Nick Saban was in his first season as LSU head coach when the Tigers faced Georgia Tech in the 2000 Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Will Muschamp was Valdosta State’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at the time — an up-and-comer who was friends with Tiger quarterbacks coach Jimbo Fisher. In the week before the game, Muschamp traveled the 230 miles north to watch LSU’s bowl practices.
“Nick thought I was a spy for Georgia Tech,” Muschamp joked at SEC Media Days in July.
“He approached me and introduced himself. We started talking and kind of hit it off. He told me I could stay for the entire practice and we visited when practice was over.”
Saban disagreed with the notion he thought Muschamp was a “spy” on a Wednesday teleconference with reporters, but said that he “absolutely” remembers that meeting.
“I was very impressed with Will. He’s a really bright, young coach,” the now Alabama head coach said. “Good personality. Very knowledgeable.
“I was always impressed with Will’s leadership and ability to communicate with players and develop relationships with players. He’s a good motivator. He’s got some toughness about him, which I think the personality of the team reflects. The personality of our defense when he was with us reflected that.
“… Just a very bright guy. He’s turned out to be very successful as a coach.”
About two months later, Saban had an opening on his coaching staff, and asked Fisher who “the young man was at practice that day.”
“He brought me in for an interview the next day and offered me the job,” Muschamp said. “There is no question that things happen for a reason sometimes in life and that certainly changed my career.”
Muschamp coached under Saban at LSU from 2001-2004 as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach and then in 2005 with the Miami Dolphins as an assistant head coach and defensive coach.
Muschamp said Tuesday that a significant percentage of what he does as a head coach — agreeing with a reporter that it could be as much as 90 percent — comes from what Saban taught him, including on-field schemes and systems, what to look for in a recruit, how to evaluate a player, how to run a practice and how to run an offseason program.
“We’ve carried over a lot of things that obviously work extremely well,” Muschamp said. “I learned a lot.”
Muschamp will have a chance to do something no Saban former assistant has done this week, when the Gamecocks (1-1) take on the Crimson Tide (2-0) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Williams-Brice Stadium. In 16 tries, no former Saban assistant has beaten Saban when they have faced him as head coach. (Muschamp’s Florida teams lost to Alabama in 2011 and 2014.)
But Muschamp on Tuesday downplayed the familiarity between the coaches.
“I don’t think it has a whole lot of bearing on the game. It’s about the players that line up between the white lines when the game kicks off,” Muschamp said. “… Obviously, we have to do a great job of preparing our team, but the familiarity thing on each side is a little blown out of proportion. … I haven’t worked for Nick since 2005. That’s a long time ago.”
Said Saban, “I think opening in the SEC is something that’s always very challenging and certainly presents tremendous opportunity and challenge for our team, especially on the road against a very good South Carolina team. We have a lot of respect for coach Muschamp and his program and his players and the way they play.”