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Mike Bianchi: After Jim McElwain fiasco, Florida should appreciate Will Muschamp’s impact

ORLANDO, Fla. – Sometimes, the best move you can make is no move at all.

If former University of Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley was completely honest, these are probably the words he would use to describe the firing of Will Muschamp and the hiring of Jim McElwain four years ago.

This was the first thought that crossed my mind as a smiling, happy, successful Muschamp gave me a fist-bump as he confidently strolled into College Football Hall of Fame Thursday and took the stage at SEC Media Days. In hindsight, if Foley could have weathered the intense fan and media criticism and stuck by Muschamp, the Gators would be in a much better place today.

Muschamp left McElwain a tough, hard-nosed, disciplined defensive football team that McElwain rode to two consecutive SEC Championship Games before driving it into the ground. McElwain left new coach Dan Mullen a program rife with discipline issues over the past two seasons and a strength and conditioning program so embarrassingly soft that some UF players actually sought out their own personal trainers.

Muschamp, after being fired at Florida, took over at South Carolina after the legendary Steve Spurrier departed because – as Spurrier himself said – he had put together a “a bad, broken” team that finished 3-9 in his final season. In two years, Muschamp has constructed a good, cohesive team that went 9-4 last year and beat Michigan in the Outback Bowl.

“I’m excited about what we’ve got going on,” Muschamp says.

The Gators, of course, ended up firing Muschamp’s replacement because McElwain was not only a poor coach at Florida but an even worse fit. McElwain’s arrogance and aloofness manifested itself from his first few days on the job and Foley likely realized almost immediately he’d made a mistake in hiring McElwain.

Don’t kid yourself, McElwain wasn’t just fired because he contrived phony death threats; he was fired because nobody in the athletics department liked or respected him. AD Scott Stricklin, who inherited McElwain, couldn’t wait to pull the plug on a coach whose working relationship with his colleagues was as bad as his offense.

McElwain’s firing at UF was the polar opposite of Muschamp’s. Gator administrators cheered on the day McElwain left the building; they mourned the day Muschamp walked out for the final time.

In fact, on the day the Gators announced Muschamp’s departure, you would have thought they were giving him a contract extension instead of a pink slip. Foley and school president Bernie Machen were there to pay tribute to Muschamp and even Muschamp himself was invited so he could say goodbye to Gator Nation.

“From my perspective as president, I have treasured – literally treasured – the last four years in working with Will,” Machen said. “He was asked to come here and build a program, a program built on character and good academic values, and he was asked to develop young men that would be a credit to the Gator Nation. He has done that. … I would love for my son or my grandson to have the opportunity to be coached by Will Muschamp.”

Said Foley: “Will gave his heart and soul to this program. He loves this program. As you all know, he grew up following the Gators, he loves the Gators. Everybody in the program was in the fox hole with him. We respected him as a coach and a person. He’s as fine as person as you could ever meet and a friend to all of us. He represents everything that’s right about college athletics. That’s not just lip-service, it’s the flat-out truth. The environment inside our building is the best it’s ever been because of Will.”

I’ve written this before and I’ll reiterate it here. I believe Muschamp will be a resounding success at South Carolina. If only he could have held on at Florida for another year, I believe Muschamp would have figured it out and got the Gators back on track.

He, too, would have won division titles in the weak, watered-down SEC East just as McElwain did. After all, it was Muschamp who built UF’s defense into the nationally elite unit that carried McElwain to those division titles. And Muschamp’s last UF offense – as anemic as it was – was still ranked higher than any of the pitiful offenses McElwain put on the field.

Now, it’s South Carolina that’s benefiting from the lessons Muschamp learned in Gainesville. The biggest criticism of Muschamp at Florida is that he micro-managed his program and meddled too much in the offense.

“You know, I think you live and learn every day on the job,” Muschamp says when asked how he is a better coach now than when he was a first-time head coach at UF. “I’m a much better head coach now than I was then. … You’ve got to play to your strengths. At the end of the day, I’m a good defensive football coach, I’m a good special teams coach and I can recruit. I think you need to stay in your lane as far as those things are concerned.”

Will Muschamp’s stock is on the rise and he has once again turned into Coach Boom.

Jim McElwain jumped the shark and he turned into Coach Bust.

Sometimes, the best move you can make is no move at all.

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South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp holds his SEC Media Days press conference at the College Football Hall of Fame on Thursday, July 19, 2018, in Atlanta, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp holds his SEC Media Days press conference at the College Football Hall of Fame on Thursday, July 19, 2018, in Atlanta, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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