Associated Press Sports Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Their first meeting between Will Mushcamp and Nick Saban was just a casual chat.
Muschamp, the defensive coordinator at Valdosta State in 2000, decided to stop by LSU's bowl practice in Atlanta and see some close friends, including Jimbo Fisher. Fisher introduced Muschamp to Saban, and the two spoke for 20 minutes about football and philosophy.
A month later, Saban had an opening on his staff, called Muschamp for an interview and hired him the same night.
They spent the next five years together. Meetings, practices, meals, road trips, games, family get-togethers, they were seemingly inseparable. Saban was the defensive guru with passion, vision and NFL experience. Muschamp was his student, willing to listen and learn everything he could about the intricacies of defense. Together, they helped lead LSU to the 2003 national championship.
Saturday they'll be on opposite sidelines as head coaches for the first time, Saban with No. 3 Alabama (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference); Muschamp with the 12th-ranked Gators (4-0, 2-0).
Regardless of the outcome, it won't change the respect these two have for each other.
"Sometimes you meet somebody and you really get a good feel for them, and Will just was a real good person, real genuine. You could tell he was hard working and had a sort of special intensity about him in terms of what he wanted to do and a passion for football and how important it was to him," Saban said. "That first impression really held true in this case."
Muschamp might have stayed with Saban longer had Saban not passed him over for the defensive coordinator job with the NFL's Miami Dolphins in 2006. Muschamp left shortly after Saban's decision, spent two years at Auburn before moving to Texas in 2008. He was the Longhorns' head coach-in-waiting when Florida came calling last December.
Now, his stamp is all over the Gators.
It's not a whole lot different from Saban's Crimson Tide.
Both use prostyle offenses that have a run-first mentality. Both have multiple-scheme defenses built to dominate the line of scrimmage and disguise blitzes and coverage. Both try to recruit the best players in the country to fit their needs.
"I've got great respect for Nick and the job he does," Muschamp said. "I probably wouldn't be standing here today if it weren't for the opportunity he gave me at LSU to be a position coach and then naming me the coordinator. Philosophically, we're on the same page about what we want to be defensively from an identity standpoint.
"The guy does a great job of managing his program, top to bottom, from recruiting, philosophically, offense, defense and special teams."
They are similar in a lot of ways, but obviously different in one.
"I can't jump up and down on the sidelines any more like he does," Saban said. "Will, of all the guys that we have had on our staff through the years, probably worked the hardest, did the best job, had the most passion, and was probably as well liked by the players as anyone."
No doubt, Muschamp is a players' coach.
He brings as much energy to the sideline as anyone in uniform. He jumps up and down with every big play, exchanges hugs, high-fives and chest bumps, and certainly isn't afraid to yell at officials. If he were a basketball or baseball coach, he already would have been ejected this season.
"I'm going to be who I am," Muschamp said. "If it's working, then it's good. If it's not, then we'll change and do something differently. But it's about being who you are you. I think the worst thing you can do in a leadership position is try to be somebody you're not. That's what we're doing."
So far, it's working just fine.
Players enjoy seeing Muschamp's emotional outbursts, red-faced screams and emphatic celebrations.
"Some players don't like doing that, but a good group of us feed off of coach Muschamp's emotion," defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd said. "We love it. It gets us going, wakes us up. It's amazing to me, actually, watching him pour his emotion out on game day and throughout the week."
Don't expect either coach to get sentimental before or after the game. They know what's at stake. It's a chance for Muschamp to get a signature victory in his first season and show he had the Gators on track to compete for the SEC title; it's a chance for Saban to win a third consecutive game against the Gators and move a step closer to reclaiming the West.
Everything else, including their relationship, might just be hype.
"When that game gets going, all of that stuff is overrated," said Fisher, who introduced the two. "It's better for newspaper, talk, pre-game talk. When it gets going, that stuff goes out the window, honestly."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
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