David Cloninger

Florida tenure doesn’t sum up Muschamp’s coaching ability

The first game of a long judging process begins Thursday.

Note, that’s begins Thursday, not began on Dec. 7.

Will Muschamp was introduced as South Carolina’s football coach on Dec. 7, and the initial reactions were mostly unpleasant. Many wondered why the Gamecocks, with a head start on nearly every school in hiring a new coach, settled on a guy whose only other stint as a head coach ended when he lost to the Gamecocks.

That’s in the past. Muschamp’s future begins Thursday. It’s a blank slate, and this season Muschamp is playing with house money – lose, and it’s expected because he inherited nothing.

Win, and he’s a great coach.

Seriously. If Muschamp takes this group to a bowl game, it’s a tremendous accomplishment. As much energy, enthusiasm and recruiting prowess that he’s displayed in the last eight months, he was still taking over a 3-9 team that lost its two best players. To take this bedraggled group to a bowl would be nearly miraculous.

Some may pooh-pooh getting to a bowl, but at USC it should never be taken for granted. The Gamecocks went to 11 bowl games in their history before Steve Spurrier arrived. He got them to nine in 10 years. While it was thrilling to watch him transform USC to the penthouse of 11 wins in three consecutive seasons, his end dropped the program back to the first-floor flat it’s rented for most of the last century.

That can only help Muschamp. He’s coming in with not-great expectations. At Florida, expectations from the previous (national championship-winning) regimes were what laid the groundwork for his short tenure.

This isn’t saying Muschamp didn’t make mistakes at Florida. He did. Trying to play ground-and-pound with a program known for high-flying aerial offense ignored the athletes in his home recruiting base and severely bent the fans’ beaks. A revolving door of offensive coordinators who had their own tweaks to the system was the classic square peg-meets-round hole whack-a-mole game.

Yet, Muschamp won. He was 28-21 at Florida, 17-15 in the SEC. He obviously didn’t win enough for Florida coming off Urban Meyer, but he won. I honestly think if not for one bad loss, he’d still be there.

In 2013, Muschamp was coming off an 11-win season and had cleaned out the grime of the Meyer era. The Gators started 4-1 before the wheels came off in situations Muschamp had nothing to do with.

Florida had 15 players, including 10 starters, suffer season-ending injuries that year, including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel. Even the Gator faithful – especially coming off an 11-win season – had to see there was no coaching strategy that could have changed that. It was horrible luck, that’s all.

Then came Georgia Southern. The Gators lost 26-20 to an FCS team that didn’t complete a pass in the game. No matter the injuries, no matter the legitimate reasons why Florida wasn’t at its best, it can’t lose to Georgia Southern.

That started the clock ticking, and as Muschamp’s offense continued to sputter into the next year, not even a long-awaited win over Georgia could save him. When the Gators’ special teams helped gift-wrap a game USC had no business winning, that was it.

Driskel and Company weren’t injured, that GSU game isn’t a loss, perhaps the offense is much better … shoulda, woulda, coulda. What happened happened, and there’s no changing it.

But judging Muschamp by his Florida tenure, especially before he’s coached at USC, isn’t nearly on the same scale. He’s not coming into a historically great program that’s made its reputation by being innovative on one side of the ball. He’s like a lot of head coaches that didn’t do so well in their first jobs.

His second chance will be defined much later than Thursday, considering the talent on his first team. Thursday is just the start.

Save the judgments for the end.

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