- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Throughout the season, Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp likes to exchange text messages with Kirby Smart, who holds the same position at Alabama.
Muschamp and Smart were teammates at Georgia and came from similar coaching backgrounds. Muschamp hired Smart as his secondary coach at Division II Valdosta (Ga.) State in 2000 and persuaded then-LSU coach Nick Saban to hire him four years later.
Smart and Muschamp have remained exceptionally close, even after Muschamp left Saban's staff to become the defensive coordinator at Auburn and later Texas.
"You're always looking for fresh ideas," Muschamp said. "But late in the year, when you realized there's a pretty good chance you're going to play each other, you stop sharing ideas. They just didn't get as much from us and we didn't get as much from them."
Not that Muschamp and Smart were sharing ideas each coach probably didn't already know. Both were tutored by Saban, who has earned the reputation of being one of college football's greatest defensive strategists.
On Thursday night, Muschamp will face Saban, his mentor, when the No. 1 Crimson Tide play the No. 2 Longhorns in the Citi BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl.
"I've said it before and I'll say it again: I wouldn't be where I am today without him," Muschamp said of Saban. "Schematically and philosophically, I've learned a lot from him. I consider him a friend and mentor and think a lot of him."
Saban took a chance when he hired Muschamp as LSU's linebackers coach in 2001. Muschamp, 38, hadn't even coached at an FBS school before Saban hired him. He had worked at smaller schools such as Division II West Georgia and Valdosta State while trying to break into the coaching ranks.
"I've lined the field," Muschamp said. "I've washed the uniforms. I've washed my own equipment. Those Division I guys don't understand that. I've worked myself up the ladder."
But once Muschamp latched on with Saban, he enjoyed a meteoric rise. He was named LSU's defensive coordinator in his second season and helped the Tigers win the 2003 BCS national championship. He spent one season on Saban's staff with the Miami Dolphins before breaking off on his own to coach Auburn's defense for two seasons.
Texas coach Mack Brown hired Muschamp in 2008, and Muschamp was named Brown's eventual successor before the end of his first season in Austin. Muschamp is being paid $900,000 per season -- the second-highest salary of any assistant coach in the country.
"I think the way Will came up, he sort of got raised up in the program from being a position coach to a coordinator to getting to the NFL," Saban said. "He has done a fantastic job every place he's been. I think his personality is reflected in how their defense plays in terms of his passion and the competitive character that he has and they have. I think that's one similarity that we would like our defense to have."
Muschamp is the perfect example of the high risks and even higher rewards that come with working for Saban. Some assistant coaches have learned to tolerate Saban's demanding style and high-stress work environment. But other coaches have wilted in Saban's pressure cooker.
Texas running backs coach Major Applewhite lasted only one season as Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama in 2007.
"If you work, there are no issues," said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who worked as Saban's offensive coordinator at LSU from 2000 to '04. "Everybody complains about his hours, but his hours aren't bad. When you're there, it's very structured and organized and you work hard. He never asks you to do anything he won't do. When there's a crack, he addresses it. He doesn't let a crack become a crevasse."
Fisher isn't convinced Muschamp's familiarity with Saban and Smart -- or vice versa -- will have much of an impact on Thursday night's game. It would be different if Saban coached offense and Muschamp coached defense, Fisher said.
"They'll know what each other likes to do," Fisher said. "Some guys like to defense you; some guys like to attack you. Both those guys attack you on offense. They'll find ways to get to the quarterback and attack the running game. They're not reactive; they're proactive. They're both very aggressive."
Smart, 34, seems to be on a similar career path to Muschamp's. He has worked the past two years as Alabama's defensive coordinator and this season won the Frank Broyles Award as the country's top assistant coach. The Crimson Tide led the country in scoring defense (11 points per game) and pass-efficiency defense (88.8 rating) and ranked second in run defense (77.9 yards per game) and total defense (241.7 yards).
Smart said he doesn't have a problem sharing the spotlight with Saban, who still has his hands all over Alabama's defense.
"To be honest, I was fortunate enough this year to win the Broyles Award, so it's hard for anybody to argue that working for coach Saban you don't get any credit," Smart said. "I was able to win it while working for him. He's very involved, but he's passionate about the game, and his passion carries over to his players. I wouldn't want it any other way. It's like having an extra coach. If you can get an extra coach to help your side of the ball, why wouldn't you use it?"
On Thursday night, Saban and Smart will try to outduel Muschamp, their close friend, with a national championship on the line.
"That makes it a little tougher when you know that somebody is going to come out on the bad end of the stick," Smart said. "But as competitors, you want it that much more because you recognize and know the guy you're going against and you know you're going to see a lot more of him in the offseason."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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