ROME, GA – The Darlington School's main campus stands on one side of Cave Spring Road with the athletic facilities on the other.
Rich, red-bricked buildings sprawl for more than 400 acres – outlined by bright white concrete sidewalks and dark green manicured lawns.
“This isn’t your average looking single-A school,” said football coach Tommy Atha.
The private school sits 70 miles from Atlanta and enrolls approximately 900 students in grades Pre-K through 12.
Larry Muschamp moved his family to the area from Gainesville, Fla., after becoming head master in the late 1980s. This is where his youngest son Will established the foundation for his rise in the realm of athletics.
Head basketball coach Jim Van Es has been at Darlington since 1968 and is a family friend to the Muschamps.
“If somebody asked me to pick the best overall athlete that I’ve seen in my time, it would be Will Muschamp,” he said.
Muschamp is now in his first season as the head football coach at Florida. The Gators are currently 4-3 and preparing for the annual showdown with rival Georgia.
Back in the fall of 1987, Muschamp was a freshman starter at both running back and linebacker for the Tigers.
Van Es remembers the first time he saw Will play – the first game of the season.
“We were ahead and the score was close late in the game, and we had the ball deep in our territory, but the momentum had changed,” he recalls. “We had it about third and five and we needed a first down. They handed the ball to Will, and he got hit in the backfield. He broke that tackle. Then he got hit at the line of scrimmage, and he broke that tackle. He got the first down. I can remember thinking: ‘I’m going to enjoy watching him for four years.’ And I did.”
Muschamp excelled at football, basketball and baseball.
“I think his presence athletically and as a student was very strong here at Darlington and still is to this time,” Atha, who has been at Darlington since 1993, said. “I would certainly say he’s one of the best players to ever play here.”
“He could do anything,” Van Es said. “I think what made him special was not so much his physical ability, which was ample, but his approach and his intensity. Without a doubt, Will is the most intensely competitive kid I have ever coached.”
After his junior season in football many major schools were showing interest in Muschamp. He was hearing most from in-state Georgia, and his old hometown team – the Florida Gators. Southern Cal and many others were in the mix, too.
At the apex of his high school career an injury in baseball served to both scare away all major college offers and also add to his legend.
An in-between fly ball spurned Muschamp full speed toward the infield from his position in left field. He called off the short stop, but the two collided. Muschamp’s leg snapped as he made the catch.
“Know what he did?” Van Es asks rhetorically. “He got up to show the umpire that he caught the ball. He got up, and then he went back down.”
“That’s just the kind of player he was,” Atha said.
The broken leg left Muschamp with offers only from smaller schools. He set up a visit to Florida to speak with coach Steve Spurrier about walking on to the team.
“Spurrier didn’t show up,” Van Es said. “They waited and they waited and they waited. Finally his dad said: ‘This is ridiculous. Let’s go.’ He would have walked on at Florida.”
Coach Ray Goff took the young safety to be at Georgia.
“He was just a hard working guy,” said former Georgia quarterback and current offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. “He was a warehouse guy that was going to give everything he had to the team. He made himself into the player he was by the effort he gave.”
Muschamp quickly earned a scholarship, became a starter and was named defensive captain his senior year.
“I think that says a lot about his character and perseverance,” Atha said. “I’m sure that’s helped him. You have to believe that he’s drawn from that experience to get where he is today.”
Muschamp went right into coaching after his playing days were over. He spent two seasons as a graduate assistant at Auburn. He then went to West Georgia, Eastern Kentucky and Valdosta State – three schools in three years as momentum in his career built quickly.
He landed at Louisiana State in 2001, teaming with coach Nick Saban.
Muchamp then followed Saban to the NFL four years later, serving as defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins.
Stops as defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas came next before Muschamp took over as head coach at Florida at the age of 40.
“I was hoping he’d be at Auburn,” said Muschamp’s sister-in-law Sally, an Auburn grad. “Those were good times. It does not surprise me at all. He’s always been so driven.”
“Every time we see him on television my wife always screams, ‘there’s Will, there’s Will.’ “ Van Es said. “Now he’s on TV so much I say: ‘I see him.’ When he was an assistant you only got to see him so much, so she would get excited.”
While the Gators have dropped three consecutive games, the team's defense is ranked 11th nationally.
"(The defense) is similar to what he's always run," Bobo said. "It's probably not in phase four or five because of the youth they have, but you can see them coming along more and more each week. That's a talented group he has."
Recently Muschamp’s sideline demeanor has come under scrutiny. He’s loud, animated and doesn’t hold back. Cameras and microphones have caught Muschamp’s actions --following good and bad plays. Some have called his emotion into question, arguing his actions go overboard and are detrimental now that he’s a head coach instead of a coordinator.
“He’s very fiery,” Atha said. “He’s very passionate. I think he played that way. I think he was an extremely emotional and passionate football player.”
Van Es added: “What is it they say? A fish has to swim, birds have to fly. Will’s gotta be Will. That’s the way he is. That’s the way he was as a player.”
Muschamp claims his emotions won’t get the best of him this weekend, as he’ll play his alma mater for the first time as a head coach.
“I don’t mean disrespect to anybody, but I’m loyal to people, not places,” Muchamp said. “I work for (Florida athletic director) Jeremy Foley and (President) Dr. Bernie Machen, and those are the people I need to do a good job for and this football team and staff. That’s how I view things. I’ve worked a lot of different places, and this isn’t the first time I’ve played against Georgia.”
He’s 3-4 as an assistant against the Bulldogs. Still, this Saturday will be different, Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
"He won't know until the game is played in my opinion,” said Richt, who coached against his alma mater Miami while at Florida State. “He has experience coaching against Georgia, so he's used to that. He's just not done it as a head coach, so I'm sure there might be some different emotions as maybe a coordinator.”
Will’s rise to prominence has given the Muschamp name even more meaning within and around the Darlington school. His brother Mike is a coach at the Lovett School in Atlanta. He could one day join Will on staff, Van Es says.
Sally, who is married to Will’s brother Pat, was a teacher at Darlington middle school until recently.
“Now that he is famous we receive attention a lot more,” she said. “You go into a restaurant and people look. The UPS guy asks if we’re related to ‘the coach.’"
Will’s two nephews, Jordan and Robert, currently play on the varsity squad.
“I use to tell the boys, ‘you know, your uncle was a sissy when he was here,’” Van Es said. “And that’s anything but the truth.”
Muschamp has returned on occasion to speak at the school.
“He came the year before last and spoke to us for career day,” said junior quarterback Brad Butler. “That was pretty cool.”
And he’s been a resource for Atha and the high school team.
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet with him on several occasions,” Atha said. “We communicate a lot. Will’s the kind of guy that’s always been willing to sit down with you or communicate questions.”
From Darlington to Florida, Muschamp has journeyed a great distance since his days as a Tiger, when he was known as “Wonderful” Will – the nickname receptionist Stephanie Fleming still uses in reference to Muschamp.
“I’m not surprised at his rise and his success simply because of what I saw,” Van Es said. “It’s been rolling ever since, hadn’t it?”