It would be nice to forget the Star Wars references and the other minutiae surrounding Saturday evening’s showdown between the No. 12 Florida Gators and No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide in Gainesville, FL, but the truth is that it is just the second of three games during the 2011 season in which Gators head coach Will Muschamp’s relationship with his former co-workers becomes a hot topic of conversation.
At least this story does not involve a beach house.
A linebackers coach and eventual defensive coordinator under now-Alabama head coach Nick Saban for four years at LSU and one with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, Muschamp undoubtedly learned quite a bit from the two-time national champion who is considered to be one of the nation’s top college football minds.
Muschamp recounted Monday that, more than anything else, the mutual respect Saban shared with his staff is why people are so loyal to him to this day.
“Nick never asked me to do anything as an assistant coach he didn’t do as a head coach from a work standpoint as far as film preparation, from a recruiting standpoint as far as evaluation and going out and recruiting,” he said. “He’s a guy who works extremely hard. He’s got a great work ethic in what he does.”
Even though he is compared to his former boss on what seems like a daily basis, Muschamp explained that they are not and should not be considered the same coach.
“I wouldn’t just say you could point one thing and say it’s this [is what I learned from Saban]. I think there’s a lot of things,” he said. “Program management. Philosophically knowing who you want to be. Offense, defense, special teams. Identifying in the recruiting process what kind of player you’re recruiting from a critical factor standpoint – not just from what the speed and the height and the weight. All the intangible qualities. From a total program management [standpoint], [I’ve learned] a lot.“
It all started back in December 2000 when Muschamp visited good friend Jimbo Fisher, a quarterbacks coach and eventual offensive coordinator under Saban at LSU, as his team was preparing for the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, GA. Muschamp and Saban hit it off and parted ways 20 minutes later. Little did the young coach know he would receive a phone call that offseason from Saban to come in for an interview.
That meeting that led to a job offer and a five-year working relationship.
“I wouldn’t be probably standing here today if it wasn’t for the opportunity he gave me at LSU to be a position coach and then naming me the coordinator,” Muschamp said.
Saban looked back Monday on the characteristics that made Muschamp stand out then and continue to make him a successful coach to this day.
“Will is a good coach because he’s a great teacher,” Saban said. “He is a really hard worker. He’s got about as much passion and enthusiasm as anyone that you’re ever going to be around, and he relates well with the players. The players sort of feed off his passion and enthusiasm, in terms of the way he coaches and what he does. He believes in the fundamental of discipline and hard work, commitment, those types of things that are sort of fundamental to being successful. He’s always done a great job.”
Though the two have “a really good relationship,” according to Saban, they have not spoken this season as each is too busy for pleasantries. That will change on Saturday when the former co-workers see each other before and after the game.
Saban did not go into too much detail about his thoughts on Florida’s team during his press conference on Monday, mostly commenting about the speed of running backs redshirt senior Chris Rainey and senior Jeff Demps as well as the improvement of redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley.
Muschamp, on the other hand, was thorough in his depiction of Alabama.
“When you turn the film on, you see a physically tough football team that plays with fundamentals. That’s what [Saban] is and that’s what he preaches everyday and it certainly carries over on film as far as who they are and what they are,” he said.
“Offensively, Jim McElwain – their coordinator – is a guy I have a lot of respect for. He’s not a guy that’s concerned about stats. He’s concerned about winning football games. They do a good job of running the football and the play actions off of that. Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy are two outstanding backs. A.J. McCarron is very efficient with only two interceptions so far this season – managed their football team well in what they’ve asked him to do. Marquis Maze is a young man who you’ve got to always account for him. He’s played there a long time. He’s been a four-year starter for them and in the return game has done a nice job for them. And their offensive line does a really good job in the run game, getting a hat on a hat.
“Defensively, Kirby Smart’s a guy that I think does a great job and they’ve got a bunch of guys that have played a lot of football. You look at [Mark] Barron and [Dont’a] Hightower, [Dre] Kirkpatrick, [Courtney] Upshaw, all those guys played two years ago there in Pasadena. They were starters then. They do a nice job defensively. Playing on the line of scrimmage they’re very well tied together as far as their unit is concerned.”
Luckily for both coaches, their relationship will not factor into the result of the game. That will be decided on Florida Field when the Gators and Crimson Tide meet at 8 p.m. on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The game will air live on CBS.
“I know there will be a lot of [wondering] if there is an advantage. There is no advantage. He knows me as well as I know him. There is no advantage in this game,” Muschamp said matter-of-factly. “Thank goodness for the 90,000 people in The Swamp and for the millions watching. He or I will not take a snap Saturday night, so that’s the very positive thing.”
Photo Credit: Icon SMI