“I have to put my whole hand on his leg,” wife Carol confides, describing how he has bounced the bleachers where they and other parents sit watching their sons play sports. “It makes me so embarrassed.”
Will chuckles. “I’m always thinking,” he explains.
Maybe it’s difficult to become the head football coach at the University of South Carolina without a constantly moving mind, regardless of how it manifests itself.
Will Muschamp came to Columbia this past year to lead the Gamecocks and represent the university, and he takes it seriously. Still, he has learned not to get into the finer points of game strategy with Carol. He tells a tale of trying to explain a play only to learn she was worried about the players’ all-white uniforms getting dirty. “I gave up after that,” he says, laughing and shaking his head.
This is the Will Muschamp off the field, away from the arena — the one who sheepishly says, “I’m not very rhythmic” when asked if he dances. In college at the University of Georgia, he liked to play golf. He still does, when he finds the time. His handicap? “My game,” he deadpans.
That dry humor and fun personality drew Carol to him in the late 1990s. She was teaching kindergarten in Atlanta, and he was on his way to Eastern Kentucky University to start a new job as defensive backs coach when they married in 1999. Too poor for a fancy honeymoon, they stayed at a family friend’s beach house on St. Simons Island while Will did some spring evaluation and recruiting in South Georgia.
Eighteen years, two sons, and nine moves later, the Muschamps can afford a more lavish lifestyle, though that dream honeymoon has yet to happen. “Will doesn’t like to travel,” Carol says. “If I’m going to Paris, it’s with some girls.” Fripp Island would be her husband’s choice.
They are united, though, in their feelings about Columbia — they like it here, and they want to stay. “With the lake, downtown, the Vista, and Five Points, Columbia seems to be a miniature Austin, Texas,” says Will, who coached the Texas Longhorns from 2008 to 2010.
Carol loves the friendliness of the people. “They speak to you when you walk down the street,” she says. Unlike some places they have lived, where the university dominated the town with college students everywhere, Columbia offers a wider landscape and a citizenry of all ages. “Normally we have our favorite restaurant and places to go when we visit places we’ve lived, but here there are so many great places,” says Carol.
A graduate of the University of Mississippi, Carol grew up in Thomaston, Georgia. She used her degree in social work to counsel abused children and teach anger management classes in Oxford, Mississippi, and Richmond, Kentucky. Sons Jackson, 16, and Whit, 12, occupy much of her time now. Students at Hammond School, they are both active in multiple sports. “I don’t love taking them to sports,” Carol says ruefully, “but I love watching them compete in games.”
This is happy. This is pleasant. This is Coach Muschamp with his adored and approachable wife. But this was not the story in 1988, when he was 17 and laid up in Redmond Hospital in Rome, Georgia, realizing what he wanted most was probably not going to happen. “I wanted to play football in the Southeastern Conference,” he recalls, recounting how he grew up in Gainesville, Florida, watching the Gators and wanting to be one. A freak accident playing baseball the spring of his junior year — he turned a somersault trying to catch a ball in left field — resulted in his right leg turning at a right angle.
“My brother was there, and I said, ‘Keep Mom away,’” he says. Pause. “I did catch the ball.”
No doubt that is classic Muschamp — determined to the last. That quality served him well during those four weeks in the hospital with a compound fracture, in a cast from hip to toe, losing 30 pounds after two surgeries in which a 17-inch metal rod and two screws were placed in his leg to keep the muscles from atrophying. He grappled with the “Why me?” question as the letters and calls from college football coaches across the Southeast dwindled.
“‘Why me?’ is what you’ve got to get over,” he declares. “It made me grow up quickly because I felt like all my dreams and aspirations had been taken away, and I realized there’s only one thing to do –– and that’s go back to work.”
He was on the exercise bike as soon as doctors allowed, and swam every morning at 6. Cleared by doctors midway through football season his senior year, he played with a limp and not very well. By graduation his only offers were from the Naval Academy and West Point. Knowing that he didn’t want to “march to breakfast” — his brother Pat played for West Point — he instead accepted an invitation to walk on for the University of Georgia. By his senior year, he was captain of the team.
The setback in high school stayed with him. He kept the 17-inch rod when it was removed from his leg; it stays behind his desk in his office, where he uses it to talk to his players about overcoming adversity. Indeed, “adversity” is a word he uses a lot. He has come to view that setback as one of the best things that happened to him — that, and marrying Carol. And, he points out, he was lucky he broke his leg and not his knee, which has less chance of healing.
“Life isn’t fair,” he continues. Two philosophies he preaches to his players: “Hustling is a habit, and you get better or worse every day;” and, “Ten percent of life is what happens to you; 90 percent is what you do with it.” He learned that second lesson when he was 17 years old.
There is not much about football Will dislikes. He enjoys the preparation, being part of a team, helping young men develop into strong adults, and game day in the arena. He bristles, but only a little, at his reputation for explosiveness on the sidelines. He is not like that all the time, he says. “It’s amazing how many recruits say, ‘He’s actually a really nice guy.’ What gets perceived is from a three-hour window once a week on the sidelines. I’m intense and extremely focused when I need to be.”
He wants his players to take on his intensity and focus when they play. And he wants them to know he is there for them when they need it.
“Will plays a father figure,” Carol says. “We’ll get calls at 3 in the morning when a player is in a predicament and wants to get Will’s advice.”
“It’s comforting to me that they feel comfortable enough to call me,” Will adds. “The younger players will ask the older players, ‘Is that real?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, that’s how we handle things.’ That’s a strength of ours moving forward.”
Helping shape character is his ultimate reward. Will remembers a special thank-you from the father of one of his players, Dante Fowler, Jr., whom he coached at the University of Florida. Dante Fowler, Sr., hopped on a plane from Tampa to Atlanta, where Will was coaching his first game as Auburn’s defensive coordinator at the Georgia Dome. “He wanted to thank me in person for the positive impact I had on Dante,” Will says, noting Dante Fowler, Jr., was the third pick in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft. “I told him that Dante did the work.”
Dante Fowler, Jr., plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Will had his time with professional football, too, as assistant head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2005. He prefers college football. It brings seasons and transitions, from recruiting to prepping to competing. In the off-season, he and Carol make more public appearances, attending charity events. When Will cannot attend, Carol goes alone, visiting hospitals and giving out autographed Gamecock memorabilia. “I get more out of it than they do,” she says.
Wherever they have lived, the Muschamps have supported organizations that help local children, and they also believe in supporting their city and their state. While Will cannot imagine a career outside football, when pressed he says he would be a teacher. “My dad was an educator. I enjoy seeing people develop and grow.”
The youngest of three boys, Will was steeped in his father’s lively storytelling. Larry Muschamp was headmaster of schools and a football coach in Gainesville and Rome, Georgia, where his sons attended and played sports. All three sons and their father played college football. History is a subject Will enjoys; his undergraduate degree from UGA is in speech communications. His master’s degree, from Auburn University, is in adult education.
“I lost Dad three years ago, and that was hard,” Will reflects. “I learned to celebrate the life and time we had together.” It is not unusual for him to help his players through times of grief. “I talk to them about loss and going through a tough time.”
“A Way of Life”
Carol and Will came of age in the 1980s. She listened to Prince and Michael Jackson; he was an Eddie Money man. To relax, they enjoy spending time on the lake. They also love to play competitive family games of ping-pong and video games, such as Pac-man and Galago. When Will’s schedule allows, Carol and Will love to grill out or go for a jog together, and Carol finished a half-marathon in Nashville in 2007. Will particularly enjoys grilling. Here, too, they make a great team: Will cooks or smokes the meat while Carol prepares the side dishes. As a topic, football rarely comes up.
“I enjoy the break,” Will says.
“We talk about family, our kids,” Carol adds. But neither do they mind talking football when fans come around. “I look at this as a way of life,” Will says. “This is what we want to do.”
Like many couples with children, their lives are hectic. They fail to remember the last time they went to a movie. “He would go to chick flicks when we were dating,” Carol reports. “I can’t even tell you what movies are out now.” For the record, Will likes The Godfather. A lot. When it comes on TV, don’t expect him to budge.
What do they want in the future? They look at each other. “I just want us to stay healthy,” Carol finally says, slowly, “and to stay put.” Moving so many times hasn’t been easy on her, the boys, or their Goldendoodles, Rocky and Rambo, and Sadie, the stray cat they picked up in Auburn.
Will does not hesitate with his response. “I look forward to a long career at Carolina,” he says, his voice confident and calm. “I’m enjoying the challenge we have here.”