GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The voice from the back of the building was unmistakable. The greeting style, too.
”Hey, there’s my man,” said the former Gators coach to the current one. ”You ready to do some more talking?”
It was shortly after 6:30 a.m. Tuesday when Florida coach Will Muschamp walked through the front doors of Eagle Aviation at the Columbia (S.C.) Metro Airport. Inside, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier was waiting to hop a ride.
In what has become a tradition unlike any other in the Southeastern Conference, Spurrier and Muschamp fly up to ESPN headquarters together for the network’s annual Coaches’ ”Car Wash,” a five-hour interview tour stretched across several ESPN platforms.
As Spurrier likes to say, the college football preseason is ”talking season.”
The impromptu arrangement originated three years ago shortly after Muschamp took over the Florida program that Spurrier built into a national power in his 12 seasons as the Gators’ coach from 1990-2001.
The South Carolina business jet Spurrier normally flies on was in use for other reasons, so Spurrier called Florida officials to ask if he could catch a ride on the University Athletic Association plane.
Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley reminded ESPN radio host Paul Finebaum earlier this month that Spurrier is ”always going to be the favorite son, and rightfully so.”
So you know the answer. Stop in Columbia to pick up the head ball coach.
Plus, while newly minted SEC East rivals at the time, Muschamp called Spurrier shortly after he took the Florida job in December 2010.
”I told him the doors are always open unless we are playing South Carolina,” Muschamp said. ”At the end of the day, he’s a Gator.”
When Muschamp made that call, he had bumped into Spurrier only a few days earlier in New York at the annual National Football Foundation awards. The phone call from Foley to discuss the Florida job was only days away, unbeknownst to Muschamp.
While Muschamp built his career as one of the country’s top defensive coordinators at LSU, Auburn and Texas, he didn’t know Spurrier that well other than the occasional meeting. Still, Spurrier was classic SOS at that chance meeting in a hotel lobby in New York.
”He came walking up to me and says, ‘Hey Will, you’ve done a great job as a defensive coordinator. You’re a lot better coach than you were a player,’ ” Muschamp said while laughing Tuesday. ”And he meant it as a compliment in the way only he could say it. He says whatever is on his mind, and I appreciate that.”
In an age when friendly rivalries tend to take a backseat to the daily grind and pressures of coaching in the SEC, Muschamp and Spurrier have developed a genuine friendship over the past three and a half years.
When you strip them to their core, they have a lot in common.
”Will is a good guy, a good coach and a good family guy,” Spurrier said.
The obvious connection is that they both know the demands and expectations that come with being head coach at Florida. But beyond that, they grew up in the South and are quick to deliver a tangy one-liner dripped in a drawl. They both played in the SEC. They both are measured to some degree by their history with Georgia.
Spurrier despises the Dawgs and is beloved by Florida fans for the way he turned the rivalry in Florida’s favor. Muschamp, after a failed attempt to garner interest from Spurrier as a player, went to Georgia and never defeated the Gators. As Florida’s head coach, he is 0-3 against his alma mater.
At Florida, Spurrier’s teams quickly got out of the gate in his first three seasons and produced a 28-8 record from 1990-92. Muschamp is 22-16 in his first three seasons at UF, comparable to Spurrier’s 21-16 record in his first three seasons at South Carolina.
The Gators are coming off a down season, but Spurrier said Tuesday he doesn’t expect that trend to last.
”I think Florida is going to do well this year,” he said. ”I sort of pick Florida and Mississippi State as a couple of teams that got a chance to have big years.”
For all their similarities, there is a one difference in their coaching backgrounds: Muschamp made his name as a defensive guru, and Spurrier is known for his offensive mind.
They share a mutual respect in part due to their varied philosophies.
”I’ve got great respect for Coach Spurrier,” Muschamp said. ”How he does his job. What he’s accomplished. What he stands for. He’s a guy that’s always intrigued me as a coach. He’s a Hall of Fame football coach and it’s an honor to be able to talk to him about our profession and to build a friendship.”
As they traveled back and forth from Columbia to Bristol, Conn., together on Tuesday, the two chatted easily. At other times they went silent. Muschamp watched film on his laptop or read the newspaper. Spurrier brought the local newspaper on board and read it from cover to cover, and then consumed two other papers that were already on the plane.
While Muschamp recently returned from a Panhandle beach vacation with his family, Spurrier had just arrived back in Columbia on Monday night after playing in the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship in Lake Tahoe.
He shared a story about flying home on the same plane as former Gators running back Emmitt Smith and talking to Smith about how his decision to leave UF after his junior season worked out well for the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.
On the flight from Connecticut to South Carolina late Tuesday afternoon, the plane was diverted to Philadelphia for a two-hour delay due to a non-emergency mechanical issue. Spurrier rested on a couch while mostly watching ESPN show highlights of their visit. Muschamp sat nearby talking and texting on the phone.
Two guys hanging out until a new plane arrived.
Once they left Philadelphia and arrived in Columbia, Spurrier parted ways, tipping an airport worker for a ride to his car, which was at the aviation center across the airport from where the plane landed.
Before leaving, he shook Muschamp’s hand and offered a final word.
”Hopefully we’ll be battling for the division if we beat the Dawgs and those other teams,” Spurrier said.