In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the nuances of hiring a head coach at an elite program like the Univerity of Florida, and discussed the first two elements of being a great head coach with respect to those qualities being demonstrated thus far at Florida by Will Muschamp. In Part 2, we’ll cover the final two major attributes required to be an elite head coach and discuss how well Champ has graded out in these two areas in his first three years at Florida.
This is a skill in which Champ has demonstrated great ability but also some glaring blind spots. But he has also shown very clear ability to learn, willingness to change and understanding to correct past mistakes quickly.
He has made some significant strategic errors and personal faux pas in his first couple of years recruiting for UF, but has also been quick to recognize the mistakes and correct them in the next recruiting cycle. He has taken strides to shore up mistakes that he and staff members have made in relationship building and proper handling of certain players, families and high school coaches, and it remains to be seen how well he and the staff will grow into these adjustments. The more significant changes, though have been in his approach to the prospect target board. He quite famously (or infamously) whiffed on a trio of elite players in the class of 2012, which is not exactly a new thing in recruiting. Every school whiffs on far more elite prospects every year than they sign. However it was not the missing on some players but rather the tack of putting all his eggs in one basket that was costly. When Nelson Agholor and Stefon Diggs left Florida at the altar on National Signing Day 2012, it left Florida – which was shooting for three receivers, at least two of whom would be elite prospects – with just a single project player at the position in Latroy Pittman. Champ had to scramble at the literal last minute to come up with B-lister Raphael Andrades. Also that year the Gators were targeting three offensive linemen. Although they did sign an elite duo in DJ Humphries and Jessamen Dunker, the surprise last-minute choice of Avery Young to sign with Aubrun left Florida light on the offensive line for the second year in a row (after only holding onto two projects in the transition year following Urban Meyer’s fleeing the scene mere weeks before signing day 2011). The loss was made all the more impacting when Dunker was kicked off the team. And although the Gators were already loaded in the defensive backfield and had four in the fold, Muschamp was also caught with no backup plan for a third cornerback when Tracy Howard pulled the plug and chose Miami in the final hours.
This was a significant set of blunders all tied to one flaw in his recruiting approach. And this is exactly the kind of mistake you would expect from a first-time head coach in his second recruiting cycle, being confronted with late defections from the big board. While it certainly was a disappointment for the program and the fans, it should not have surprised anyone. What had to follow – what was absolutely critical to demonstrating Champ’s recruiting and coaching ability – was for him to learn from this error and correct it. Immediately. We all remember Captain Correctable and his penchant for saying that everything was fixable. Zook’s problem, though was that he had too many mistakes to correct and none of them ever got corrected. The key to a good learn-on-the-job coach becoming a great head coach is that the mistakes are few and the corrections are immediate.
After a very successful 2013 signing day – and a very uneventful final weeks as far as losing any Gator commitments – enter the class of 2014 recruiting cycle. Like in 2012, late defections were poised to sting Muschamp and his staff, but he had learned from his 2012 mistakes and had a long line of high quality second choices ready to pull the trigger. When Dalvin Cook and Ermon Lane got finished with their little FSU-orchestrated Dance of Dishonesty and bolted the Gator signing class for the Semis, Champ was more than ready. Before Gator fans knew what happened (quite literally, he showed up and enrolled on campus before most of Gator Nation even knew he committed), Champ flipped star running back and Broward County 8A-7A-6A Player of the Year Brandon Powell from the hated ‘Canes to take Cook’s spot. Then to replace Lane, Champ stole C.J. Worton from FSU’s commitment list and from Miami’s backyard – another south Florida gem fresh off of a stellar season leading South Dade High to a Class 8A State Championship with 159 yards and three touchdowns in the title game. And for good measure and more insurance, Champ flipped receiver Ryan Sousa from the Semis in December when news first leaked out that Cook and Lane could be running a confidence game against the Gators. For what it’s worth, following Lane’s mutual departure from the Gator class (Muschamp gave him an ultimatum and pulled his scholarship offer), Champ’s staff also flipped receiver Travis Rudolph – the gem of the FSU class – in late January, but word got out and the Semi coaches were able to reel him back in. That same year, Muschamp held out until the last possible hour for offensive lineman Damian Prince, but on the eve of signing day, as soon as the staff got wind of Prince’s likelihood of signing with Maryland, Champ brought in Andrew Mike who had been sitting on Vanderbilt’s commitment list waiting for a chance to get the committable offer from Florida.
Lesson learned. Strategic error corrected. Boom.
In Champ’s first three seasons recruiting as UF’s head coach (starting after the transition class of 2011 that was Urban’s class which Champ had just a few weeks to try to hold together), the aggregate national rankings of the Muschamp signing classes have been fourth, fourth and eighth, respectively. Given that the Gators just finished a season with a 4-8 record and Muschamp was still able to sign a class ranked in the top-10 by all four major recruiting services (as high as #6) and flip *eleven* players that were committed to nine different schools including power programs like FSU, Miami, Tennessee, Penn State and Louisville, there is no question that Champ can recruit lights out. Just imagine what he will be able to do at Florida with a couple of strong seasons on the field under his belt.
Better yet, the most significant take-away from this trend of learning from his mistakes is just that: he learned from his errors, corrected them immediately and made all the necessary changes to ensure they didn’t repeat. Many coaches, new or seasoned, are too stubborn to admit when they are headed down the wrong path. This has limited some coaching careers and decimated others. And this is something for which I give Champ a lot of credit. It takes a lot of humility to admit when you make a huge tactical error (like the recruiting misstep discussed above), strategic blunder (like implementing a pro set offense in a state loaded with power high school programs that run versions of the spread-option and produce large numbers of great players who fit that scheme) or hiring mistake (like we will cover in the next section), and then switch directions immediately without blinking. It took a lot of humility for Champ to embrace the criticisms of his sideline histrionics and violently explosive (although wildly entertaining) verbal and choreographed assaults on the referees and to tone his behavior way down to a low roar over the course of just one year. It took Spurrier nearly a decade to stop throwing his visor.
4. Building a Staff
This is one of the cornerstones of the Gator success since the modern era of Florida football began in 1990. Among all their special qualities, the one similarity that perhaps set Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer apart from other Gator coaches in the past – and most of their contemporaries across the college football landscape – was their ability to put together a sterling staff of assistant coaches. One reason they were both able to win big immediately at Florida was that they both started out their tenures with very strong staffs of assistants, accented by great coordinators. During the early nineties, Steve Spurrier was fond of crediting much of his coaching success to what he called “the best assistant coaches in the country”. His first staff included Carl Franks, future head coach at Duke, Bob Sanders, an NFL position coach for the last 14 years since leaving Florida, and Florida legends Dwayne Dixon, John Reaves and Red Anderson. In the first half of his tenure at Florida, Spurrier would also hire Charlie Strong, future head coach of Louisville and Texas, and Rod Broadway, future head coach at legendary Grambling. Spurs of course was his own offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, the best in the nation at both, but he also hired great defensive coordinators, starting with Jim Bates in 1990 and hitting a zenith with the 3-year Bob Stoops tenure. He followed Bates with the promotion of Ron Zook and say what you will about Zook as a head coach but he was always a very good position coach and a competent defensive coordinator. They don’t give out defensive coordinator positions in the NFL to just anyone, and that’s what Zook went on to be before his ill-chosen foray back into the college ranks as a head coach. Even though Zook was ultimately demoted, his defenses only took a back seat to Stoops (future national title winning head coach) and Bates (future NFL head coach), and were better than the defenses of the man Spurrier hired to replace him, Bob Pruett (future national title winning head coach). Urban Meyer of course started his tenure of hiring right with the triumvirate of Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison as co-defensive coordinators and Dan Mullen as Offensive coordinator. All of them of course now have five national title rings between them as coordinators. Strong and Mullen went on to be head coaches and Mattison spent three years as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens before joining the Michigan staff at the same position. That staff also included Steve Addazio, who is now the head coach of Boston College, Doc Holliday, the head coach at Marshall, and Chuck Heater, now the defensive coordinator at Marshall.
You can trace the downward slope of both the Spurrier years in the late ‘90s and the Meyer years after 2008 by the staff changes and the assistant coaching hires that were not nearly on par with the staffs they hired in their earlier years.
Here is where you see Will Muschamp’s largest weakness and the biggest area of “Needs Improvement” on his report card. One of the important nuances of coaching hires that stood out during the Spurrier and Meyer eras was the necessity for coaches to hire the very best to coordinate the side of the football that the head coach knew the least about. Spurrier and Meyer were offensive gurus and they needed to hire the likes of Jim Bates, Bob Stoops, Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison to pilot the other side of the ball. Champ is a defensive wizard, and even though he is the maven and not-so-invisible hand at work creating and directing the Florida defense, he still has hired outstanding coordinators there, starting with his first selection of Dan Quinn, who went on to be the defensive coordinator in Seattle where his Seahwks led the NFL in fewest points allowed, fewest yards allowed and most takeaways (the first team since the 1985 Bears to do that), and his defense came one play away from tossing a dominating shutout at mighty Peyton Manning and the insufferable John Fox to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
But on the offensive side of the ball, it’s been a much different story. The hiring of Charlie Weis was an unmitigated disaster in every way imaginable. Every risk inherent in hiring Weis was realized and maximized, with no rewards to be found. Offensive line coach Frank Verducci was not much better. What’s more, the popular hire of Gator alum Aubrey Hill as receivers coach was not well enough vetted to foresee his receiving a 2-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA as fallout for his possible involvement in the 2011 Miami Hurricanes athletics department scandal. This ironically left Hill and Florida as the only entities to suffer any significant penalty from the massive misdeeds of the Miami program.
And before anyone gets too critical of Champ for these big hiring mistakes, remember that Spurrier and Meyer made their own significant hiring mistakes. When Spurs hired Jon Hoke to coordinate the Gator defense, the defense suffered significantly. Under Hoke’s leadership it impacted the program’s title contention for a few years and caused a serious rift in the staff and furthered the conflicts in an eroding relationship between Spurrier and Athletics Director Jeremy Foley that would eventually play a part in the Old Ball Coach’s devastating resignation after the 2001 season. After the 2008 campaign, when Meyer’s top assistants started fleeing the program for advanced positions, his hires could have been made into an instructional video of how never to go about hiring a staff. It was instrumental in creating the snake pit of power grabs and job-hopping that littered the end of Meyer’s tenure and greased the slide into program implosion.
While Champ traded up in 2012 for Brent Pease and line coach Tim Davis, those were baby steps at best. While Weis was an unmitigated disaster, Pease was a mitigated disaster. What he made up for by actually trying to do his job as offensive coordinator (something it was unclear that Charlie ever did), he balanced that out by having no relationship with his players, creating a rift in the staff, giving his young fish-out-of-water previously-option quarterback no direct coaching and spending all the program’s recruiting weekends fly fishing in the Great Northwest.
Again, these are crushing errors on Muschamp’s ledger, but nothing that would be unexpected for a new head coach. The thing to watch is whether he learns from the errors and corrects them. Enter new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and new line coach Mike Summers. When Pease was hired, there was great relief that the Grand Charlie Weis Experiment was over before it did too much damage, but there was not a lot of buzz or warm fuzzies around the actual hire. Some cresting formed around the fact that Champ beat out Nick Saban head-to-head for his services, but he had only been the coordinator at Boise State for one year and he was not the architect of that dynamic offense. And the offense he would install at Florida was not going to be the same beast anyway: it would be by design a Florida version of the ground and pound power running pro set that had been so successful at Alabama under Champ’s old boss.
However things are much different with the hire of Kurt Roper. He is a known quantity at offensive coordinator, having dazzled in this position for the last six years at Duke, also spending six years at the same position at Mississippi. And while there are some naysayers who claim that David Cutcliffe, a great offensive mind in his own right, has been the “real” offensive coordinator at Duke the last six years, the fact is that Cutcliffe had never designed or run the kind of spread attack that he hired Roper to install at Duke in 2008. It is Kurt’s design, Kurt’s philosophy, Kurt’s baby. And shoot, even if the uninformed pontification were true that it was Cutcliffe’s offense all along, surely six years of designing game plans and calling the plays brought Roper up to speed, eh? (enter wry grin here)
Gator fans watched Roper’s Duke offense slice and dice the SEC defense of Texas A&M in their bowl game so efficiently that you would have expected to see Ron Popiel on the sidelines instead of Kurt Roper. Gators everywhere dug up film of Duke games and highlights under Roper. And it is easy to see how this explosive offense would jump more levels when you replace Duke talent with Florida talent. This isn’t a three-yards-and-punt-and-then-late-in-the-game-pull-a-red-zone-double-handoff-to-score-a-rare-touchdown kind of offense. This isn’t a handoff-handoff-chuck-it-punt-and-go-sit-on-the-cooler-and-pout kind of offense. It is a creative, perpetual attacking machine in a very simple, basic player-friendly package.
It was clearly evident in spring practice and the Orange & Blue Game that the players find this offense far more absorbable. Gone was the bucket-of-ants pre-snap confusion on every play, burning the play clock to zero and giving the defense a running start on every down. Gone were the constant motion penalties and false-start miscues. Gone were all the wrong routes and miscommunications. The offense did not emulate the 1990 Fun & Gun, but it looked like it was going to be an efficient, smooth-running animal that allows players to simply make plays, instead of figuring out a quantum physics riddle before and during every down of play. And it’s early – really early – to expect to see a high octane offense already. That will come if things go to plan. Remember Urban’s explosive and dynamic spread-option was a complete mess for much of the first half of his rookie season, but when it started to come together at the end of the year, it could not be stopped for four years running.
Everyone is waiting to see if everything does go to plan this fall, but there are more indications that the plan is progressing at speed. Gator Country’s Andrew Spivey recently reported about how much the player on this team love Will Muschamp. That’s the new guys, the old guys and the guys who at one point were ready to transfer. They all love him. This speaks absolute volumes about how they have bought in, how much they love the coaching changes Champ’s made since the end of last year, how the players are responding and will continue to respond to the coaching, and how they will answer the bell out on the field and play for each other when the chips are down or when a clutch play *has* to be made in the heat of the game. As Prince Edward said in A Knight’s Tale, ‘Your men love you; if I knew nothing else about you, that would be enough.’ It means something, and that something is good news for the future of the program.
Of course it still remains to be seen on the field against real opponents how the hire of Roper – as well as Summers – will reflect on Muschamp’s ability to identify and bring in high quality and solid culture fits to run the Gator offense. But as they say: so far, so good. Thus far all the signs are trending very positive for what we need to see. This is the biggest obstacle for Muschamp – his biggest deficiency that could prevent him from being a great or elite head coach: the ability to hire the right offensive assistant coaches for the Florida program. The offensive architects and line workers who will not only score more points and win more games but also create a game-day excitement around this offense for the fans and players alike. Everyone knows that this fall’s on-field performance, specifically for the offense, is the key to Muschamp securing his long-term future at Florida. But much more significant than that is that it will tell us whether he has made the toughest progression – learned the most crucial lesson – to becoming a great head coach.
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