A year ago at this time, South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner was knee-deep in a long, pressure-packed coaching search with twists and turns he couldn’t possibly control.
And when he finally wound up choosing Will Muschamp on Dec. 6 — 55 days after Steve Spurrier resigned abruptly in the middle of a disastrous 3-9 season — the decision was largely met with snickering from rival SEC fan bases and much of the national media.
After pursuing a handful of others, including Houston’s Tom Herman and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, some perceived Muschamp to be a panic move that was made because South Carolina didn’t want to deal with any more rejections.
But this weekend, as South Carolina heads to Florida with a 5-4 record, a chance to get bowl eligible and an outside shot to win the SEC East, Tanner might be getting the last laugh.
While it’s true the East’s historic run of mediocrity has opened the door for South Carolina to make quick progress, a win this weekend arguably would make Muschamp the favorite to win SEC Coach of the Year (Non-Saban division, which is another matter altogether).
At least in the short term, it appears Tanner may join the long list of athletics directors who didn’t “win the press conference” with their hires but may have found the right guy, a lesson to keep in mind as hiring season begins for this cycle.
“I never went into it thinking that there would be 100% approval on any decisions that were made,” Tanner told USA TODAY Sports this week. “I understand the scrutiny. There was some skepticism going into the process, but I wasn’t affected by that. It was so important we got the right person here.”
It was pretty clear by this week that Muschamp had enough of the questions about his return to Florida, where he went 28-21 over four seasons and was informed of his firing the day after a loss, ironically, to South Carolina on Nov. 16, 2014. And it’s hard to blame him.
It would be difficult to find any coach anywhere who has been as standup about a professional failure on a major stage as Muschamp, and frankly, it’s an old conversation by now.
The more illuminating story line to examine is why Muschamp is working at South Carolina when the conventional wisdom a year ago was that Tanner needed to hire an exciting offensive-minded coach, not an SEC retread with a defensive background who struggled at Florida because of some bad decisions (both in personnel and coaching) on the offensive side of the ball.
Some critics all but counted Muschamp out before his first day on the job, making the illogical leap that because he didn’t work out at Florida there was no way he could do it at a program with fewer advantages.
Tanner knew those slings and arrows would come his way because, like everyone else, he watched what happened in Gainesville. But coaching searches can be as much about the intangibles as the statistics, especially at a place like South Carolina where you’re not going to win no matter what unless you can draw players from Atlanta and North Carolina and compete with Clemson on the small amount of in-state talent.
Under the surface of his win-loss record, Tanner saw the fit in both recruiting and how he dealt with off-field issues and responsibilities at Florida, which even Muschamp’s critics would agree was impeccable.
“I’ve been here a long time and felt like I understood our culture,” said Tanner, who won two national titles with six College World Series appearances as South Carolina’s baseball coach before moving into administration.
“I was just so impressed, so comfortable with what he represents and his work ethic, his ability to communicate. I listened to what happened in the past and where he was professionally. I just was so excited about the fit and just felt strongly that our fan base would embrace him and he’d embrace them and we'd have a chance to get this thing going again, and I’m certainly very happy with where we are today.”
The Muschamp hire working out should also raise some questions about the popular theory in college athletics these days that there’s a big advantage to be gained in the search by firing a coach at midseason.
Though Tanner was able to do some legwork on candidates, the reality is that South Carolina’s search changed course multiple times after the early focus on Herman and then Smart, the possibility of which played some role in Georgia’s quick-trigger decision to fire Mark Richt.
Ultimately, as more jobs opened up, South Carolina was no longer in the front of the line, which is simply the reality most athletics directors will face when they go through this process in December.
“Timing is everything, and things change a long the way,” Tanner said. “I had a little more time to run some things out, but it didn’t necessarily make the process perfect. The thing that was important to us as we went through this is, I never worried about whether I was going to win the press conference.”
South Carolina is just winning games instead.
Dan Wolken, USA Today