Should Billy Napier follow other SEC head coaches and stop calling plays?
Florida football went from being Bear Bryant’s “sleeping giant down in Gainesville” into a juggernaut thanks largely to the genius of a head coach who called his own “ball plays.”
After winning an ACC Championship at Duke (no really, Duke), Steve Spurrier’s self-styled Fun-n-Gun offenses revolutionized the SEC, winning 6 SEC Championships and a national title in the process. Even when the Head Ball Coach took his talents to Columbia, he continued to call his own plays, and did so beautifully, leading South Carolina to 3 consecutive 11-win seasons and unprecedented program success.
Now, over three decades after Spurrier changed Florida football forever, another young head coach is trying to call his own plays in Gainesville, hoping to drag the Gators out of college football’s wilderness in the process.
Billy Napier, who like Spurrier called his own plays on his way to unprecedented success at Louisiana, a place without much championship history before Napier arrived, is trying to replicate the HBC’s feat at Florida.
But do the comparisons stop there? Should they?
Napier referenced Spurrier Wednesday at SEC Media Days, mentioning that the dog days of summer, before summer camp begins, are “talking season.”
This season, a huge topic of discussion has been about head coaches who used to call their own plays, but are now leaving their inner-Spurrier behind. Lane Kiffin of Ole Miss, perhaps the best of a group of play callers that includes Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz, Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher, and Auburn’s new head coach, Hugh Freeze, are among a group of head coaches leaving play-calling in the dust in the name of running their program — err, “progrum,” if you speak Freeze or Fisher.
Napier, whose Florida offense finished 24th in SP+ offense last season, the school’s best mark since Kyle Trask’s Heisman finalist run in 2020, has heard what former Gators head coach Ron Zook famously called the “noise in the system” about whether his desire to call plays limits what he can do as the CEO of Florida football.
He also knows that Dan Mullen, the man he succeeded in Gainesville, tried and, despite achieving a good amount of success, ultimately failed to use his offensive acumen to flip the fortunes of Florida football forever. But Mullen didn’t fail because his offenses didn’t work — he failed because his CEO skills and recruiting operation weren’t up to the task. Perhaps that distinction gives Napier some hope, even if it leaves Florida fans wondering if their young head coach is up to the task of doing both. That’s why, even without a first-round talent like Anthony Richardson under center, Napier is forging ahead with play-calling duties in 2023.
What Napier didn’t deny, when pressed about the choice Wednesday, was that he’d thought about it.
“I think it’s a relevant question. I do think it’s part of the evaluation to some degree. But I feel confident in our process,” Napier told the media Wednesday. “We’ve done it before. I do think some of the growing pains that come with year one, I went through some of those things much like some of of our other staff and some of our players did. I’m very hopeful we’ll continue to improve. I’ll benefit from Year 2 just as much as any player or any staff member.”
Will he benefit? If he doesn’t benefit, will he ultimately make a change before 2024, and hire someone else to call the plays?
Those are two of the larger “existential” questions facing the Florida football operation this summer, as the Gators enter a 2023 season with low expectations, at least externally. If Florida doesn’t exceed expectations, would a “hot seat” type situation force Napier to make a change? It seems unlikely, at least from those who closely observe the program, that Napier is at any risk of losing his job if the Gators don’t start winning more games in 2023. He may even survive a slow 2024, especially given Florida’s brutal 2024 slate, which includes games at Texas and at Florida State. But would the program be better off with a seasoned offensive coordinator?
Eli Drinkwitz, who knows how quickly you can go from hired to hot seat in the SEC, explained Tuesday at SEC Media Days that he gave up play-calling because it was necessary for him to put the team and program above his own ego as a play-caller.
“I think you have to step back and embrace your role as a head coach and put the team first,” Drinkwitz told the media. “My nature was I really loved the offensive side of the ball. I loved calling plays. I think I am really good at it. But it can’t be about me as a head coach in our league.”
Perhaps it can’t.
No SEC coach since Mark Richt accomplished the feat at Georgia has won the league calling his own plays, and even Richt ultimately gave the gig up after 6 seasons. On the defensive side of the ball, even Kirby Smart gave up calling his own defenses in Athens, but the payoff for shedding that point of pride has been building a dynasty at his alma mater.
Where does that leave Napier? What would constitute a good 2023 for him, not just as a head coach, but as an offensive coordinator? It’s reasonable to at least replicate the offensive production of a season ago, when Napier’s offense ranked 20th in yards per play (6.58) and 17th in success rate. Would that silence the cynics? Or does Florida need to be even better, and rise to the Mullen-era heights of fielding a top-10 offense again?
Winning cures everything. But does Napier’s decision to call his own plays impact winning?
There’s no good answer to this question, because every situation is different. That said, history is instructive, as are current trends, and neither favor a head coach who insists on being his own play-caller.
Napier is recruiting better than anyone in Gainesville since Meyer, a credit to who he is as a CEO.
Time will tell if his fatal weakness as a CEO is insisting on being a play-calling offensive coordinator while also being a head coach.