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January 4, 2010
Almost a family affair
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. _ The phone calls used to be frequent, at least a couple per week, and during this past offseason University of Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was spotted with friend and Texas counterpart Will Muschamp at both Chuck's Fish and Innisfree Tavern in Tuscaloosa.
Recently, though, even the texts have dwindled down to a trickle and the constant sharing of ideas and game plans was obviously put on hold when it became clear they could be on a collision course to meet in the BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl.
"You know, it's unfortunate that somebody is going to be unhappy Thursday night," Muschamp said.
Although there are a variety of worthy storylines regarding Alabama vs. Texas, the key subplots revolve around are the numerous connections between the coaching staffs, especially with the Longhorns' head coach in waiting opposing both his best friend Smart and best teacher Nick Saban.
Similar to Muschamp giving Smart his big break in coaching (even though the initial job only paid $10,000), Saban essentially did the same for Muschamp -- who then brought Smart with him to LSU and both followed Saban to the Miami Dolphins.
"I've said it before and I'll say it again, I wouldn't be where I am if it weren't for the opportunities that Nick gave me, hiring me from Valdosta State, a Division II school, at LSU and within a year promoted me to defensive coordinator," Muschamp said.
"There are not a lot of coaches that would do that. Nick is more worried about reality than he is perception with making decisions and taking the due diligence to make the right decisions for the organization.
"Outstanding coach from a total program standpoint. Just does a phenomenal job from coaching to recruiting and motivating his players and I've got the utmost respect for him."
Consequently, when the teams take the field to play for the crystal football the defenses will greatly mirror one other, only tweaked by their coordinators and retooled to fit their personnel.
How ironic is it then that in order to win the national championship they'll be showing the college football world the best way to attack their own defensive scheme?
"Their defense is real similar to ours in a lot of ways," sophomore running back Mark Ingram said. "They're just real fast. They get to the ball. They shed blocks, their D-line does. Their linebackers are fast, they fill gaps, float real well to the ball and the secondary comes up and makes tackles as well. All 11 players are sound and they play great defense."
"There are obviously some similarities, I'm sure there are some terminology deals that are the same," offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said. "It's been good for us to go against our defense the last 523 days since the last game, or whatever the heck it's been. It's been helping."
Even statistically the defenses have had similar success. Nationally, they're 1-2 against the run with Texas holding a slight edge (62.15 yards per game vs. 77.92), but in total defense the Tide is second (241.69), just ahead of the Longhorns (241.69).
In scoring defense, Alabama is second (11.0 points), while Texas is eighth (15.15), and the list goes on.
"We kind of know what they do, too," Saban said. "It will be interesting to see if they change what they're doing. I think who you are is more important than what you do. I always say that.
"Who we are as football team, in terms of what we do and how we execute is important and I don't really think there are a whole lot of changes you can make, to do what? Are you going to trick yourself or trick them? We do what we do and always do self-scout and know what our tendencies are and what the other team thinks about us and what we need to do to balance that."
Other than Smart, who's next to him every day in practice to help with the defensive backs, Muschamp probably knows Saban better than any coach in country, and as Auburn's defensive coordinator (2006-07) worked with interior linebackers coach James Willis too.
Texas running backs coach Major Applewhite was also Saban's offensive coordinator during his first season in the Capstone, before McElwain was brought in. That 2007 team was primarily known for pounding the ball and didn't have near the balance as this year's unit.
"It was a difficult decision but when the opportunity came at Texas," Applewhite, the former Longhorns quarterback who took a demotion to return, said in a statement. "It was just impossible to tell home, 'No.'"
Consequently, with the firsthand knowledge the students may have some extra insight on how to beat their former teacher.
"It held in that we have a pretty good feel of at least their juniors and seniors, and most of their players are juniors and seniors," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "Major was there as an offensive coordinator, and he knows those kids. He knows how they'll think. He knows how they'll practice.
"Then Will was kind of raised by Nick. He had five years under him as a defensive coordinator and it's really funny when you start looking at the defenses, they're exactly the same. The calls are the same. That's the positive for us. The negative is that both staffs will be trying to out-think what the other one is going to do, because we know so much about each other."
The coordinators are many ways alike personally too, going back to their playing days at Georgia, with long reputations for being energetic and high-strung. Friends believe they could probably still line up for a play or two, and they frequently show the kind of emotion on the sideline that causes their wives to bury their heads and say, "Yeah, that's my husband."
"Well, it would be 6:00 a.m., we're just getting there and he's already fired up and throwing stuff around the room," Texas sophomore safety Earl Thomas said about Muschamp. "He's a great guy to be around, and I'm just glad he's on our team and not the other team."
"When we first got here it was different for us," Longhorns senior defensive tackle Lamarr Houston said. "We never had a coach as intense. I've never seen a coach head-butt a guy in the middle of his chest before a game. We got used to it, and it's how we play, and players really are a reflection of the coach, and it's rubbed off on us a lot this year."
As such, this won't just be a championship game, but also a sort of family affair. The kind that will be talked a lot about during vacations and when those phone calls start up again Friday.
"I think for me, and probably to put it in perspective, you know when one of your children does something that makes you proud," Saban said. "Whether it's Mark D'Antonio at Michigan State, (Florida State coach) Jimbo (Fisher), or (Louisiana Tech coach) Derek Dooley, or Will, I'm really proud and want to see them all do extremely well. We've had to compete against each other before, whether it was Bill Belichick, who I used to work for, who probably feels a little bit that way about me.
"We're good friends, and you compete and play against each other, but you don't dislike each other and you don't not have the same amount of respect and admiration for each other and want to be helpful to those guys if you can, even though you compete against somebody in that moment in time, you are trying to do the best you can for your team."