Florida coach Billy Napier has a problem closing for the Gators — on the field and off it

By OnlyGators.com Staff
December 21, 2023
Florida coach Billy Napier has a problem closing for the Gators — on the field and off it

Image Credit: UAA

“Scared money don’t make money” was thrown around almost as a rallying cry when the Florida Gators hired head coach Billy Napier two years ago. The saying implies that taking risks pays off and conservatism does not.

Perhaps another mantra would have served Napier better upon his arrival in Gainesville, Florida: “A-B-C: Always be closing.”

Through two seasons and two full recruiting cycles, the one constant with Florida football under Napier is that he and the Gators are simply unable to close when it matters most.

As Alec Baldwin once said a classic “Glengarry Glen Ross” scene: “You can’t play in the man’s game [if] you can’t close them … then go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. A-B-C. A: Always, B: Be, C: Closing. Always be closing. Always be closing.”

When Napier jumped aboard, he sure looked like a closer. He sold athletic director Scott Stricklin on his candidacy to take over the Florida football program, so much so that Stricklin claimed he never even interviewed another coach for the job. He sold Stricklin on the need for significant funds to build an “army” of staffers around him so that the Gators had every chance to be successful on the field.

He sold renowned secondary coach Corey Raymond on leaving his longtime home of LSU and joining the UF staff. He sold talented Arizona State wide receiver Ricky Pesarsall on linking up through the transfer portal. And he not only sold four-star linebacker Shemar James on recommitting to Florida on National Signing Day, he also got four-star defensive backs Kamari Wilson and Devin Moore to jump on board making the Gators one of the big winners of the 2021 early signing period despite Napier only having three weeks to recruit after being hired.

Florida began Napier’s first season well enough with an upset win over Utah. Even after a tough-to-stomach loss to Kentucky, Florida won games or played ranked rivals close … until mid-November. That’s when the Gators stopped closing on the field.

Napier has proven he’s unable to close out seasons. Florida lost the final three games of 2022. The Gators then lost the final five games of 2023. As such, they finished under .500 in both campaigns, marking the first consecutive losing seasons for a single UF coach since Raymond Wolf in 1946-47.

Napier has proven he’s unable to close out games. In 2023 alone, Florida led Arkansas at home with 3:02 left, led LSU on the road in the third quarter, led Missouri on the road with 1:36 left and led Florida State at home in the fourth quarter. The Gators lost all four games, in succession, to end the season.

Napier has proven he’s unable to close in the hiring process. How else do you explain Florida struggling to replace defensive coordinator Patrick Toney and wide receivers coach Keary Colbert after Year 1 with Napier ultimately landing an unproven, 30-year-old Alabama assistant (for a month) in Austin Armstrong and eventually bringing back Billy Gonzales after an excruciatingly long process?

How else do you explain Napier firing Raymond — one year after giving him a raise and promotion — only to land on the questionable hire of Will Harris weeks later? How else do you explain the Gators not having a defensive line coach on National Signing Day despite the event occurring weeks after the firing of Sean Spencer (immediately hired at Texas A&M) alongside Raymond?

Now, after signing day, linebackers coach Jay Bateman is on his way out of Florida after being hired by Texas A&M in a promotion as its defensive coordinator. Strength & conditioning coordinator Mark Hocke is about to transition out of his role, Napier said Wednesday, after questions were raised throughout the season about his job performance.

That means there are three open jobs and at least six of Napier’s first 11 primary coaching hires (four of five on defense) will be off the team or out of their positions as he enters Year 3, and two of the remaining five original assistants have been under fire for their coaching of the offensive line.

The one area in which Napier was supposed to be able to close was recruiting and the portal — or as he previously put it in his introductory press conference, the “talent acquisition business.”

Don’t get it twisted: The advents of NIL rights and the one-time transfer exemption came at the wrong time for Napier as he took over Florida and sought to rebuild it from the ground up. For a guy who seemingly suffers paralysis by analysis, introducing so many first-time factors while he was simultaneously attempting to reform a program proved to be an immense undertaking.

So while the first-year failures hurt on and off the field — the Gators failed to impress in the portal and finished with the No. 13 overall Class of 2023 (partially due to the controversial departure of quarterback Jaden Rashada) — it was fair to give Napier the benefit of the doubt, a somewhat-understandable one-time adjustment to his process.

There is no excusing the last month (coaching and recruiting) off the field, and it all was beget by those on-field struggles.

Florida sat for most of the season with the No. 3 class in the 247Sports Composite team rankings. The Gators had the best defensive line class in the nation (by far), two of the top six overall players committed — true program-changers on both sides of the ball — and seven top-100 players pledged to the program.

And then came Napier’s inability to close out games and the season as a whole. What followed were rejected calls for his firing with the idea being that the best reason to keep Napier around was to close the Class of 2024 in hopes of seeing significant progress in Year 3 and completely turning the tide in Year 4. (Not to mention his enormous buyout and the fact that Stricklin would need to lose his job long before Napier’s future should be decided.)

What now? Napier not only struggled to close out the Class of 2024, Florida was embarrassed perception-wise as it tried and failed to hang on to talented players, some of whom had been locked into the program for six months or longer.

Again, don’t get it twisted: The Gators signed five-stars quarterback DJ Lagway (No. 4) and defensive lineman LJ McCray (No. 6). Those are two wins as big as any coach in the nation achieved this cycle. They are recognized and not being diminished. Whether Lagway and McCray respectively become the Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes of this generation remains to be seen, but Tebow and Spikes did not win championships and awards alone. They had Joe Haden and Percy Harvin and Carlos Dunlap and Maurkice and Mike Pouncey (among many others), and the roster was much stronger pre-Urban Meyer than it was when Napier took over from Dan Mullen.

Florida, in Lagway and McCray’s class, saw seven blue-chip players decommit over the last six weeks, including six in the span of a month and three on National Signing Day alone. Among those departing were four of UF’s top six pledges, three of whom played along the defensive line — truly death by a thousand cuts.

The Gators once had seven top-100 commitments. They were pursuing two more in five-star wide receiver Jeremiah Smith (Ohio State) and four-star safety Zavier Mincey (potentially headed to Alabama after seemingly being a Florida lean). There should be no doubt that Florida’s play on the field changed these recruitments, even if Smith was likely going to OSU either way. Instead of seven or nine top-100 commits, UF finished with three.

In his post-signing day press conference, Napier alluded to some of the decommitments being prospects the Gators were not necessarily sad to see leave the class. There is legitimate truth to that assertion. Florida did not send a National Letter of Intent to at least one of the recruits who “flipped,” and it actively chose not to match an NIL offer for another, someone with knowledge of UF’s recruiting operations told OnlyGators.com on Wednesday night.

But the Gators did not simply lose two or three blue-chip prospects — many other top teams did, too, as the early signing period began — it lost seven. Worse yet, unlike some of those competitors, Florida was unable to fill the holes created by that attrition in the early period, and history has shown us Napier may not be successful doing so with top talent out of the transfer portal, either. Perception has become reality in this regard.

The Gators tumbled from the No. 3 recruiting class in November to outside the top 15. That despite having Lagway and McCray on board, which sounds tough to accomplish.

It’s undoubtedly the program’s worst recruiting close and certainly one of the worst that can be remembered nationally, particularly because Napier did not simply fail to add blue-chip players, he actively lost seven of them. (Twisting the knife even more is that some of those prospects would have seen significant playing time as true freshmen. That’s supposed to be a selling point.)

This is not entirely a Napier problem. The priorities of the University Athletic Association (UAA) have been mucked up for years with decision makers appearing to constantly hinder the football program by deprioritizing it — at least compared to its competitors.

NIL was previously a major issue, and while it undoubtedly improved this cycle with Florida Victorious, it seems the Gators do not have donors with pockets anywhere near as deep as many of their rivals. Forget Alabama, Georgia and Miami, look at what Auburn and Ole Miss are doing in the NIL game.

And then there’s booster funds that Stricklin and the UAA have decided are more important to be utilized for facilities and stadium upgrades no one actually wants instead of NIL, which is how teams will field championship-caliber rosters in this new era of college football.

It’s all about the bucks, kid, the rest is conversation.

On the field, the buck stops with Napier. It does off the field, too.

A “process” will only take one so far. Constant evaluation will only reveal so much.

Napier needs to realize that everything — everything — in life is sales.

Either you sell or your target sells you. Either you close or your target closes you. Either way, a sale is made. The only question: Who is going to win?

To this point, it has rarely been Napier. And for the last decade-plus, it has rarely been Florida football.


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