Energetic Muschamp faces ex-teacher
AUSTIN, Texas -- It's a simple fact of coaching methodology. Some people just can't breathe inside Nick Saban's micromanaged bubble.
Others relish the tutelage of college football's petulant perfectionist, who -- like him or hate him for his tact or lack thereof; agree or disagree with his tactics -- has irrefutably revived a sense of identity and purpose for Alabama Crimson Tide devotees.
Call it a personality thing.
Former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite, while claiming no ill will toward his meticulously coiffed former boss, lasted one suffocating season as Alabama's offensive coordinator. Applewhite returned to the more comforting confines of his alma mater, serving as running backs coach under the gentler direction of his old coach, Mack Brown.
Then there's the other side of the Saban coaching tree and the blazing success story of rambunctious Longhorns defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. After winning the 2003 BCS national championship with Saban at LSU, and then following Saban to the Miami Dolphins as the fiery, wunderkind defensive coordinator, Muschamp, just 38, is regarded as one of the brightest defensive minds in the land.
So impressive were Muschamp and his assertive defense in his first season at Texas last year that 10 months after Brown hired him away from Auburn as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, Brown named Muschamp his successor, effective whenever the 12th-year Longhorns head coach chooses to walk away.
Now Muschamp approaches another milestone when his career comes full circle on Jan. 7 in Pasadena, Calif., where his rock-em, sock-em defense leads No. 2 Texas against Saban's No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide for the BCS national championship.
"So far he's been acting the same, you can't really tell, but I could imagine that it's kind of the student playing the teacher," Texas senior defensive tackle Lamarr Houston said. "It would probably be really motivating for him, but he really hasn't said anything to us about it. I think it's just something that we all know and don't even need to talk about."
Such is the attitude Muschamp has eagerly championed during the lengthy buildup to game day.
"I'm afraid," Muschamp said, "there's going to be a lot of wasted ink over this situation."
Muschamp's unit enters the title game ranked No. 3 in the country in total defense (251.1 yards a game), No. 8 in scoring defense (15.2 points a game) and No. 1 in rushing defense (62.2), which will be put to the ultimate test against Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Mark Ingram and an Alabama offense that racks up more than 215 rushing yards a game.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that Alabama's brutally stingy defense is ranked No. 2 in total defense (241.7), No. 2 against the run (77.9), No. 1 in scoring (11.0) and No. 7 against the pass (163.8). It will square off against Texas senior quarterback and two-time Heisman finalist Colt McCoy, who's completing 70.5 percent of his passes for 270.2 yards a game.
The two staffs share a deep familiarity in relationships, scheme and strategy. Muschamp has worked with Alabama associate head coach and linebackers coach James Willis, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and defensive line coach Bo Davis.
"Philosophically, there's a lot of carryover because you've got people in the meeting rooms that feel the same way about how you approach some things," Muschamp said.
Muschamp met Saban for the first time in 2000 as a 29-year-old defensive coordinator at Valdosta State. LSU was practicing on Christmas Day for the Peach Bowl. Muschamp knew LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and asked if he could watch practice. Three weeks later, an assistant left the LSU staff. Saban brought in the young coach with small-town Georgia roots for an interview. That night, Muschamp landed his first big-time gig.
Brown met Muschamp not long after whenTexas played LSU in the January 2003 Cotton Bowl. From a distance, Brown watched Muschamp energetically lead LSU to the No. 1 ranking in total defense and scoring defense in its title season; then coach the NFL's Dolphins to the league's second-highest sack total in 2005; and then enjoy success on his own as Auburn's defensive coordinator. Brown marveled at the same qualities that previously convinced Saban to hire the amped-up assistant.
"He was so young and so aggressive but positive, and the kids loved him. And watching him go to Miami, and here in his mid-30s he was a defensive coordinator for the Dolphins, some of those guys were probably as old as he was," Brown said. "And then watching him come back to Auburn and have the same success they had at [LSU]. He was able to be involved with Nick, and there's always questions when you're with Nick, 'Is it Nick's defense or are you involved?'
"But, when he went to Auburn and you saw the same results and they were a top-10 defense, he was an easy choice for us."
In his 15th season of coaching, Muschamp has an exuberance that resonates with his players. He's successful employing fire-and-brimstone, old-school coaching techniques while also understanding what makes today's players tick.
"I don't really know much about Coach Saban, but I think Coach Muschamp, the way he coaches, his coaching style is kind of based on Coach Saban because that's who he learned from," said sophomore linebacker Keenan Robinson of Plano East.
One minute Muschamp will bark at a player for screwing up, and the next -- which he didn't glean from Saban -- he'll risk bodily harm by courageously, or crazily, chest bumping a fully padded player to celebrate a big play as if he were in on the tackle.
During last season's win against Texas A&M, Muschamp got so fired up over a stop that he raced onto the field, flipped off his headset and leaped sideways to body-bump defensive end Brian Orakpo. The 260-pound Orakpo, now making his mark as a rookie with the Washington Redskins, lunged into the air and collided hip-to-hip with Muschamp, unintentionally flinging his coach toward the turf.
Muschamp reverted to his days as a feisty, walk-on safety at Georgia, breaking his fall with a firmly planted right palm, followed by the left one, and springing back onto his feet as if having just made a spectacular interception, fist-pumping his way back to the sideline.
"He's just a ball of energy running around, a little ball of energy," senior linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy said. "He's fun to be around. He helps you understand the game. When I came in I knew football, but now I can say I know football a lot more than before he came."
And that's the bottom line with Muschamp. The excitable sideshow is part of the greater package. He'll scream and holler, rant and rave, sprint down the sideline flailing his arms as if he just missed the last train home, but he gets the most out of his players. They say it's because they respect his work ethic and commitment to their success.
"He came in yelling [last season], and like the first time it catches your attention," Muckelroy said. "It's funny. I'll be riding in the car and think about something he said and just start laughing to myself.
"He wants you to do everything right. If you mess up he gets onto you. That's what you want in a coach."