NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- When a Texas defender feels a little too sorry for himself, Will Muschamp points to the shadowbox he keeps in his office. Inside, mounted on a piece of felt, rests a 17-inch steel rod. The Texas defensive coordinator then tells the story of how the rod came to live, for a year, inside the right leg of a boy in Rome, Ga., with two broken bones and an apparently broken dream.
The story usually quiets any whining. It also explains to anyone who hears it how Muschamp progressed in 12 years from a uniform-washing assistant at West Georgia to the heir to one of college football's loftiest thrones.
By the spring of 1989, the youngest of the three Muschamp boys had played his way onto the recruiting radar of every major football program in the southeast. Older brothers Pat and Mike played center and quarterback at Army and Duke, respectively. But Will was best of all, an explosive safety who became a ball hawk because, growing up, his brothers always made him the monkey in the middle. Georgia called regularly. So did Georgia Tech. And South Carolina. And Florida.
That spring, Muchamp played left field for the baseball team at the Darlington School. On one particularly soggy day, Muschamp zeroed in on a shallow pop-up. The shortstop tracked it, too. Muschamp called the ball. The shortstop heard him and tried to slide. He wound up rolling -- smack into Muschamp's right leg, anchored into the damp ground by his cleats. "Compound fracture," Muschamp's father, Larry, said. "Both bones sticking out. It was a mess."
A surgeon implanted the rod to hold Muschamp's leg together while he healed. "When he broke his leg, I didn't think he'd ever play again," Larry said. "If it had been me, I wouldn't have. There was no way you could overcome that -- but he did with his determination." Muschamp pedaled an exercise bike and swam to rehabilitate his shattered leg. He played as a senior, limping because of lingering nerve damage. He still dreamed of playing at a big-time college program, but the big-time college coaches no longer dreamed of landing Muschamp. A few told him they couldn't recruit him after the injury. Others simply stopped calling.
Florida hinted at a possibility of a walk-on spot, so Muschamp and his parents drove to Gainesville to meet with a coach. When they arrived, the coach wasn't there. After waiting a few hours, they went to lunch. The coach returned while the Muschamps were gone. When they returned to the office, a secretary told them the coach had left for a jog and would return shortly. They waited a few more hours. Finally, Will turned to his mother, Sally, and said "Let's go."
Georgia left the door open for Muschamp to play as a walk-on. Before he left for Athens, Muschamp had another surgery to remove the rod. "The surgeon asked me if I wanted the rod," Sally Muschamp said. "I said that might be a good thing to keep just as a reminder -- not that he would ever have forgotten." So Sally mounted the rod in the shadowbox and put it in her son's room. Muschamp has carried it with him, from West Georgia, to Eastern Kentucky, to Valdosta (Ga.) State, to LSU, to the Miami Dolphins, to Auburn, to Texas.
"I use it as an example when a players come in my office and they want to have a 'woe is me' attitude about life and what's unfair about life," Muschamp said. "Everybody's got hardships in life. Nobody wants to hear why you didn't get something done. They want to know why you got it done."
Muschamp has gotten it done everywhere he's been. He never imagined himself being anything other than a coach, just as he never imagined himself playing for anything other than a major program. So, just as he worked his way from walk-on in 1990 to Georgia's starting safety as a senior in 1994, Muschamp has worked his way through the coaching ranks.
Muschamp's first stop after a graduate assistantship at Auburn was at West Georgia, a Division II school in Carrollton, Ga. "I've lined the fields. I've washed uniforms. I washed my own coaching gear. These D-1 guys don't know about that," Muschamp said. "My first job at West Georgia, I think I made $12,000."
Now he makes $900,000, but Muschamp hasn't forgotten his coaching roots. "Guys talk about how recruiting is hard," Muschamp said. "Try and call a guy in December from Valdosta State and try to recruit him, and he doesn't know where Valdosta State is. Then he's calling you back in January because everybody's fallen out on him. So, I think you appreciate where you are and what you're doing because of what you've been through."
Muschamp was so good as Valdosta State's defensive coordinator in 2000 that he caught the eye of then LSU coach Nick Saban, who was in the market for a linebackers coach. Muschamp's former Georgia teammate, Kirby Smart, was on the staff at Valdosta State when Muschamp accepted the invitation to return to the SEC as a salaried assistant. "I remember the day he left for LSU," said Smart, who is now Alabama's defensive coordinator. "He was like, 'Man, I don't know about this.' I was like, 'Are you kidding me? You're going to the SEC.'"STAPLES: Tide to make Smart coach-in-waiting?
Smart, who had met Muschamp while being recruited by the Bulldogs, knew his friend would excel at LSU. Saban had identified a rising star, and Muschamp had found the ideal professional mentor. "I wouldn't be where I am if it weren't for the opportunities that Nick gave me, hiring me from Valdosta State, a Division II school, at LSU, and within a year promoting me to defensive coordinator," Muschamp said. "There's not a lot of coaches that would do that."
Saban helped shape how Muschamp works, how he recruits and how he prepares a defense for a game. Muschamp has tried to emulate Saban's attention to detail, and even after leaving Saban's staff in 2006 to become defensive coordinator at Auburn, Muschamp carried those lessons with him. "If you work for Nick long enough, you take on a lot of his personality traits," Smart said. "A lot of them are successful traits. Will's taken on a lot of those roles." Saban recognized Muschamp's passion immediately, and he said Muschamp has obviously passed along some of his personality to his players. "His personality is reflected in how their defense plays in terms of his passion -- that competitive character that he has, that they have," Saban said. "And I think that's one similarity that we would like our defense to have."
Sometimes, Muschamp's passion can express itself in a manner not suitable for broadcast television. Some fans of Auburn -- and now Texas -- call him Boom because of a snippet of sideline chatter caught by an ESPN microphone during the 2007 Auburn-Arkansas game. After Auburn defensive end Antonio Coleman forced Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick to throw a ball out of bounds to avoid a safety, a parabolic microphone captured Muschamp's message to his players. "BOOM!" a fist-pumping Muschamp screamed. "Get that mother------! Yeah! That's what I'm talkin' bout! Let's knock these mother-------- out!" Muschamp said after such moments, he has received calls from his mother. "Oh yeah," he said. "I've gotten some reprimands."
Muschamp also has learned to be more careful with his second-favorite form of celebration -- the chest bump. Muschamp was lucky he didn't wind up with another rod in his right leg after a collision with defensive end Brian Orakpo during last year's Texas A&M game. Texas defensive tackle Lamarr Houston isn't so sure Muschamp has learned his lesson, though. Instead, Houston believes the larger players have learned to soften their bumps to keep their coordinator on his feet. "You never know when it's coming sometimes," the 300-pound Houston said. "You've got to be ready for it. You don't want to knock him over."
Muschamp criticizes just as hard as he celebrates. Woe unto the player who walks on the field in Muschamp's presence. Defensive end Sam Acho hears Muschamp chanting "Jog on, jog off" every day. For Muschamp, every moment spent on the field is precious. Larry Muschamp said when his son was a senior at Georgia, the Bulldogs got thrashed by Florida. In the fourth quarter, Georgia coaches pulled the starters. Muschamp walked up to a coach and asked if he'd done something wrong. The coach said no; he had figured the starters didn't need to endure further humiliation. This didn't sit well with Muschamp. "Hell no," Larry remembers his son saying. "I came to play."
He still does. "I think he's got one more play left in him," Texas linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy said. "I mean, we could give him one more play and let him see what he can go out there and do. Just to see coach Muschamp on the sidelines fired up, you just look at him, and it's fun. It's fun to play for a coach like this. He's not on the sidelines just sitting there looking at everything. He's fired up in practice and in the game. He's just one of those coaches that you would love to play for."
Texas coach Mack Brown and athletic director DeLoss Dodds hope Muschamp is the coach for which future Longhorns want to play. Last year, Texas administrators reached an agreement that Muschamp will succeed Brown whenever Brown decides to retire.SCHROEDER: Get to know mystery Tide OC
"We all agreed that Will was young, he was a tremendous football coach, he loves what he's doing on defense right now, so we could make him the highest paid defensive coordinator in the country," Brown said. "And I've got some good years left, so Will is going to continue to do what he does. I'm going to try to help him grow through this process, and then when it's time for me to step away -- which I really don't know when that will be -- he'll be ready to take over, and hopefully Texas will continue.
"You see so many drops with change, and you're never sure what the right mix is. We all thought Will was the right guy with our staff to continue and build at Texas."
Muschamp certainly will draw interest from other schools between now and Brown's retirement, but Muschamp insists he loves this job, and he isn't looking for another one. "I like the one I've got," Muschamp said. That may change in the future, but Muschamp certainly acts as if he intends to succeed Brown. Last spring, Brown met with Muschamp several times to pass on advice that will come in handy when Muschamp occupies the big chair. As he does with anything, Muschamp scribbled on a notepad. Muschamp said he still has notepads from his earliest days as a coach. "I'm a pack rat," he said. "I keep it all."
That includes the 17-inch steel rod that helps tell a story of a seemingly shattered dream Muschamp made come true anyway. That rod could have embodied the worst moment of Muschamp's life. Instead, it symbolizes his defining moment.
"It's not what happens to you," Muschamp said. "It's what you do with it."