Billy Napier sounds good to Florida football fans who've heard it all | Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports

Kenny Green had heard great things about the new Florida football coach. He’d seen a few clips on TV and read some stories, and he was eager to meet the new guy.

The first chance was at the spring speaking tour. After about 30 minutes, Green had drawn his own conclusion.

“We’re in trouble,” he said.

Fear not, Gator fans. That was a couple of coaches ago. It was not Billy Napier, and Green does not proclaim to be the Amazing Kreskin. But he was right about that coach, and he might be right about Florida’s latest hire.

“This is a good one,” Green said of Napier. “But I think he’s got a lot of work to do to bring us where we need to be.”

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Audience eager to be swept up in Billy Napier mania

Florida Gators head coach Billy Napier speaks during a news conference at the F-Club in Gainesville on May 26.

On Thursday night, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, came the last stop on Napier’s spring speaking tour. Florida coaches have been hitting that road since gas was 39 cents a gallon, but the initial one stands out. You know what they say about first impressions.

That’s especially true in Gainesville. Some locals have seen more coaches come and go than they can remember. They’ve heard it all, from Ray Graves discussing the Super Sophs to Dan Mullen Zooming in during the pandemic.

He’s gone now, as are crowd restrictions. This was the first spring tour in three years, and the audience was eager to be swept up in Billymania. But members of the old Gator Guard have been around long enough to know the difference between hot air and fresh air.

They liked what they encountered Thursday night.

“He’s not a big rah-rah guy,” Erik Olson said of Napier. “He’s just very down-to-earth.”

Napier had barely begun when a cellphone went off in the audience. It’s good that technology didn’t exist 20 years ago. Ron Zook might have made the owner drop and do a dozen pushups.

Napier just grinned at the interruption.

“You know what that means? You got doughnuts,” Napier said. “The next time the club meets, you’ve got to bring doughnuts.”

He went through a PowerPoint presentation of his path to Gainesville. Most everybody already knew Napier’s resume, but there’s nothing like seeing family photos and hearing old tales. Like his dream of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a high school coach.

His father told him:  "‘Look, you need to get your master’s degree, and you’ll make 6 or 7,000 more dollars a year,’” Napier recalled. “And I didn’t get mine. Think about the money I’d have right now if I did.”

Gators fans see no nonsense but nice coach

He hit on the modern-day coaching challenges, and why he’s so systematic in his approach. He said developing character is more important than developing talent. He sounded like a CEO with a working man’s sensibilities.

Picture Urban Meyer without the skeletons. No-nonsense but nice. And folksy.

“It’s kind of like the best of both,” Eric Cavanaugh said. “I mean, there’s an edge, but there’s a niceness to him.”

During the Q&A session, Napier began just about every response with, “That’s a good question.” He’d probably heard it before during the eight previous spring tour stops, but he sounded as if he still meant it.

Authenticity can be faked, but the truth eventually reveals itself. Green wasn’t the only fan whose Malarkey Meter went off with one coach who’s no longer with us.

“It was all kind of a façade, what he presented to the fans,” John Seibold said. “He was more about himself than he was the program.”

That doesn’t mean Jim McElwain lacks coaching ability. It’s just hard to see Napier concocting death threats as he melts down under the strain of SEC life.

“This guy's got a plan,” Green said. “He can articulate what that plan is, and it makes you feel pretty good. I’m excited.”

I think he spoke for everyone in the room, including those who haven’t been listening to coaches for 60 years. Does passing this rite of spring guarantee success in the fall?

That’s not a good question.

There’s a lot more to winning than having a coach whom fans believe is genuine. But dollars to doughnuts, that’s a pretty good place to start.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley