Billy Napier takes Gainesville by quiet storm. Can he answer the Gators' prayers? | Whitley
From the minute he stepped off the plane Sunday, Billy Napier was treated like a conquering hero.
The band played. Cheerleaders lined the blue carpet that had been laid out on the tarmac. His wife was handed a bouquet of flowers and dignitaries escorted them to a van. Hundreds of people cheered them as they arrived at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
A couple of hours later at his introductory news conference, Napier said the words everybody wanted to hear.
“We’re going to build the best football team in the SEC conference,” he said. “We’re going to build the best football program in the SEC conference.”
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For a fan base desperately seeking a meaningful long-term relationship, it was love at first sight. All of which was perfectly predictable.
The first day on the job is always grand for a new football coach. It’s easy to win over people who want to be charmed, and Napier did that.
It’s also predictable that people like me tap the brakes and say, “We’ve seen this movie before, so don’t get carried away.”
Dan Mullen got pretty much the same hero’s welcome four years ago when he stepped off the plane from Starkville, and we know how that ended up. The sobering reality is nobody knows how these things are going to turn out.
Napier’s career path has been pretty impeccable so far. The only thing missing on his resume is being a head coach at a Power 5 school.
Urban Meyer was in that position when he showed up in Gainesville, and that worked out OK. But for every Meyer or Lincoln Riley or Kirby Smart, there's a handful of Jim McElwains and Charlie Strongs and Will Muschamps and Tom Hermans.
Bottom line: You just never know how a coach will do in a Power 5 job until he starts it.
Now that I’ve gotten that qualifier out of the way, I’ve gotta say, Billy Napier looks like the answer to Florida’s prayers.
“Genuine. Authentic. Organized. Disciplined. Methodical. Caring. Competitive. Thoughtful.”
Those were the words Scott Stricklin used when he introduced Napier at the news conference. You’d expect him to speak glowingly of his new hire, of course, but everything you hear and see about Napier says the adjectives are true.
After compiling a huge dossier on Napier, Stricklin told the Sun’s Zach Abolverdi that what really impressed him was a small detail. After a recent Louisiana game, Napier had an impromptu news conference in a walkway outside the locker room.
A couple of student workers needed to push a cart past the crowd. Napier waved his crowd to the side and apologized to the workers for being in their way.
That’s not exactly the considerate, self-aware behavior we’ve come to expect out of certain coaches. It made it easy to believe Napier Sunday when he said, “I can’t tell you how humbled I am to be here.”
To which some fans might say, “Humility is dandy. But I’ll take a jerk if he can deliver an SEC title.”
This gets back to the great unknown about hires. Napier has the pedigree and a plan. You got the sense that he interviewed Stricklin and UF as much as UF and Stricklin interviewed him.
He wanted a school that’s ready to commit Alabama-like resources to recruiting, assistant coaches, NIL, nutrition programs, on and on and on.
“It’s the right place and the right time with the right people and the right leadership,” Napier said.
And like any venture, it begins with building relationships. Not just with recruits, but with fans and skeptics and everybody else on campus and beyond.
Napier comes off as someone who’s serious but can laugh at himself. He’s driven but has life in perspective. He bit his lip when describing his father, a high-school coach who died four years ago from ALS, and how that influenced him.
“It made me a better husband. It made me a better father,” Napier said. “And it certainly made me a better coach.”
Shortly before the news conference, I got an email from Frank Howes, the founding president of the Gator Band Alumni. He noted how Napier got off the plane Sunday morning, and contrasted it to Brian Kelly’s arrival in Baton Rouge after taking the LSU job. Kelly didn’t pay much mind to the cheerleaders or band that had shown up for his arrival.
“He moved immediately to the movers and shakers," Howes wrote. “Now run a comparison with how Billy Napier greeted cheerleaders, fans, etc., when he arrived.”
He seemed like a man of the people, stopping to greet everybody from UF president Kent Fuchs to Albert the Alligator. That was the start of Day One.
Day Two, Napier’s hitting the recruiting trail. It’s all part of his plan to make Florida that SEC power.
Yeah, it will take more than a nice, humble guy to do that. But those qualities are a good place to start.
— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley