COLUMBIA — There was never a vote taken to determine if head football coach Will Muschamp would be given a fifth year at South Carolina, after his fourth ended with a 4-8 thud.
He was always going to be back, to get a chance to reverse course from a 2019 season that should have been showing off his most experienced and talented team. Instead, it was a splotch on an otherwise decent record that’s resulted in staff changes and a blackened cloud hovering over the program.
In a sport where instant success is demanded and bad years aren’t tolerated, why the trust in Muschamp? In a season where Florida State fired its coach mid-year, and SEC brother Arkansas did the same, why is USC standing by its man?
Speaking with USC administrative and athletic officials over the past three weeks, the most common answer was belief. Not hope, not being forced to because of financial restrictions.
“I believe in him,” athletics director Ray Tanner said during a November radio interview. “People may say, ‘Well, you led the charge in hiring him. You’re going to say that.’ If I didn’t believe in him I wouldn’t say that.”
Several members of USC’s Board of Trustees were contacted for this story and all deferred to letting BOT Chairman John von Lehe speak for them.
“We believe it’s in good hands, and I think the best thing a trustee can do is stay out of the school’s athletic program and let the professionals run it,” von Lehe said.
Tanner hired Muschamp and would naturally want to give his choice every opportunity to succeed. He also understands that at USC, a school with one conference championship and a lifetime football record just 25 games above .500, sustained success has only arrived in blips.
Muschamp’s tenure, unfortunately for him, came two years after the biggest blip of all, that of Steve Spurrier’s three straight 11-2 seasons, with the school’s only SEC East title the year before that.
Since World War II, four coaches have had five-year stints at USC (Warren Giese, Marvin Bass, Sparky Woods, Brad Scott), with Richard Bell serving a one-year tenure in 1982. The coaches with the most success (Paul Dietzel, Jim Carlen, Joe Morrison, Lou Holtz, Spurrier) served more than five years, and presided over most of the program’s greatest seasons and moments.
Muschamp notched a nine-win season in his second year. It’s one of only seven seasons of at least nine wins in the program’s 135 years.
That didn’t go away, nor did a program-first three bowl games to begin a tenure, because of 4-8 in 2019. With Year 5 seemingly the historic swing vote between good and bad coaching reigns, it seems logical why Muschamp would get a chance to build on his success in Years 1-3, despite one bad season in Year 4.
“We’re certainly not happy with where we are today, record-wise, coach Muschamp or anyone else affiliated with football,” Tanner said. “My stance is I know what goes on and I believe strongly that our fan base and our biggest supporters are going to be very happy at some point. It’s not today, because nobody wants to have four wins as we sit here. But I believe strongly in what we’re doing.”
Buyout and the Board
Conversations with administrators revealed that what was thought to be a big reason to keep Muschamp — his buyout, where he would have been owed at least $18.75 million if he were to be fired — wasn’t so. Yes, it’s a hefty chunk of money to pay somebody not to work.
But it wouldn’t have been a deterrent. If they really wanted to make a move, they would have found a way. Instead, they considered 2019 a mulligan and trusted Muschamp to again stabilize the program.
Muschamp, perhaps cognizant of that, voluntarily voided his annual $200,000 raise to give running backs coach Thomas Brown a salary bump, which affected Muschamp’s buyout. It dropped the total if he were to be fired after next season to $13.2 million.
Former quarterback Perry Orth has seen both sides. He was on the team that finished the 2013 season ranked fourth in the country and on the team that was 3-9 just two years later.
“After the (win over Georgia this year), the outlook of the season was incredibly different from how it ended,” Orth said. “But when you lose guys on offense, when you’re already limited … it just puts you behind the 8-ball that much more.”
Muschamp took a 2-4 team in the midpoint of his first year to a bowl game with a freshman quarterback. Nine wins followed in 2017, followed by a 2018 season that had seven victories, but was bedecked with injuries.
Recruiting continues to flourish. He has verbal commitments from coveted Top 60 running back MarShawn Lloyd and Top 90 QB Luke Doty for next year.
His current players graduate and stay out of trouble, Muschamp quickly and firmly dealing with any who stray outside the lines.
“Will has done a great job developing a true culture and identity of a program. We want to be a blue-collar program that wants to play physical and have a high academic standard,” Orth said. “He’s recruited better players and people. He really cares about his players, and his players play hard for him.”
‘It’s on us’
It can be considered grasping to say it, but the team didn’t quit on Muschamp. His players always believed they could pull off another upset as they did at Georgia.
“He’s honest with you, he’s going to be there with you. He is a great coach,” receiver Chavis Dawkins said. “We always got his back, like he got our back.”
With Muschamp calling the plays, the defense did well enough that the Gamecocks could have salvaged a bowl game berth with just a bit more from their offense. Yet hampered by injuries, they managed one touchdown in their final three games.
To his credit, Muschamp immediately made a move to find a new offensive coordinator, and landed a big name in former Georgia offensive coordinator/Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo. He also is looking for a new strength coach, after the injuries of the past two years demanded a change.
It was a tough year for the Gamecocks, but they never had any dissension or rebellion among them. Many went out of their way to combat the nastiness they couldn’t help but hear.
“He said if he had any comments on anything, he’d get fined? I don’t know if I’d get fined, but I may get kicked off,” linebacker Ernest Jones said. “So I’m not going to say what I want to say. But when I see people talk about him and how he’s unfit for the job, they don’t personally know him and know everything he does to get us prepared.”
There isn’t a win minimum stapled to next season for Muschamp to get a sixth year. There does need to be progress, and not in the other areas he’s drastically improved.
He needs to win more games.
“Is it win, or else? Not all the time,” Tanner said. “But winning is part of the equation, there’s no doubt about that.”
Muschamp has some young talent returning, although he loses his top three rushers, two of his top three receivers and his second-leading tackler. The schedule is much more favorable than last year, or at least in the first two months, before the Gamecocks take on a November slate of Georgia, LSU, Wofford and Clemson.
By sheer disbelief that it couldn’t be, 2020 has to be better than 2019.
“There is some positive progress to at least latch onto,” Muschamp said in his final post-game press conference two weeks ago. “I look forward to having a long tenure here at the University of South Carolina, and coaching here for a long time, and getting this thing turned.”
He believes it more than his school believes in him. How firm each side’s belief is will be determined in one year.