Florida football: The case for Billy Napier to become the next Head Ball Coach
Florida is searching for a new head football coach after firing Dan Mullen.
Athletic director Scott Stricklin said Florida would move quickly to replace Mullen, noting the urgency of the upcoming recruiting schedule, including December’s Early Signing Period.
“We’re going to move as quickly as we can,” Stricklin said.
Florida is the third high profile job (LSU, the University of Southern California) to become open during this firing and hiring cycle. Much like those programs, Florida is a top-10 job in the sport. Florida is the flagship university in 1 of the 3 best recruiting states in the country, has immense resources available for football and is about to open a state of the art football facility which, finally, will put it on equal or better footing from a facility standpoint than its SEC brethren. It’s also in the SEC East, and not the SEC West, which provides a slightly more gentle pathway to return to national relevance. It should be noted, of course, that LSU doesn’t have to worry about the rise of in-state powers to threaten its natural in-state recruiting advantage in another talent-rich state, and everyone recruits Florida, but this isn’t about a comparison. It’s just about pointing out that like Georgia, LSU and Alabama, Florida is one of the best jobs in college football.
Anytime a job like Florida opens, there will be widespread interest in the position.
Today, SDS looks at one of the leading candidates for the job, current University of Louisiana at Lafeyette head coach Billy Napier, and analyzes what he would offer the Florida program.
Current Job: Head Coach, Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
Years/Record: 4th year, 38-12; 4 Sun Belt West division titles, 1 Sun Belt Conference title
The Skinny/Background: Napier is widely considered to be one of the rising stars in the coaching industry. He has built a program from the ground up at Louisiana-Lafeyette, winning 4 Sun Belt West division titles and in 2020, the Sun Belt Conference championship. Prior to his arrival in Lafeyette, the Ragin’ Cajuns had suffered 3 consecutive losing seasons. He flipped that on its head and the Ragin’ Cajuns have won 31 of their past 36 games over the past 3 seasons.
Prior to being a head coach, Napier worked as an assistant under Dabo Swinney at Clemson and Nick Saban at Alabama. At Clemson, Napier was a hot commodity as a 30-year-old offensive coordinator whose offense broke school records and helped Clemson win the ACC Atlantic Division in 2009 before a huge drop-off saw him fired by Swinney in 2010. He landed on his feet as an analyst under Nick Saban at Alabama, then followed Saban’s offensive coordinator (and future Florida head coach) Jim McElwain to Colorado State in 2012. After a year with McElwain, Napier worked at FSU for Jimbo Fisher for a month before being reclaimed by Saban, who made him his wide receivers coach in February 2013, a position Napier held for 4 seasons. Napier left to serve as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator in 2017, then left that to take the head coaching job at Louisiana in December of 2017.
Pros: Napier worked under some of the best minds in the sport in Swinney and Saban. His work as a coordinator, recruiter and as a young Group of 5 head coach have put him on the Power 5 radar for several years. Instead of jumping at the first big opportunity, Napier has remained selective. He’s said “no” to South Carolina, Auburn, and was on the short list at Ole Miss and Arkansas before those schools moved on to Lane Kiffin and Sam Pittman, respectively.
“He doesn’t want to take a job that already has structural disadvantages built in before they even play a game,” a former colleague and friend of Napier’s told SDS this week.
The Florida job has no such structural disadvantages. Yes, they are behind archrival Georgia and Kirby Smart, but it isn’t breaking news to suggest that if Napier takes any high-level Power 5 job, he’ll be chasing Alabama and Georgia.
“He wants to go somewhere that he can realistically compete and beat those guys,” the friend added.
Florida has the resources and, unless Napier prefers the LSU job, where he’s also mentioned to be a candidate, he can compete and beat those guys at Florida if he succeeds.
Napier is also the type of Saban disciple who has succeeded. He is relentless and detail-driven, meticulously committed to “process.” Napier doesn’t call it “The Process,” like his former boss. He calls program building “The Journey.” But he is ruthlessly committed to regimen and structure and has developed an 8-stage process to program building: Foundation (Early January), Identity (pre-spring training), Spring Practice, Discretionary (exams and exit meetings), Regimen (summer training), Fall Camp, In-Season and Postseason.
Thanks to his long ties to the south (Napier grew up in northern Georgia) and the SEC, he should be able to hit the ground running recruiting. More important, he loves recruiting.
Napier has few hobbies outside of football, and last year, told ESPN he “can’t imagine doing anything else” than being a college football coach. He has the busiest, largest recruiting staff in the Sun Belt, and he’s obsessed with all aspects of recruiting, from evaluation to in-home visits to making sure all of his assistants get after it on the trail.
Florida has hired the hottest young name in coaching 3 times in its history, and on 2 occasions, when it brought in Steve Spurrier from Duke in January 1990 and pulled Urban Meyer away from the clutches of Notre Dame in 2005, the hires resulted in championships. Can they find the “it” guy a third time with Napier?
Risks or Concerns
The Meyer and Spurrier anecdotes can’t be mentioned without noting that Florida has also hired 4 head coaches without Power 5 experience in its recent history and of the 3, only Meyer succeeded. Will Muschamp, another Saban lieutenant, was the coach in waiting at Texas under Mack Brown and expected to be the next big thing in coaching. He was a tremendous defensive mind, a Gainesville native, and an elite recruiter. It didn’t work anyway, as Muschamp was overwhelmed by the size and scale of the job and unwilling to defer to his staff on the offensive side of the football. Jim McElwain, who was Napier’s superior at Alabama and Colorado State, couldn’t handle the pressure of the Florida job and his offense was stuck in the swampy mud under Doug Nussmeier. Finally, Ron Zook was an exceptional recruiter but couldn’t handle the pressure or the little details that separate winning championships from winning 8 or 9 games a year.
Of course, youth can be a good thing and a lack of Power 5 experience isn’t prohibitive.
Napier is 42, which, if he were hired, would make him 3 years older than Dabo Swinney was when he took the Clemson job in 2008, 3 years older than Kirby Smart was when he took the Georgia job (his first job as a head coach) in 2015, and 1 year older than Urban Meyer was he took the Florida job in January 2005. None of those 3 coaches had Power 5 experience when they were hired at those institutions — all 3 have now played for or won national championships.
Finally, while Napier’s Louisiana teams have been successful, there is a substantive yellow flag in big games.
Outside of a loss at Texas to open the 2021 season, the Ragin’ Cajuns are unbeaten. But the 2020 team lost its biggest game, to Coastal Carolina (a Sun Belt Championship game rematch was declared a no-contest due to COVID-19 issues in the Coastal Carolina program), and a bizarre decision by Napier to take a safety up 5 points at Appalachian State nearly cost his team that football game as well (the Mountaineers missed a game-tying field goal after the safety). Certainly, Louisiana has some impressive wins, like last year’s 31-14 rout of No. 23 Iowa State and Matt Campbell in Ames. But Napier’s 10-1 2020 team also won 6 games by 1 touchdown or less, and he’s yet to actually win the Sun Belt Championship game, going 0-2 in those contests.
Any hire, of course, will have risk.
Napier seems as close to a great bet as you can get at the Group of 5 level.
Billy Napier isn’t going to just take “any job.” Florida would be appealing, but sources tell SDS he will have a set of substantive demands — including but not limited to increased recruiting budgets, expanded recruiting operations, the hiring of additional analysts, and an aggressive marketing campaign — that he’ll take with him to the table to negotiate with any large program, including the Gators.
Like Meyer before him, Napier has done a huge amount of winning at the Group of 5 level. That doesn’t always translate to huge success at the Power 5 level. But Napier would be a young hire with staying power, someone that could bring stability to a Florida program that has now chewed up and spit out 4 head coaches since Tim Tebow walked off the field at the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2009 season.
It’s time for stability above all in Gainesville, and if Florida fans, and more vitally, the Florida administration, give Napier time, he is capable of building a winner again in The Swamp.