COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's Will Muschamp learned early in his career that to succeed, he would have to outcoach good friends and mentors nearly every season.
This is one of those years.
The Gamecocks fourth-year coach starts this season against someone he knows and respects — first-year North Carolina coach Mack Brown . Muschamp worked on Brown's staff at Texas, and now they meet on opposite sides of the field when their teams play Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina at the Carolina Panthers' stadium.
Muschamp spent three seasons as Brown's defensive coordinator — and, later on, head coach in waiting — with the Longhorns from 2008 through 2010.
Muschamp said he and his wife, Carol, talked the other day about that time and concurred those "were three of the better years we had in coaching."
Much of that, Muschamp said, was Brown's welcoming nature, his openness and willingness to let his defensive coach take charge of players. The combination helped Texas rank No. 1 nationally during that time with 119 sacks as they played for a national championship before losing to Alabama in 2009.
After Muschamp's first season at Texas, Brown approached him about the coach-in-waiting designation, making sure the coordinator understood it would be a while before Brown retired and Muschamp moved up.
"We thought we wanted to keep him," Brown said. "And a lot of people were coming after him."
Muschamp liked the school, the program and the area and jumped at the chance to bring security to his wife and two sons. But after two more seasons, Muschamp's waiting came to an end when he accepted the Florida job after the 2010 season.
"When there's a head coach in waiting, there are a lot of questions that go with it. First is, 'When is coach Brown leaving?' Second is, 'Do we really want this guy taking over our program?'" Muschamp said this summer. "And they're fair questions, and they're hard questions."
Brown said there were no hard feelings toward Muschamp because he was an assistant give the chance to improve his career by running his own program.
"So it didn't strain (the relationship) at all," Brown said.
Muschamp was let go after four years at Florida and led Auburn's defense in 2015 before getting his second crack at head coaching with South Carolina.
Brown and Muschamp have spoken off and on since those Texas days. Muschamp heard whispers about North Carolina's wish to have Brown return and knew that meant another coaching matchup against a friend he respected.
It will happen for Muschamp quite a bit this time.
On Sept. 14, the Gamecocks host Alabama and another of Muschamp's former bosses in Nick Saban. They'll play Georgia and coach Kirby Smart, Muschamp's old Bulldogs teammate and longtime friend, on Oct. 12.
South Carolina closes Southeastern Conference play Nov. 16 at Texas A&M, who's led by Muschamp's good friend Jimbo Fisher. The two head coaches once owned a beach house together after becoming close as assistants together at Auburn under Terry Bowden and at LSU under Saban.
"Got great respect for all those men," Muschamp said. "I wish them well except for one Saturday when we play them."
Muschamp is impressed by Brown's coaching staff and likes what he's seen of North Carolina's players. He's certain Brown will get the Tar Heels, who were 2-9 last season, back pointed in a winning direction.
Brown said Muschamp is the same hard-working, driven coach he hired more than a decade ago. "He's smart, he's tough, he's aggressive," Brown said. "He did a tremendous job for us. ... And he's doing a great job at South Carolina.
Still, neither Brown nor Muschamp relish playing against friends and mentors.
"But it's just part of what you've got to do," Muschamp said.
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, contributed to this report.