Florida gets a good one in Billy Napier. Now Gators fans must give him time
It’s official: University of Louisiana at Lafayette coach Billy Napier will be the next head ball coach at the University of Florida.
Napier, 42, was hired only a week after Florida dismissed Dan Mullen.
In hiring Napier, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin brings in one of the hottest up-and-coming names in the industry. Napier is 32-5 in his past 3 seasons at Louisiana and has led a program that had 3 consecutive losing seasons prior to his arrival to 4 Sun Belt Championship games (only 2 have been played), winning 1 Sun Belt crown. Napier has also led Louisiana to the program’s first AP Top 25 rankings, as the team has cracked the Top 25 in 2020 and 2021.
Earlier this week, when it became clear from conversations SDS was having that Napier was Florida’s top choice, we laid out the benefits and risks of hiring Napier to lead the Gators.
In the end, the decision was quite simple for Florida.
Napier is a man with a plan and, as one Florida athletic department member texted me Sunday morning, “a big program was going to give him an opportunity and they were going to be right. It might as well be us.”
A native of north Georgia and Tennessee, Napier has been preparing to be a head coach at a big southern college football program his entire life.
Napier played college football at Furman and immediately got into coaching as a graduate assistant at Clemson. At 26, he became a college offensive coordinator, at FCS South Carolina State. In his first year in Orangeburg, as quarterbacks coach, his starting quarterback broke multiple school records. Before his 27th birthday, he became one of the youngest position coaches in Division I college football. By 30, he’d been an offensive coordinator that helped Clemson win an ACC Coastal title, breaking school records in the process. He’d been a recruiting coordinator for a Clemson program whose fortunes turned around when they inked Tajh Boyd, the first of 3 program-changing quarterbacks who played for Dabo Swinney. He’d also been fired by Dabo Swinney, learning valuable lessons about humility and failure in the process.
He’d land on his feet with Nick Saban, become an associate head coach under Jim McElwain at Colorado State, and return to Saban again, winning two national championships and proving himself to be one of Saban’s ace recruiters on the trail. In the process, Napier became a hot commodity in coaching circles, and his name started popping up repeatedly in coaching searches.
He took a job at Louisiana, and, like Kirby Smart at Georgia, brought his own version of Nick Saban’s famed “Process” with him. Napier called it “The Journey,” and he went about implementing it immediately in Lafayette. There were growing pains in year one, but the Ragin’ Cajuns finished 7-7, went to a bowl game, and laid the foundation for the 3-year run of excellence that has followed.
In that span, Napier hasn’t just won games.
He’s built a culture that demands attention to detail. If you don’t recruit, you can’t be an assistant for Billy Napier. If you don’t grind in the offseason as a player, you won’t play in the regular season.
“Billy lays out expectations fairly, whether you play for him or work for him. He then asks you to meet those expectations. If you don’t, he’ll find someone who will. That’s the focus he has, the will he has to win,” a colleague of Napier’s told me this week.
His work at Louisiana drew the attention of big-time programs. Auburn offered, as did South Carolina. Napier declined. Arkansas and Ole Miss showed interest but ultimately moved on with Sam Pittman and Lane Kiffin, respectively.
Napier was patient, knowing the “job” would come.
Florida is that job.
He’ll have the best infrastructure to work with of any Florida coach this century.
The Gators will open up an $85 million football facility this autumn, finally leveling the playing field with their rivals from a facility standpoint. Napier, who assembled the largest recruiting staff in the Sun Belt, has insisted on additional analysts and a larger recruiting budget at Florida — and sources tell SDS he’ll receive both. Scott Stricklin and Florida are determined to win — and win sustainably — again, and Napier is the person they’ve entrusted with that opportunity.
Credit the Gators. They acted quickly and decisively. As other high-profile jobs, like Southern California and LSU, remain open, Florida went out and got their guy.
As he has done everywhere he has been, Napier will hit the ground running. Florida’s administration is going to give him everything he needs to have a chance to win. They will pay for support staff, high-profile assistants, and do what needs to be done to recruit against Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia, both in Florida and throughout the South. They are going to give Billy Napier every chance to succeed.
Will Florida’s famously impatient fan base do the same?
It’s right to demand excellence in Gainesville. But Florida also has had, including interim coaches, 9 head coaches since Tim Tebow’s graduation in 2009. It’s time for stability, and, given Napier’s age, his reputation as a worker bee, and the ground he has to cover to catch up to Alabama and Georgia, a time for a bit of patience.
That’s easier said than done, especially in the cutthroat world of the SEC.
The good news? Napier understands that. He’s been a part of the most demanding staff in the country at Alabama. He has worked with Smart and has seen a staff overhaul under Swinney at Clemson. He’s also rebuilt a culture at a loser in Louisiana. Every moment he’s had as a coach has prepared him for today.
Will it work? Time will tell. Urban Meyer had a similar run of brilliance at Bowling Green and Utah, going 39-8 in 4 years before he took the Florida job. Meyer was patient, too, shunning bigger programs and flirting with Notre Dame before deciding he could win bigger in Gainesville.
Napier, who is 39-12 at Louisiana, has been on the “Meyer” trajectory.
But like any young hire, there are risks and cautionary tires. For every Meyer, there’s a Jim McElwain, the Group of 5 coach who can’t sustain it at the Power 5 level. Florida fans, scorned by the recent failures of Saban disciples like McElwain and “hot commodities” like Will Muschamp in the past, have reason to be cynical.
But today isn’t a time for cynicism in Gainesville. It’s a time for hope and much-needed energy.
Billy Napier will bring that to Gainesville and the University of Florida. He’ll just need a little time.