Ex-Bulldog Muschamp insists he's strictly a Gator guy now
GAINESVILLE - Once, when Will Muschamp was between the hedges, he felt at home. Once, he wore the silver britches and was Georgia's overachieving, inspirational team leader. Once, he was a favorite to fans who barked (or woofed) their approval. Once, he played for the enemy. Muschamp, the University of Florida's first-year head coach, said it's all ancient history. He said past affiliations have no bearing on Saturday afternoon's annual rivalry clash in Jacksonville, when the desperate Gators (4-3, 2-3 SEC) meet the Bulldogs (5-2, 4-1). "My loyalties reside with people, not places,'' Muschamp said. "Certainly, my loyalties rest with the University of Florida.''No one doubts that. But it's also an undisputed fact that Muschamp once was a hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners safety for the Bulldogs. It's also acknowledged that he was furious over losing four straight games to the Gators from 1991-94. So that makes for a fascinating subplot on Saturday. Doesn't it? Muschamp, who faced Georgia previously as an assistant at Auburn and LSU, describes that storyline as "wasted ink.'' "Will's presence makes it interesting,'' said former Bulldogs quarterback Eric Zeier, Muschamp's former roommate who now is an analyst on Georgia's radio network. "We've not had a good run against the Gators (losing 18 of the past 21 games), so now it's heightened even more for Georgia fans. Heck, it's heightened for me. We're all very competitive. Will added some tension to a pretty heated rivalry.'' "Will and I are still buddies and I want to see him succeed,'' said former Bulldogs center David Weeks, who owns six restaurants in Athens, Ga. "I'm not ashamed to say I root for Florida except for when they play Georgia. Now I might've lost a few friends in Athens when I admitted to that. There are people here who still can't get over an ex-Bulldog being the Gators coach. They think it's just plain weird.'' Not really, though. Not when you consider Muschamp's background. Muschamp was born in Rome, Ga., but actually grew up in Gainesville. He lived a few blocks from Florida Field. He remembers pretending to be Gators safety Tony Lilly while playing backyard football with his brothers. His family returned to Rome before his ninth-grade year. As a high school junior, he had a 17-inch steel rod inserted in his leg after suffering a broken tibia and fibula during a baseball game. He returned to play football, even while running with a limp, but his scholarship offers disappeared. Muschamp wanted to join Steve Spurrier's Gators in 1990. His family made an appointment with a UF staffer and drove to Gainesville. After a few hours of waiting in the office, they felt ignored and drove home. Georgia offered him the chance to walk on. He was issued a blank jersey – no number – and suffered a broken collarbone after the first day in pads. Muschamp still didn't surrender his dream. Meanwhile, Georgia coach Ray Goff said he noted Muschamp's determination. "Will was a fireball from the get-go,'' Goff said. "You could see it in his eyes. He'd hit you. He'd light you up. He was going to be a player.'' After his freshman season, Muschamp received a scholarship. As a senior, teammates voted him a defensive co-captain. Former Gators receiver Chris Doering still remembers absorbing a vicious blow from Muschamp during the 1994 Florida-Georgia game. "It was a drag route from the slot and he drilled me right in the ribs,'' Doering said. "I got up to talk some trash and let him know he didn't hurt me, but he just walked away. He was one intense guy. My ribs were sore for a few days after that.'' Opponents saw flashes of Muschamp's intensity. Teammates lived it – every day. "I'm tremendously, tremendously competitive,'' Zeier said. "In Will, I saw the same kind of guy. We used to sit up in our room, drawing up plays, trying to outsmart each other. I was drawn to his energy. I pretty much knew he'd be a coach.'' "He coaches like he used to play – all out, totally committed,'' said former Bulldogs linebacker Whit Marshall, who works in real estate in Atlanta. Muschamp seemed destined to become Mack Brown's replacement at Texas, where he served as defensive coordinator from 2008-10. But UF athletic director Jeremy Foley, aware of Muschamp's Gainesville roots, struck quickly and discreetly when Urban Meyer resigned last December. Asked about his Georgia background during the UF introduction, Muschamp cracked, "I suffered some temporary insanity there for a while.'' That drew laughter in Gainesville. At Georgia? Not so much. Pressed during SEC Media Days about being a Georgia guy coaching the Gators, Muschamp answered with a laser-beam stare: "I'm a Florida guy.'' Even Georgia coach Mark Richt got into the act during preseason interviews. "He tells everybody he's Florida through and through,'' Richt said. "But I'm sure there's a little red and black running through his veins.'' For Foley, there is no confusion. He said a few Gator boosters called last December, wondering why UF hired a former Georgia player as head coach. Foley said those questions quickly subsided. "The one thing that totally mitigates Will being a Georgia graduate is he grew up in Gainesville,'' Foley said. "He has a lot of Gator blood in him. That's part of what attracted us to him. "I know he used to feel strongly about the University of Georgia. But that's the way of the world in college athletics. People move around. Things change. There's no two ways about it to me. He's a Gator.'' At Georgia, with an old ally now leading the hated rival, you can almost hear a refrain: Dawg gone.