Larry Muschamp was sitting in his Rome, Ga., home on a leisurely Saturday afternoon in December when his phone rang unexpectedly. It was Will, the youngest of his three sons. "I picked it up and Will said 'Dad, do you know you're talking to the new head coach at Florida?' " Larry Muschamp recalled. "I can't tell you what I said at first. Then I said, 'Come on, Will.' He said, 'No, really, I just took the job.' I said, 'Hold on, it's going to take me a minute to get everything together in my mind.' " Muschamp was supposed to be the heir to the Texas throne. The third-year defensive coordinator was the head-coach-in-waiting to Mack Brown and all expectations — including that of Larry Muschamp — were that Will's first head coaching job would be at Texas.
But Will explained that Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had flown to Austin, Texas, interviewed him, then offered the job.
"He said, 'I'm going to be at Florida,' " Larry Muschamp said. "I was absolutely stunned."
Muschamp's path has gone through six states with stops at some of the most powerful programs in America, including Auburn and LSU. He has worked with some of the best coaches in the game. His ultimate goal was to be a head coach by age 40, which he turned on Wednesday.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that he's a head coach; I always knew he would be," said John Clifford, a former Gator safety who was Muschamp's coach at Oak Hall School in Gainesville. "Even in eighth grade he was like having another coach on the field. It was almost as if he was groomed to be a coach. And I have no doubt he's going to be a great one for Florida."
Muschamp's love of the game stems from growing up within a stone's throw of Florida Field, an avid Gator fan who walked to Florida games from his home at 1122 NW 22nd St. His family's season tickets were in the north end zone. But his understanding and respect comes from Larry, a former school headmaster and longtime football coach. The toughness that coaches and former players constantly refer to was earned in backyard battles with two older brothers.
"We had a lot of good football games (at that home)," Muschamp said.
On fall weekends in Gainesville he learned to enjoy the game not only as a fan but as a future coach.
"Every Saturday and Sunday, we would sit and watch the games and talk about why they did this and why they did that, why this didn't work and why that did work," Larry said. "He's just always been enamored with football."
Muschamp made the Oak Hall varsity football team as an eighth-grader and was an instant success. In his first game against Bronson, he had 121 rushing yards, three interceptions and threw a pass to set up the winning field goal with no time left, Clifford recalled.
"He was an unbelievable player, his toughness and just the way he went at it and wouldn't back down," Clifford said. "My biggest regret is that I didn't get to coach him but one year."
Chance and fate
At the end of Muschamp's eighth-grade year, Larry took a job in Rome, Ga. Yet Muschamp's heart still belonged to the Gators. He longed to be recruited by Florida. But as a junior at the Darlington School in Rome, Muschamp, who also played baseball and basketball, sustained a severe injury — a compound fracture that left "both bones sticking out of his leg." The injury and Florida's program woes ultimately ruined any chances he had at being recruited by UF. Hank Rone, a Gator punter from 1986-89 who played in high school with Muschamp's brothers, remembers many conversations with Will about wanting to be a Gator.
"My senior year in '89 after the Florida State game, I can remember I was in the locker room and he was there," Rone said. "That's when he had just come off that bad injury. We had no head coach, Gary Darnell was the interim, and he was thinking even then that he was going to have to walk on. Nobody knew who the coach was going to be. He was a Gator at heart. If he had had the opportunity to come to Florida, he would have. But in the end, I think it worked out better for him."
Muschamp decided to walk on at Georgia, but a few days into preseason practice he broke his collarbone. Forced to sit out a year and redshirt, he watched games and studied film, which turned out to be invaluable. He eventually earned a scholarship at safety and became a captain.
His first coaching job was as a defensive graduate assistant at Auburn under coach Terry Bowden in 1995. There he met current Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who eventually played a pivotal role in Muschamp's career. The two remain close friends today — even sharing ownership of a vacation beach home.
"He's a great coach, good competitor, all those things," Fisher said. "You know you've got your hands full. … But just because you know a guy, to me, that doesn't bother me as far as things from that standpoint. I'm happy for him and his family. It's a great opportunity for him."
Muschamp spent two seasons at Auburn, then had stints at West Georgia, Eastern Kentucky and Valdosta State. In 2000, while in Atlanta visiting in-laws, Muschamp contacted Fisher, then an LSU assistant, about coming to the Georgia Dome to watch practice. He was introduced to then-LSU coach Nick Saban.
"I went, watched practice and sat on the side during a walk-through," Muschamp said. "I talked with Nick for about 20 minutes, and we kind of hit it off."
One month later, LSU needed a secondary coach and Fisher and assistant Rick Trickett recommended Muschamp. Much like the Florida job, he was hired in about 48 hours. He credits Saban, now Alabama's coach, with helping him become who he is today.
"I certainly wouldn't be in the shoes I'm in now if not for the opportunity he gave me at LSU, so I'm appreciative of that," Muschamp said. "Philosophically we believe a lot of the same things about running a football team and an organization and how you do it. … Having discipline within the program with the players, having accountability, responsibility. There are a lot of similarities I had a great working relationship with Nick. He's very smart, detail-oriented, very organized in what he wants to do and the vision he sees for his program."
Saban said Muschamp is among the best assistants who have come under his tutelage.
"Will is always one of my favorites," Saban said. "He's a hard worker, he's got great principles and values, and philosophically as a football coach he's a really hard worker. He's very enthusiastic, has a leadership quality about him that really affects people in a positive way, especially players. I think he'll do a really good job. He's done a really good job everywhere he's been."
Muschamp joined Brown's staff at Texas in 2008 after two seasons as Auburn's defensive coordinator and secondary coach. It was at Texas that he made such a strong impression that he was named the coach-in-waiting. After so many moves over the course of his career, Muschamp said he would be the coach at Texas until they fired him.
He meant it, his father said. Until Florida came along.
"It's a dream come true for him," Larry Muschamp said.
Leading by example
"Get ready, we're going to get this thing right again," Muschamp told Florida senior quarterback John Brantley in his inaugural meeting with the team in January.
And then, like the detailed task-master he's known as, he set a plan. He gave his staff notebooks with his strategy for the first 100 days. He began letting players know what he would do — and most of all what he expected of them in return.
"You could tell he was a guy who was going to demand respect, but at the same time he gave us respect right away," defensive end William Green said. "He was very professional. The whole staff has brought a professional attitude, and you can see it has carried over to all of the players. It's much more business-like."
Muschamp's recognition of every player on the team — including walk-ons and non-star players, has endeared him to the team.
"He's a real personable guy," Brantley said. "I always see him walking into the training room after one of his workouts saying hey to anybody. Even if they are not on the team, he'll act like they are on the team. He's just a real nice guy. Real personable. And I think that's still some of the position coach in him. He's just a great coach to play for. I'm proud to say that he's our coach."
It is, Muschamp said, what makes him who he is as a coach.
"I think the strength of me as a coach is relating with people," he said. "It really doesn't matter whether you have head coaching experience or not. When it all boils down to it, it's about relating with people. Every kid has got a key, and it's your job as a coach, whether you're the head coach or a position coach or coordinator, to find that key."
Since he took over in January, UF has the No. 4 recruiting class for 2012, a testament to his reputation as a top-notch recruiter. Five players have transferred since his arrival and All-SEC cornerback Janoris Jenkins was dismissed after his third run-in with the law. It comes with the territory, Muschamp said.
"When you're in the business of education and you're educating young people, you're constantly having a mental conditioning stage for making good choices and decisions," Muschamp said. "And regardless of what you do and sometimes the type of people they're around, sometimes they make poor choices and decisions. That's part of the educational process as well. That's the job we're in. We wear a lot of hats as a football coach. It's not just what we do on Saturday afternoon."
Florida opened fall camp Saturday, and Muschamp admits he has briefly thought about what it will be like to run out of the tunnel as the Gators' head coach for the first time on Sept. 3. But with so much uncertainty at key positions, just getting his team ready consumes him most.
"I know he'll be successful at Florida because he'll work harder than anybody there," his father said. "And they'll all see that, they'll all know that. And they'll be better because he's there. That's just part of his persona."
Antonya English can be reached at English@sptimes.com. Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.