When No. 24 South Carolina plays No. 3 Georgia on Saturday afternoon, it will be the first time in five years that Will Muschamp leads a ranked team onto the field.
It’s been a long climb back to prominence for a can’t-miss coach who missed.
You have to go back to the middle of 2013, when he was in his third season at Florida, to find the last time Muschamp was in charge of a ranked team. At that point he was 42 years old, and the whole coaching thing had come with the ease of a prodigy. He was promoted to defensive coordinator at age 30 under Nick Saban, earning a national championship ring at LSU in 2003. A few years later he went to work for Mack Brown at Texas, helping take the Longhorns to the 2009 National Championship Game.
Texas was so certain of Muschamp’s future that it made him the coach-in-waiting to Brown. But then Florida pre-empted that succession plan by hiring a guy who grew up in Gainesville to replace Urban Meyer. Imagine, at that age, having two bluebloods wanting you to lead them.
After a year of struggle, Muschamp led the Gators to an 11-2 record his second season. The continued progress to greatness seemed inevitable.
Then on Oct. 19, 2013, the No. 22 Gators went to Missouri favored and came out with a 19-point loss. Muschamp’s promising career arc abruptly turned south.
Florida never won again that season. The Gators finished 4-8, their worst record since 1979. When they started the next season 5-4, athletic director Jeremy Foley fired the guy he’d been confident would continue the two-decade domination of Steve Spurrier and Meyer.
“I thought he was a perfect fit at Florida,” Foley told Yahoo Sports this week. “But sometimes when things start rolling downhill, it’s hard to push it back uphill.”
With his career unexpectedly in a valley, Muschamp had to return to his coordinator roots. He stayed in the Southeastern Conference, joining Gus Malzahn’s staff at Auburn. Then he surprisingly got another shot at an SEC head-coaching job.
It required some classic SEC maneuvering to make it happen.
South Carolina was on the verge of hiring Kirby Smart, Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama. Georgia, Smart’s alma mater, decided it couldn’t let the coach it wanted to get away — so the school trap-doored longtime coach Mark Richt to get Smart.
Super agent Jimmy Sexton, who controls the SEC job market like nobody else, represents Smart. He also represents Muschamp. While apologetically removing Smart from the mix at South Carolina, he pitched Muschamp as a backup plan.
With endorsements from other key people around the league, athletic director Ray Tanner pulled the trigger and prepared for the skepticism. He didn’t have to wait long. A school that had been coached by two men with national championship rings (Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier) was now going with a guy who had lost 13 of his last 23 games at a fellow SEC East school with every built-in advantage?
But sometimes it takes a while to grow into a role — even a role that everyone sees as a natural fit. Sometimes a prodigy’s progress to mature master can be delayed longer than anticipated.
“I kind of equate coaching like playing, the game continues to slow down for you,” Muschamp said this week. “You’re working for Nick Saban for all those years, one of the things he did well was anticipation of issues — staff, recruiting. Ball is ball, that doesn’t change. But all of the other external things you deal with as a head coach, you learn to deal with those a lot better.”
At age 47, it might now be Will Muschamp’s time to shine and South Carolina might be the place to make it happen. The second act of his head-coaching career reaches a critical moment Saturday.
“Having grown up there, Florida was so big,” said Brown, now an ESPN analyst and still a regular confidant of Muschamp’s. “It was huge in his mind, and he was following a guy who won two national championships. You could go to South Carolina and feel much more comfortable, without all the stuff that went with Florida. And I think having the one year at Auburn, to think about things you’d do differently, helped as well.”
After a 6-7 debut season that was basically a from-scratch rebuild, South Carolina went 9-4 last year and beat Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Recruiting has gone well. And now amid great expectations, the Gamecocks welcome Georgia to town with hopes of radically altering the hierarchy of the SEC East.
Brown counseled Muschamp to hire a staff he wanted and was comfortable with, regardless of what those on the outside had to say. Among his hires was running backs coach Bobby Bentley, who had been an analyst on Auburn’s staff with Muschamp — and a guy whose son, Jake, happened to be a promising high school quarterback.
Jake Bentley enrolled at South Carolina a year early. In what should have been his senior year of high school, he wound up starting much of the season for the Gamecocks and learning a lot of hard lessons. Last year, as a wizened sophomore, he was fourth in the SEC in passing yards per game and tied for third in touchdown passes. This year, with an excellent receiving corps, stardom could be in the making.
“The only thing Will didn’t have at Florida was quarterback play,” Brown said. “The quarterback he has now gives him that, and gives him the opportunity to get started at South Carolina the right way.”
Among those who will be rooting for Muschamp’s Gamecocks on Saturday is Foley, the man who fired him in 2014. Foley was always fond of Muschamp and hated getting rid of him. Truth be told, keeping him might have been the better play than hiring Jim McElwain, who himself was fired late last season.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Foley said. “As things turned out, maybe I’d do things differently. If he’d stayed two or three more years, maybe he gets his feet under him a little more. But that 4-8 season really shortened the rope.
“Maybe Will is a better fit at South Carolina than at Florida. I do think he’s grown from that experience at Florida. I think he’s gotten better on the sidelines, and that is maturity. He is a fiery somebuck, but I think he handles some in-game situations better.
“We are rooting like hell for Will. There’s no better guy.”
The Georgia game Saturday is the kind of high-wattage affair Muschamp figured to be coaching in every month, not every five years. But it’s not too late to begin that phase of a career. Sometimes even prodigies are delayed arriving.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Missouri college takes action over Kaepernick ad
• Rockies slugger hits historic home run on big night
• Jeff Passan: Why surgery may not be so devastating for Ohtani
• Henry Bushnell: How winning the Super Bowl changed Philly