Spur of the Moment: Gamecocks’ long search will end with a polarizing hire

Fomer Florida head coach Will Muschamp is set to become the next head coach at South Carolina. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

COLUMBIA — A coaching search which began with Steve Spurrier’s resignation Oct. 13 will end with the most polarizing hire in recent Gamecocks history.

That’s the reality USC’s athletic administration must face now that Will Muschamp is set to become South Carolina’s next head football coach. It’s not that Muschamp is a bad person; despite what you see on the sideline, all indications are that he’s a stand-up guy. It’s not even that he’s a bad coach; other than this season, his record as a defensive coordinator speaks for itself, and he was fired after three winning seasons in four years at Florida, where expectations are very different than they are at USC.

No, the issue here is public relations — over a search which started earlier than just about any other, but was among the last to find a head coach; over a process apparently exploited by a number of candidates who used it to obtain new deals at their current schools; over Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne announcing coach Rich Rodriguez had turned down an offer which may or may not have been extended; and over ultimately hiring a head coach who many in the USC fan base see solely as a guy who got fired.

It was a rough stretch, and that’s saying something at a school which at one point needed 54 days to settle on Steve Newton as men’s basketball coach. There’s no question that Muschamp fits the two problem areas this program needs most — defensive and recruiting. There’s also no question that fans have been howling over this prospective hire over local radio and social media for days now.

It was pretty clear that USC went hard after Tom Herman when this search began, which by any estimation was the right move to make. Who knew that Herman would become the one non-power-five coach in 10 who decides to stay where he is rather than make the move up when his stock is highest. Certainly Houston helped its case by offering a high-dollar extension, which Herman signed earlier this week. But if the Cougars go 7-6 next season, it might be a while before Herman’s name is in play for bigger jobs again.

It was also clear that USC targeted Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart — and who knew Georgia would actually fire Mark Richt and create an opening in its own region and own division which forced the Gamecocks to take a back seat. That was a very bad break for USC AD Ray Tanner, particularly coming after Herman’s decision, and those two circumstances combined put the Gamecocks in a very difficult spot — and later in the coach-search cycle, when other vacancies were filling up and other candidates were already looking elsewhere.

So here we are with Muschamp. Despite the Rodriguez saga, indications throughout the weekend always pointed to the Auburn defensive coordinator, to the point where an agreement felt imminent well before Byrne made his announcement Saturday night on Twitter. It doesn’t help that commentators on ESPN’s “GameDay” were critical of the prospective hire, it doesn’t help that Auburn’s defense tanked this season in Muschamp’s first season as coordinator. But USC was in a tough spot, and Muschamp is a guy who’s run an SEC program and recruited at a very high level.

But back to P.R. That’s the battle USC must win now, after a search which was often characterized as a scramble in national media. Tanner needs to lay out what happened, and convince fans there was a plan, and he wasn’t merely grasping as a first-time A.D. conducting his first big coaching search. Muschamp needs to go 1-0 in his introductory press conference, and convince USC fans that he’s learned from his experience in Florida, and will do some things differently. He needs to hire a staff that bolsters his weaknesses, particularly on offense. He could do much worse than retaining G.A. Mangus as offensive coordinator, although a source indicated he’s already reached out to Kurt Roper, his OC in his last season in Gainesville, which probably makes USC fans more anxious than they already are.

USC has been spoiled with its last two coaches, Lou Holtz and Spurrier, legends who dropped out of the sky at the perfect time. South Carolina really hasn’t had to pry a coach away from another program since it hired Brad Scott. This search was probably a jarring experience to many Gamecocks fans who thought those 11-win seasons had put it at a different level — one that a coach at, say, Houston, wouldn’t be able to turn down. The reality is it’s still a tough job in a tough division, and a gig not every coach is willing to take on.

But Muschamp is. The search is over, and now it’s time to hear the plan — and perhaps put some fears to rest.