) than Lou Holtz (22-25; 47 percent) and not far behind Steve Spurrier (28-22; 56 percent) through their first four years at South Carolina. Credit: South Carolina Athletics
Credit: Valdosta State 2000 Football Program
A young Will Muschamp, then LSU defensive coordinator, helped lead the Tigers to a SEC and a national championship in 2003. Muschamp’s defense held opponents to less than 11 points per game; the next best defense in the country in 2003 held opponents 14.5. Credit: LSU Athletics
In Will Muschamp’s inaugural 2008 season at Texas, his defense ranked 50th in D1 FBS football in yards given up per game. The next year, the Longhorns ranked third and then sixth during his final season at Texas. Credit: Texas Athletics
Will Muschamp, then Florida head coach, greets his mentor Alabama head coach Nick Saban before their 2014 matchup. Alabama won 42-21. Florida fired Muschamp later that year. Credit: Crimson Tide Photos