Long before they were rival coaches in the SEC East and just a few years after they were teammates for a year at Georgia, Kirby Smart went to Will Muschamp looking for a job.
Muschamp had started out as a graduate assistant at Auburn and then made stops at West Georgia and Eastern Kentucky before landing his first defensive coordinator job at Valdosta State under first-year coach Chris Hatcher.
"Within about five minutes of the interview, I knew that we wanted him to be the defensive coordinator," Hatcher said. "He has a lot of passion as you can see from where he’s been. Great knowledge and understanding of the game. To me, he just kind of had the 'it' factor."
Shortly thereafter, Muschamp recommended Smart as the team’s secondary coach. Smart was fresh out of college. He was a graduate assistant at Georgia, having recently been cut by the Indianapolis Colts, and he was eager to land his first real coaching job.
Maybe a little too eager.
"During the interview -- and this is a true story -- he drew up 12 guys on defense," Muschamp said. "I said, 'If we can play with 12 on defense, we’re going to be pretty good.' I told him this ain’t Canada. But that did happen."
"I remember it as Kirby only having 10 men on the field," Hatcher said. "There’s a discrepancy there. We just know that for a fact he didn’t have 11.
"But the job only paid $8,000 so the pool of candidates, it wasn’t a big pool to choose from. We laugh about that, but Kirby is extremely smart. In fact after Will left, in only really his second year of full-time coaching, we made [Smart] the defensive coordinator and we were second in the country in total defense and scoring defense."
Twenty-two years -- and a lot more than $8,000 -- later, Smart is at Georgia hoping to help his alma mater take the next step, while Muschamp is hoping to revitalize South Carolina in his second act as a head coach.
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Muschamp came to Georgia in 1991 with little fanfare. He was forced to walk on after he broke his leg his senior year in high school, and wasn’t put on full scholarship until the spring of his freshman year.
Four years later, he was the captain of the defense.
That same year, Smart arrived in Athens on full scholarship. He was a tremendous athlete -- better than Muschamp. He was intelligent. And he could play both cornerback and safety. Muschamp still remembers Smart playing on the scout team as a freshman and taking a kickoff back for a touchdown.
"He could really run," Muschamp said. "He was just a guy that was a really good athlete, and I knew he had a bright future as a player."
Smart and Muschamp never played together in a game because Smart was redshirted his first year by Georgia coach Ray Goff. But as fellow defensive backs, they spent plenty of time together in practice and in team meetings. And when Smart was discouraged about not playing, it was Muschamp who was there to pick him up.
"One of my best memories [of Muschamp] was sitting in the locker room as a freshman," Smart said. "He was a senior, he was a starter, he was a player, he was a leader, he was a captain. He had been there five years, a walk-on who had earned a scholarship. Here I am, a freshman scholarship player and I was sitting in the locker room after a scrimmage just shaking my head. I was like, 'Man, will I ever play here? I don’t know if I’ll ever play here.'
"He just kind of laughed and said, 'Stay the course. You’ll be fine.' Because he’d been through it. At the time, I didn’t think I would ever play. I was just overwhelmed. And of course, I ended up playing my next year.'"
Smart went on to become a four-year letterman at Georgia and was a first-team All-SEC selection as a senior. He finished his career with 13 interceptions, which ranks fourth all time in school history.
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Four years after their one season together at Valdosta State, Smart got another call and interview thanks to Muschamp. This time, Muschamp was the defensive coordinator at LSU where head coach Nick Saban was in the market for somebody to coach the defensive backs.
Smart was a graduate assistant at Florida State, and his only real coaching experience had been those two seasons at Valdosta State. In other words, he was perfect for the job.
"I was looking for a good, young, smart, bright, aggressive secondary coach that we could sort of develop," Saban said. "We had gone through a couple years of hiring a secondary coach who'd be there for a year, and I don't know if it was because I was a secondary coach or what, but they'd be gone after a year, mostly to the NFL. So I wanted to get a younger guy and sort of grow and develop the guy and have the guy with me for a while."
That year, with both Muschamp and Smart on staff, LSU’s defense finished third in the nation in total defense. But the partnership would only last one season. Saban left for the Miami Dolphins, and Muschamp followed. Smart took a job as the running backs coach at Georgia. The two have not been on the same staff since.
Still, both have Saban to thank for helping them get to the point they’re at now.
"The biggest thing you learn [from Saban] is the guy is really intelligent," Muschamp said. "He’s very driven. And he has a very wide scope of the things he wants to do to be successful.
"As far as the blueprint of recruiting, how you need to do things, how things need to be structured -- all of those things -- I learned an awful lot from Nick, and I’m sure Kirby did as well."
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Goff has grown used to seeing his former players become college head coaches. Brian Bohannon has been the coach at Kennesaw State since 2013. Mike Bobo was hired at Colorado State prior to last season. And now it’s Muschamp (for the second time) and Smart who have made the jump.
As a former coach himself, Goff knows how important it is to not take just any job, but to find the right job. He believes both Muschamp and Smart have found the right job this time.
"I’m not saying anything about the people that were there before, but I think they both will do well where they’re at," Goff said. "And I think they’ve got great opportunities, both of them.
"Sometimes you can get a job and then everybody else might think it’s the best job in the world, but it’s got to be a good fit for you. Not just from the coaching aspect, but from the administration and everything down. I think Will fits well at South Carolina, and I think he’ll do an outstanding job. And I think Kirby as well."
It just so happened that the "right job" for each coach was in the SEC East. Rivalry aside, the two remain close friends. However, all bets are off when they face each other on Oct. 8.
"Honestly, I don’t really like the competition with friends and people that you’ve been with," Muschamp told ESPN.com. "You spend a lot of time with these men coaching with them and you become close.
"But there’s no doubt on that day, I’m looking forward to whippin' his ass, and he’d probably say the same thing about me."