It was the spring of 1999. Eastern Kentucky University was in the market for a new secondary coach. Coaches at Auburn kept contacting EKU to pitch a former Tigers graduate assistant, Will Muschamp, for the job.
Eastern coaches kept telling the Auburn staff that the direction of the Eastern search was already cast — and it was not going to include Muschamp.
"Bill Oliver was the defensive coordinator at Auburn then," former EKU defensive coordinator Jim Tanara recalled last week. "He would call me about Will. He just kept saying, 'Just bring him in and talk to him, that's all I ask.'"
Finally, Tanara relented.
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"I told Bill, 'Look we'll bring him in, but we've already decided we're moving in a different direction,'" he said.
Not long after, the March 26, 1999, edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader contained the following brief.
EKU hires assistant
Will Muschamp, who played at Georgia, has been named defensive secondary coach at Eastern Kentucky, the school said.
Muschamp, 27, a native of Rome, Ga., was an assistant coach last season at West Georgia.
Suffice to say, that job interview must've been a doozy.
On Saturday, the Florida Gators will invade Commonwealth Stadium seeking to extend their winning streak against UK to 25 games. On the Gators sideline will be a 40-year-old, first-year head man considered one of the rising stars in major-college football coaching — the same Will Muschamp who coached the secondary in Richmond for iconic EKU head man Roy Kidd in 1999.
For those who knew Muschamp during the one season he spent at Eastern, his ascension to the top ranks of college football coaching seems like destiny fulfilled.
On that EKU interview — the one where Muschamp stood no chance to get the job — Tanara remembers having the young coach go to the blackboard and diagram different defenses in front of the entire Eastern coaching staff, including Kidd.
"His knowledge, enthusiasm, personality, it all showed," Tanara says. "You could tell he would do well with the kids."
That night, dropping Muschamp off at his Richmond motel, Tanara told the job applicant that the EKU team would be going through its off-season conditioning workouts at 6 a.m. the next morning.
"I asked him if he would like to come and watch, but I told him it would be fine if he wanted to sleep in, too," Tanara says. "Next morning at 5:30 a.m., I drive by the motel and Will was waiting out front. That impressed me."
As his coaching star has added ever more luster during stints as an assistant at LSU, Auburn and Texas, Muschamp has become a YouTube sensation thanks to his exuberant sideline demeanor.
That was not immediately on display in Richmond.
"Coach Muschamp was kind of reserved the first little bit in the classroom when we were around him," recalls Brent Hampton, a safety on the 1999 EKU team. "But the moment we stepped on the field, it was like turning a light switch. ... He dipped (tobacco). He yelled. He cursed. He was a guy's guy."
The 79-year-old Kidd, who won 314 games and two national titles at EKU in a Hall of Fame coaching career, likes to tell a story about Muschamp from the spring practice after the assistant had been hired at Eastern.
"I remember coming home after practice one day and Sue (the coach's wife) asking me how the new coach was working out," Kidd said last week. "I said, 'Well, it's good and bad. He's working out great. But he's not going to be with me long. Because, one, he's good. And, two, he's connected.' "
Among the EKU defensive backs Muschamp worked with during that 1999 season were safeties Scooter Asel, Shawn Gallant and Hampton, all seniors, plus cornerbacks Kris Nevels (junior), J.D. Jewell (sophomore) and Yeremiah Bell (freshman).
Bell, of course, went on to become an EKU star and is still a standout safety with the Miami Dolphins.
Once the season started, Muschamp was one of those rare coaches who had the knack for pushing players to their limits yet still being well liked.
Asel recalls setting his alarm clock wrong one day and showing up late for practice.
"Coach Kidd was furious with me," he said. "They dropped me to second string, they were making me stay after practice. Muschamp was making me do up-and-down drills, and he said, 'I hate to make you do this, but I've got to. So hit it.'"
Says Hampton: "Mush, more than anything, hated mental mistakes. The one thing that could just drive him crazy would be going over something, then not doing it on the field."
Muschamp, who turned 28 before that 1999 season at Eastern, seemed to have already mastered one of the secrets of coaching: You have to motivate people differently according to what works for them.
One time, Asel says Muschamp told him, "'Scooter, I'm not going to yell at you much because there's no way I could be as hard on you as you are.'"
Eastern finished the '99 season 7-4, a pedestrian record by Kidd's exacting standards. No one blamed the new secondary coach.
"You could just tell this was a guy who wasn't going to be at Eastern long," says veteran EKU radio play-by-play man Greg Stotelmyer of Muschamp. "He was good. You could just see it. He was fiery. Smart. Intense. He just had that moxie."
After the 1999 season, Muschamp was hired as defensive coordinator at Valdosta State by that school's new head coach, the former Kentucky assistant Chris Hatcher.
Muschamp has pretty well been climbing the coaching ladder ever since.
One can't advance much higher than head football coach at Florida.
It's a long way from the days when Muschamp took an interview at EKU for a position he had no chance to get, then got the job.
Says Kidd: "That year he spent with me, I knew Will was going places. He played in the SEC and he carried himself that way, he had that confidence. He was a hard worker, he coached kids hard, and he could get them to respond."