The dream of being a Gator didn’t seem all that complicated when Will Muschamp was a kid in Gainesville growing up over on Northwest 22nd Street, just a half mile from what was then known as Florida Field. But, like most dreams that go from the fertile imagination to reality, there were enough subplots to fill a three-act Broadway play. Muschamp dreamed of one day playing for the Gators but instead ended up playing football at Georgia, earning a master’s degree while serving as a graduate assistant under Terry Bowden at Auburn, coaching for Nick Saban at LSU and for Tommy Tuberville at Auburn and somewhere along the way co-owning a beach house with Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.
“I suffered some temporary insanity for awhile,” is how Muschamp described his full circle adventure that has also taken him from such football outposts as West Georgia, where he made $17,000 a year and was in charge of washing practice uniforms as well as coaching; Eastern Kentucky, where he learned from a not so well known master of the coaching craft, Roy Kidd, who won more than 300 games in his career; and Valdosta State, where at 29 he was two years older than the head coach and four years older than his boss, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
That isn’t exactly the way Muschamp dreamed it back in the days when his number one goal in life was trying to stop older brothers Mike and Pat from wearing him out in backyard football games. He was Tony Lilly, Florida’s headhunter of a safety who had a habit of separating receivers from the football and their senses. Older brother Mike, who went on to play quarterback at Duke, was Wayne Peace and his target was Pat, who went on to play offensive line at West Point but in those days was doing his best Tyrone Young impersonation.
Most of the time, Wayne Peace to Tyrone Young got the best of the would be Tony Lilly.
“We regularly beat the snot out of him, but he always came back for more,” said Mike, now the head football coach at The Lovett School in Atlanta. Mike wasn’t just talking about scoring touchdowns. He was talking about physically beating up on his little brother. “He just wouldn’t give up.”
Muschamp didn’t give up when he broke his leg his senior year at The Darlington School in Rome, Georgia, where the family had moved after Will completed his eighth grade year at Oak Hall School in Gainesville. The scholarship offers all but dried up but his hopes of fulfilling the dream of being a Gator were given life when he was invited to visit the Florida coaching staff.
“When Coach (Steve) Spurrier was the coach here, they told us to come down for the unofficial visit and so we came down here,” Muschamp said. “We waited for an awful long time in the football office and nobody showed up. “He (Spurrier) was two-under at the turn [on the golf course] so I guess we didn’t get a chance to see him.”
Disappointed, he turned his attention to the University of Georgia, pointing out that even though the Bulldogs were the sworn enemy of his beloved Gators, it was the practical thing to do when comparing in-state vs. out-of-state tuition.
“I was a walk-on and it’s a little cheaper to go to Georgia than it is at Florida,” Muschamp said.
It turned out to be more than a move of convenience. In short order he caught the attention of Coach Ray Goff, was awarded a scholarship and played safety from 1991-94. As a senior, he was the defensive co-captain.
Although it wasn’t Florida, it was football and it was a good four years except for one slight detail. He never got a chance to exact revenge on Spurrier because the Gators won all four years.
“It worked out that I went to Georgia and had a decent career,” Muschamp said. “I was not a great player but was a typical overachiever that wasn’t very successful against the Gators. I helped (Chris) Doering and all those guys set records.”
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After graduation from Georgia, Muschamp worked on Terry Bowden’s staff as a defensive graduate assistant working under Brother Bill Oliver. That led him to gigs at West Georgia and Eastern Kentucky before he joined Chris Hatcher’s staff at Valdosta State. Hatcher was 27. The defensive coordinator was 25-year-old Kirby Smart, now Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama.
After one year on the job at Valdosta State, Muschamp caught on with Nick Saban at LSU. It took one year for Muschamp to rise from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator. It was also at LSU where Muschamp hooked up again with Jimbo Fisher, whom he first met while serving as a graduate assistant at Auburn. Fisher, who is now Florida State’s head coach, was LSU’s offensive coordinator.
From LSU, Muschamp went with Saban to the Miami Dolphins for a year, then went his own way, working as Tuberville’s defensive coordinator in 2006-07 where he was 2-0 against Urban Meyer and the Gators, and then on to Texas, where he became Mack Brown’s defensive coordinator and head coach in waiting for three years.
He would still be with Brown except that Jeremy Foley called him up last Wednesday and opened the door for a dream that began more than 20 years ago to finally come true. By Saturday night, Foley and Muschamp were in agreement and Muschamp was finally the Gator he always dreamed he would be.
Muschamp arrives at Florida living proof that dreams finally do come true even when the route is circuitous. Standing there at the podium Tuesday evening at his first press conference as the head man at Florida, Muschamp was confident that he is the right man for the job. He knows the bar has been set high by Steve Spurrier, who won the national championship and six SEC championships from 1990-2002 and by Urban Meyer, who won two national championships in the six year span from 2005-10.
Muschamp seems unfazed by the high expectations.
“I know that the Gator Nation is going to have high expectations and I am too,” Muschamp said. “I expect to win. We’re not on a five-year plan here.”
Muschamp has a plan to win, but he hasn’t quite figured out what to do about that beach house that he co-owns with Fisher, his best friend and now Florida’s mortal enemy.
“We haven’t negotiated what’s going to happen with that yet,” Muschamp said with a grin.
Figuring out what to do about the beach house will have to wait for another time. For now, Will Muschamp is too busy living out a dream that took more than 20 years to come true. He’s a Gator now. That’s what he always wanted to be.