Examining Florida’s hire of Billy Napier as coaching carousel spins, Gators prepare to fill staff

By Adam Silverstein
December 3, 2021
Examining Florida’s hire of Billy Napier as coaching carousel spins, Gators prepare to fill staff

Image Credit: Benjamin R. Massey / Louisiana

For the fourth time in 12 seasons, the Florida Gators will have a new head coach roaming the sidelines in 2022. On Sunday, exiting Louisiana head coach Billy Napier will be introduced to Gator Nation after wrapping up his final game with the Ragin’ Cajuns less than 24 hours earlier.

Napier, 42, has spent the last four seasons leading Louisiana to a 39-12 record. He was named Sun Belt Coach of the Year for the second time in the last three seasons this week and has the Cajuns on the cusp of their first outright conference title. No. 23 Louisiana will face Appalachian State on Saturday in the 2021 Sun Belt Championship Game.

While the Gators made a splash hiring Napier after a short seven-day search, they were quickly bounced from news headlines by one of the wildest coaching carousels in college football history. In a short 36-hour period, USC and LSU had new coaches, while Oklahoma and Notre Dame suddenly had openings. It’s possible that, before the next week is out, there could be openings at Oregon and Miami. Ohio State could even open in January if the NFL comes calling.

In other words, the Napier hire will be viewed not only in the context of what he accomplishes at Florida but also what happens across some of the biggest college football programs in the country.

Whether the Gators made the right hire is not what is going to be determined here (that’s for three of four years down the line), though an opinion will nevertheless be shared in this space. Rather, let’s take a look at what Florida got in hiring Napier, what happened elsewhere and what’s still to come.

No. 1 with a bullet

When it comes to college coaching searches, there is one phrase you are guaranteed to see in every press release and/or hear at every introductory press conference: We got our guy. [Insert coach name] was our top candidate.

The difference when it comes to Napier? That statement is true. Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin targeted Napier from the get go and achieved his goal in hiring his top candidate. There are conflicting reports as to when Stricklin decided on Napier and when he first made formal contact, but Stricklin’s list was set at least multiple weeks before the ultimate decision to fire Dan Mullen. (Most ADs, in fact, keep at least a mental list of potential coaching targets even when a program is running smoothly. One never knows what might happen.) Furthermore, Stricklin legitimately shut down the formal part of his search after meeting Napier in person and learning he would likely take the job if offered.

“I’ve followed and studied Billy Napier’s career with interest, and he became the primary target immediately after this position came open,” Stricklin said last Sunday. “We felt confident he would be an excellent leader for the Gators, which is why he was the only candidate I met with about the job. Billy’s ability to bring highly-talented people together – players, coaches, and staff – along with his vision for having a strong, relationship-based culture is what made him such an attractive choice. Add in how detailed his plan is for player development, staffing and recruiting, along with a sustained desire to improve, and it’s easy to see why he’s been successful. … It’s an exciting day for the Gators.”

Why not a ‘big name’ hire?

The hiring of Napier has been widely praised. Former co-workers, players, national media analysts and the like have roundly delivered thumbs up not only to Napier’s potential at Florida but the job Stricklin did in landing a coach who had turned down at least a half dozen other opportunities previously. Let’s hear from Alabama head coach Nick Saban, Napier’s former boss, who nicely summed up the commentary of others in his praise. (We could have written an entire, lengthy story on the compliments given to Napier by his contemporaries, but you’ve likely read those already.)

Still, as mentioned, the Gators were publicly pushed aside by a couple sport-shaking moves: the Trojans swiping head coach Lincoln Riley from the Sooners, and the Tigers pulling head coach Brian Kelly from the Fighting Irish. Whereas Florida went with an up-and-comer, USC and LSU were perceived to have used their leverage as national powers to reel in a couple big fish from programs of equal prestige.

What must first be recognized is that scenarios like the Riley and Kelly hirings are extremely rare. North Carolina swiping head basketball coach Roy Williams from Kansas is the most recent comparative example, and that happened nearly 20 years ago. Other coaches have moved from one Power Five program to another, but hardly with similar levels of top-tier prestige within the sport.

Leading to further questioning of Stricklin’s decision to hire Napier in the context of Riley and Kelly was a Friday report from Sports Illustrated‘s Ross Dellenger, who wrote that Florida officials were “alerted” to the availability of Riley and Kelly prior to hiring Napier.

While that is likely accurate, it is hardly unique. It’s the job of agents to push their clients toward opportunities that either interest them or can be used as tactics to negotiate larger contracts. In terms of Riley and Kelly, specifically, neither would have been a good fit for the Gators, and perhaps only one of the two was actually interested.

Riley was reportedly angry over Oklahoma’s decision to join the SEC. He turned down LSU as the Tigers’ second choice (behind Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher). Furthermore, he has extensive recruiting connections out in California. In other words, with USC on the board, he would not have taken Florida. And if USC was off the board, he may have simply leveraged his way into a better contract at OU instead of moving to UF or LSU.

Kelly, on the other hand, may have been seriously interested in the Gators. He has a home in Florida and likely would have been a far better cultural fit in Gainesville than at LSU where he’s already faking a cajun accident in an effort to relate to fans. However, there would have been little to no reason for that interest to be reciprocated.

OnlyGators.com spent the better part of a month comparing Mullen’s downfall to that of Kelly after seven seasons at Notre Dame. He is similarly a brash and stubborn coach who is widely considered to be a less-than-ideal boss. There’s a reason why his entire Fighting Irish staff is remaining in South Bend, Indiana, under elevated defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman rather than joining Kelly in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Furthermore, Kelly took Notre Dame to the Promised Land three times. The result of those national championship tries: a combined losing total of 103-31.

It’s fair to suggest that the Gators perhaps should have tried to make a bigger splash. Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin likely would have driven himself to Gainesville for the job. Oregon’s Mario Cristobal and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell are both big names who were considered candidates that have not yet jumped. But hiring a big name does not guarantee a good fit. And that’s what UF needs the most right now. The right guy for the job. In the end, all that matters is whether the Napier hire is successful, not the paths taken by other programs.

What’s Napier been doing, and when will he start?

Napier’s commitment to Louisiana is commendable, particularly when compared to someone like Kelly who left his team with Notre Dame in legitimate (albeit slim) contention for a College Football Playoff spot. Napier spent four years building the Cajuns’ program and wanted to see through the hard work of his staff and players by bringing the program its first conference title. Whether that happens is immaterial; the fact that he’s was adamant about coaching the game provides insight into his character.

Though Napier has been focused on Louisiana, he has been evaluating Florida’s recruiting class, calling committed players and putting together a coaching staff, sources confirm to OnlyGators.com. He has also made some administrative moves so that he can hit the ground running when he arrives in Gainesville.

That arrival will come Sunday, and it will be permanent. Napier confirmed Friday that he will not remain with the Cajuns for their bowl game. Though there was thought that might be a possibility, the demands of the Gators job are too massive, and the early signing period beginning in less than two weeks made staying past the Sun Belt title game an extreme unlikelihood.

When will the staff be hired, and who will be on it?

Sooner than later. Napier is expected to build his staff like most coaches who move from a program like Louisiana to a top-tier one like Florida. He will bring a few assistants along for the ride, retain a couple and fill the remainder of his staff with hires that will bring either extensive coaching skill and/or tremendous recruiting chops to the program.

OnlyGators.com was told to expect the names of some assistants to either be leaked or announced as early as Sunday. More could come early next week, while a couple might take a bit to trickle in either due to their current jobs otherwise occupying their availability.

Though it is not known at this time which assistants Napier may retain for continuity, the two most likely are tight ends coach Tim Brewster and linebackers coach Christian Robinson. Brewster is arguably the most respected TE coach in the nation, while Robinson is seen as an excellent recruiter and young, up-and-coming coach who served as interim defensive coordinator following the firing of Todd Grantham.

It’s unlikely that Napier will retain strength and conditioning coordinator Nick Savage despite the recent campaign by players to keep him on staff. Though it is not impossible, it’s rare that someone takes over a new program and does not make a change to its strength coach given that person needs to have an extremely tight relationship with the coach.

It appears as if Napier plans to call plays on offense. That’s another (admittedly concerning) topic for another day, one that he will surely address Sunday during his press conference. So let’s instead focus on the defensive coordinator hire, which is the most important one he will make from an on-field perspective. Two names have been tossed around for that job, both of which should excite fans: Oklahoma State’s Jim Knowles and Houston’s Doug Belk.

Knowles has done a tremendous job for the Cowboys this season to the point that it’s unlikely he would leave the program. Belk, on the other hand, worked with Napier across three seasons when both were on Saban’s staff at Alabama. He’s younger, a better recruiter and from the South. He is also seen as a name to watch in Group of Five head coaching circles over the next couple seasons, so moving to Florida and turning around its defense could be a feather in his cap that lands him such a job.

Three other names that have made their way onto numerous candidate lists when it comes to the Gators coaching staff are Tom Herman, Tosh Lupoi and Rob Sale, all of whom currently work in the NFL. It is not assured that any actually have interest in joining Florida — OnlyGators.com could not confirm the candidacies of any specific assistants — but as they are names being bandied about (and frequently tweeted at us), let’s take a quick look at each.

Herman, the former Texas head coach, would presumably be an option at offensive coordinator. Currently an offensive analyst for the Chicago Bears, Herman told The Athletic’s Andy Staples this week that his preference is to remain in the NFL. One consideration: It’s likely the Bears part ways with head coach Matt Nagy after the season, and while Herman would certainly have other NFL options, that could influence his decision making.

Lupoi has been in the NFL for the last three seasons as a defensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons and currently the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, he spent the five prior seasons on the staff at Alabama where he was an extremely effective assistant and one of the nation’s best recruiters. The native Californian would likely be the most impactful non-coordinator the Gators could hire.

Like Herman, it’s unfortunately possible that Sale is out of a job soon as the New York Giants’ offensive line coach could be the victim of an NFL head coaching change. Sale is a career college OL coach who coached under Napier for the three prior seasons at Louisiana where he also had an offensive coordinator title.

Due to Napier being a branch off Saban’s tree, it’s possible that some familiar faces on the former Florida staffs of Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain may wind up as candidates. That should not automatically be seen as a negative just because their coaching tenures failed. Both had talented assistants on staff, many of whom recruited quite well.

This will all work out in time. It still remains to be seen how Napier plans to construct his staff. For example: Will there be co-coordinators on offense or defense? Will there be a coaching position set aside to focus completely on special teams? Answers to these questions and more could come as soon as Sunday.

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