GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had pretty good success with a coach whose only knowledge about the SEC came from what he saw on television.
Urban Meyer won two national championships and fell one game shy of playing for a third, but when Meyer resigned after the 2011 season Foley wanted to make sure his next coach didn’t need a season to figure out what it takes to be successful in the best conference in the country.
That’s why he targeted Will Muschamp. Texas’ defensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting played in the SEC, was an assistant coach for seven years at two league schools, and helped LSU win the 2003 national title as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator.
“I think the fact that he’s been on this stage and been in this league is huge,” Foley said after Muschamp’s introductory news conference. “I just know walking into Tuscaloosa, walking into Tiger Stadium, walking into those places is different. It’s different than a lot of places around the country. Obviously he’s has great success in it.”
Muschamp is a throwback to old-school SEC football, and not just because he believes in winning with a power running game and stingy defense. His career mimics the same path that most SEC head coaches took 30, 40 and 50 years ago: Play in the SEC, become an assistant coach in the league, and then get hired to lead a program.
Johnny Majors, Bear Bryant, Bobby Dodd, Pat Dye and Vince Dooley did it. More recently, it was Phil Fulmer, Houston Nutt and Steve Spurrier. However, only three of the league’s current 14 coaches have done it: Muschamp, Spurrier and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.
For Muschamp, the experience as an assistant -- four years at LSU as a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator (2001-04) and two years at Auburn as a defensive coordinator (2006-07) has been more valuable than his four-year career as a defensive back at Georgia from 1991-94.
“I don’t think that playing [in the SEC] has any effect on helping you in your experience as an assistant or head coach,” Muschamp said. “I don’t think that carries over at all. Being an assistant coach and defensive coordinator in this league and understanding the venues you walk into and, more than anything else, understanding how competitive the recruiting cycle is, has helped. You understand how competitive our league is and the Southeast area is [in recruiting].
“There’s no question my time as an assistant in this league has helped me.”
Especially in recruiting. When Muschamp was hired at Florida, the league won its fifth of what are now seven national championships in a row. His three recruiting classes have ranked 12th, fourth and second in ESPN’s class rankings -- which isn’t shocking considering the wealth of talent in the state of Florida and the obvious advantages the university can offer.
But recruiting in the SEC is more difficult than in other leagues. Just ask Big Ten coaches, who were upset at some of the tactics that Meyer used while assembling OSU’s 2012 class -- specifically, recruiting players who were committed to other league schools. What apparently violated an unwritten rule in the Big Ten was standard operating procedure in the SEC.
With so many evenly matched programs, the relationships coaches build with prospects can make all the difference.
“It’s the competition. It’s 365 days, every day, and that’s where recruiting in our world is a little different than other parts of the world,” Muschamp said. “In our league the facilities are very similar. There’s really good coaching staffs across the board. There’s a lot of really good players in our area, but again, the stadiums are very similar, the facilities, the weight rooms, the meeting rooms. ... Other conferences, I don’t know that everyone’s on as equal footing as in our league.”
Muschamp conceded that the one area in which being a former SEC player helped him is dealing with road environments. Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tiger Stadium and Jordan-Hare Stadium can be intimidating places for those unfamiliar with the SEC, but having experienced those places as a player eliminates the “wow” factor.
That was a problem for Meyer during his first season at Florida. The Gators played at Alabama and LSU in 2005, and Meyer admitted to being a bit shell-shocked when he walked out onto the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium, heard the crowd, and saw the giant scoreboard video of Bryant. No place Meyer had been -- not even playing at Michigan, USC or Texas while an assistant at Notre Dame or Ohio State -- prepared him for that.
Muschamp understands that. He coached games at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M and in Dallas for the Red River Rivalry while at Texas, but nothing quite reaches the level of an SEC road game.
“Not that it’s not intense in other places, but it’s just a different feel [in the SEC],” Muschamp said. “The venues you walk into and understanding about crowd noise and things you’re going to deal with: taking a young team on the road, taking a young quarterback on the road. There’s no question our league is totally different as far as that’s concerned.”
Having previous SEC experience before becoming a head coach in the league allowed Muschamp to focus on fixing a program that had gotten lost in Meyer’s final season. That was a tough task, but it was made simpler by the fact that he didn’t have to learn about the league as he went along.
“Having been through this league, you’re going to be about ready for anything,” he said.