Billy Napier is not Jim McElwain 2.0, no matter how similar their backgrounds are
If you read Sunday’s news that Billy Napier was going to be the next coach at Florida and the name “Jim McElwain” came to mind, I get it.
After all, there are 3 connections between Napier and McElwain. Like McElwain, Napier was an offensive-minded coach on Nick Saban’s Alabama staff. The “Saban disciple” box is checked. There’s also the fact that both are moving on to Florida after turning around a Group of 5 program. And most notably, there’s the fact that Napier actually comes from the McElwain coaching tree having worked as his tight ends coach at Colorado State in 2012.
It’d be weird if there wasn’t some sort of McElwain thought as it relates to Napier taking the Florida job.
But that’s as far as it can go. If your take is “he’s too similar to McElwain to succeed at Florida,” you’re being too narrow-minded.
Napier isn’t necessarily destined to fail or succeed based in his background. If he fails, it won’t be because of his similarities to McElwain. Spend a minute listening to either coach and you’ll realize they’re built a bit differently.
We found out over the course of 3 short seasons in Gainesville that McElwain didn’t really have the personality to last long-term in that market. History suggests he’s built to be the smartest guy in the room at a Group of 5 school where his mistakes — and his inability to take a joke — don’t warrant national attention.
Nothing suggests that Napier is like that. Unlike McElwain, he’s not going to win a non-New Year’s 6 bowl game and then call out administration for a lack of facilities. Why? Well, Napier is getting those new facilities to work with. He’ll be the first coach to try to capitalize on Florida’s new $85 million football-only facility. That angst shouldn’t be there.
“Angst” doesn’t really seem to describe Napier. The more you read and talk to people about him, “methodical” and “workaholic” seem like more accurate attributes.
Remember that Napier was linked to openings at Auburn, Mississippi State and South Carolina. He didn’t jump ship for the first SEC program that came calling. After all, his Louisiana team returned 20 of 22 starters from a group that finished No. 15 in the AP Poll. Napier quietly bet on himself, and with good reason. He’s only in his early 40s, but his experience goes well beyond “guy who worked for Saban and had a nice Group of 5 season.”
Yes, Napier is a Saban disciple. He also just has his third consecutive 10-win season, and depending on how the postseason goes, the Ragin’ Cajuns could earn their second consecutive top-15 finish in the AP Poll. Not bad for a program that had never won more than 7 games at the FBS level prior to Napier’s arrival in 2018.
Look even beyond the impressive Group of 5 record and the Saban connection. Napier also worked for the likes of Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney.
Speaking of Swinney, he actually fired a 31-year-old Napier as his offensive coordinator at Clemson back in 2010. In an interview with ESPN earlier in the offseason, Napier said “I’ve been on that roller coaster where you think you’re going to the top … and then you get the rug pulled out from under you.” Napier admitted he was arrogant at the time.
Florida fans, that should be music to your ears after the Dan Mullen era.
Neither Mullen, nor McElwain, nor Muschamp had experienced something like that. Napier admitted getting fired changed him. He became an analyst on Saban’s staff and essentially spent the last decade working his way back up to earn this opportunity.
Call me crazy, but that might just be what’s needed to sustain some success in Gainesville.
Humble? Detail-oriented? Disciplined?
Those aren’t splashy things. That doesn’t matter. Splashy didn’t elevate Georgia’s program to the level it’s at. A relentless mindset from the head coach was what took that thing to the next level.
Scott Stricklin was tasked with making the right hire. That’s easier said than done at a place on coach No. 6 since Steve Spurrier left after the 2001 season. It’s also easier said than done in a league that watched 10 programs make head coaching changes in the last 2 years. Not everyone is built to handle the ebbs and flows of a conference so demanding. Time will tell if Napier is indeed capable of that. There certainly aren’t any red flags to suggest he’s not.
We know the task that awaits Napier. He’s responsible for getting Florida back to recruiting top-7 classes. He’ll need to make tough decisions with his staff to do that, and he’ll need to hold them accountable if they, hypothetically speaking, have the program’s worst defense since the Woodrow Wilson administration.
Again, hypothetically speaking.
It’ll be Napier’s job to recruit, develop and evaluate talent at a high level. The best players play. Simple as that.
If he does all of those things, he won’t have to be anything he’s not. He won’t have to throw on a fake smile and kiss babies to earn respect in his new home. Florida fans don’t care about that. Win games, don’t make the university an embarrassment and let the rest take care of itself.
Napier should be able to learn from McElwain and Mullen. Once upon a time, they were on that roller coaster in Gainesville, and both of them thought they were going to the top, only to come crashing down.
The ride for Napier begins now. Unlike McElwain, we need not brace for it to come to a screeching halt.