Posted: 3:12 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, 2013
By Andy Hutchins
Florida filled the Bryant Young-sized hole on its coaching staff on Wednesday with the hiring of UTEP defensive coordinator Jeff Choate as its special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach, as we mentioned in Chomping at Bits. And, more than ever, it looks like Will Muschamp is trying to make Florida great again with a hybrid of three models that have been extremely successful in the last decade of college football.
The first model is the one Muschamp knows best, because it's Nick Saban's, and he is Nick Saban's student through and through, maybe more than anyone else.
Saban's model is about serving as a hands-on head coach and hiring mostly smart, young assistant coaches that work in concert with him to coach because they communicate better with players and recruits and strive for better jobs in the future. Saban has been in a great position to do that for about a decade now: He had the valuable Saban bloodline, put in his dues at Michigan State and proved himself a worthy teacher and boss.
He's done well with it, too: Saban plucked Muschamp from Valdosta State in 2001, his second year at LSU, and Muschamp and Jimbo Fisher (who Saban hired from Cincinnati before the 2000 season) were the defensive and offensive coordinators at LSU in 2003, when the Tigers won their first national title in 45 years; Jim McElwain, Alabama's offensive coordinator from 2008 to 2011, is now the head coach at Colorado State; Kirby Smart, Saban's defensive coordinator, is a perennial head coaching candidate; Doug Nussmeier, 'Bama's current OC, will be. And for coaches like strength coach Scott Cochran who have ceilings, Alabama can make that ceiling look like the Sistine Chapel.
Muschamp hasn't proved himself to the same degree, but has a luxury that Saban didn't at LSU: Florida, even when it is down, as in 2011, is a much better opportunity for a rising coach than post-Gerry DiNardo LSU was. Florida coaches tend to either succeed and stay (Charlie Strong), leave and get better jobs (Dan Mullen, Dan McCarney, Greg Mattison), or get fired and still get second chances (Ron Zook), and the connections made while working at Florida, to the coaching staff, Jeremy Foley, and the incredibly important web of Florida high school coaches, are immensely valuable.
For someone like D.J. Durkin, who joined Urban Meyer's staff despite being part of Jim Harbaugh's staff at Stanford, being in Florida and being able to recruit the South is about as good a training grounds for a college head coaching job as there could be; for Dan Quinn, who was always ticketed for the NFL, being able to prove himself at a big job (with great personnel) was a great opportunity; for Jeff Dillman, Florida's strength program is a kingdom.
Muschamp can dangle the keys to a storehouse of riches to any number of young coaches and reasonably expect that no one is off limits. The latter is how you get Charlie Weis to leave an NFL job for the same position at a college, even if the move doesn't work out; the former is why Brent Pease and Quinn end up working for a first-time head coach who is younger than them.
But Muschamp isn't just Florida's Saban: He's Florida's Chris Petersen and its Jim Harbaugh, too.
Petersen is, I think, the preeminent program builder in college football, even better than Saban, and he's done it at Boise State by being the smartest guy on the staff and wisely choosing his best fit (staying) over the gaudiest possible job (any he wants). Working for Petersen means learning things, especially for offensive coaches; Boise State's rep for offense is also powerful, as Boise State's offensive stewards have moved on to head coaching jobs or premier OC positions for a solid 15 years now.
But Petersen can't rely on prestige like Alabama or Florida can when it comes to keeping collegiate-minded coaches, and so he has to keep candidate lists and develop coaches because of that upward mobility; that's how he had Pease on staff to promote when Bryan Harsin bolted for Texas, and how he had Pete Kwiatkowski ready for the defensive coordinator position when Justin Wilcox ended up at Tennessee. Petersen's gone undefeated twice, leading steered Boise State to BCS bowl wins in both years, and the Broncos have been a 10-win team in each of his seven years, so I would say that's working out for him.
If Muschamp, who seems well-situated at Florida, didn't tip his hand on liking Petersen's strategy by hiring Pease, allowing Pease to promote graduate assistant Bush Hamdan to interim wide receivers coach and hiring Choate, Petersen's special teams coordinator from 2006 to 2011, was probably a good tip.
But if Petersen's the single most impressive program builder in college football, that's only because Harbaugh is in the NFL, orchestrating a Bay Area renaissance on the professional level. Saban resurrected Alabama, but Alabama's Alabama; Petersen has kept Boise State humming at a .900+ winning percentage, but Dan Hawkins had a .800+ winning percentage there. Harbaugh inherited a team that was 1-11 and made it 12-1 in four years.
Some of Harbaugh's genius was in identifying and developing Andrew Luck, the player who turned the tides at Stanford more than any other. Yet doing that — tabbing Luck as the man in the 2008 recruiting class when Californian Dayne Crist was most analysts' top-rated pocket passer, and getting him out to Stanford from Texas — is impressive. And Harbaugh wouldn't have been able to do that without putting together the formidable coaching and recruiting staff he did, one that has barely missed a beat under David Shaw and has already sent another coach, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, to the NFL. (Fun fact: Ron Turner was hired as Stanford's offensive coordinator in 2010, possibly pairing with Shaw, but left for an NFL position, which opened the space for Hamilton.)
Harbaugh remade Stanford as a strong, tough team, one that pounded the ball with Toby Gerhart and Stepfan Taylor about as well as Luck threw it and built a dominant defense, one that has given up more than 30 points just five times in the last three years despite playing in the Pac-12. (A second fun fact: Oregon had scored 105 points on Stanford in 2010 and 2011, but managed 14 against the Cardinal in 2012.) He was the figurehead for everything at Stanford, making sure to take on the lion's share of the responsibilities and let his coaches coach as freely as possible. He handed Shaw a blueprint and a program, and Stanford is poised to be no worse than a perennial Pac-12 contender for years as a result.
Will Muschamp hired Jon Haskins, Stanford's director of player development, as his director of player personnel in January 2012. And Durkin, the "rising star" of Harbaugh's staff at Stanford, has become Muschamp's defensive lieutenant after being an Urban Meyer hire left to deal with special teams.
Currently, four of Muschamp's assistants — Pease, Choate, Durkin, and Haskins — have worked for either Petersen at Boise State or Harbaugh at Stanford. Dillman and defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson previously worked with Muschamp at LSU and Auburn, respectively. Muschamp knows what coaching trees bear fruit, and he's doing his fair share of plucking from them, triangulating Saban, Petersen, and Harbaugh.
And despite how much he's obviously gleaned from observing the rest of the college football landscape, Muschamp's most promising trait, to my mind, is his ability to learn from himself.
He's made mistakes on hires, but his second chances show circumspection about them: Now, he can tell apples from oranges, which is likely part of why Tim Davis and Brad Lawing are his offensive and defensive line coaches, not Frank Verducci and Bryant Young, certainly why Pease, and not a Weis-style coach, is his offensive coordinator, and why the well-liked, clean-cut Joker Phillips is in the position that Aubrey Hill used to hold. (I suspect it's also why Pease was allowed to empty the kitchen sink for all of 2012 as Florida wrung just enough out of its offense to win 11 games: Muschamp knew Pease's offense generally wasn't going to hurt Florida unnecessarily, something that Weis' offense did with regularity.)
Muschamp's staff right now is a very, very good one, likely the best at Florida since the 2005 staff that had five future FBS head coaches helping Meyer. And that staff struggled mightily for eight wins in 2005 before helping Florida to two national titles.
One can argue that the ingredients in the cupboard in 2005 were better than those that exist in 2013, but I don't think it can be honestly argued that the coaches aren't more seasoned. They may take some time to pull in their best harvests, but I'm confident that the fruits of their labor will be sweet indeed.