Florida football: LSU coach Brian Kelly, Florida coach Billy Napier learning the SEC grind

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports

LSU made a splash hire when it lured Brian Kelly away from Notre Dame last December with a 10-year, $95 million contract.

Florida football made a more under-the-radar move when it hired Louisiana’s Billy Napier as its new coach during the same time period for a seven-year, $51.8 million deal.

The first-year SEC coaches will meet on Saturday when Florida hosts LSU at The Swamp (7 p.m., ESPN).

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Florida Gators head coach Billy Napier celebrates with fans  before Florida takes on Missouri during homecoming at Steve Spurrier Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, FL on Saturday, October 8, 2022. [Alan Youngblood/Gainesville Sun]

Both have led their respective teams to 4-2 records. The Gators are on an upswing, having posted back-to-back wins over Eastern Washington and Tennessee. LSU, meanwhile, is coming off a 40-13 loss to Tennessee, Kelly’s worst home loss as an FBS coach in his 18 years leading Central Michigan, Cincinnati, Notre Dame and now LSU.

 Kelly shouldered the blame for the loss, saying he needed to coach better. He’s learning the weekly grind of the SEC.

“You’ve got to be ready for the distractions, but you’ve got to be ready for outstanding personnel across the board and that’s the great thing about it,” Kelly said. “That’s why I wanted to coach in the SEC, I think it’s the best conference in college football, you get challenged each and every week and if you love college football and you love doing this, there’s not a better place to be.”

Two special-teams mistakes put LSU in an early hole against the Vols it was unable to recover from.

“The margin for error is so small that you can be doing some good things, but if you’re not doing everything well, you can’t hide from it,” Kelly said. “You’ll get exposed. Average is going to get you beat around here. You can’t just hit good golf shots. You’ve got to hit great golf shots.”

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When the LSU job opened, there were some rumblings of Napier as a possible candidate, based on his success down the road at Louisiana. He led the Ragin' Cajuns to a 40-12 record in four seasons, including a Sun Belt Conference title in 2021.

Asked whether LSU contacted him last offseason, Napier replied: “I don't know that's something you talk publicly about. I think we're all well aware of chaotic times in college football when you get to November, December, January. I'll tell you one thing. I'm grateful for the opportunity I was given here.”

Florida has made a substantial commitment in both facilities and staffing since Napier’s hire. The school devoted $5 million to its support staff, which according to UF’s football yearbook totals 62 positions ranging from quality control assistants on position groups, to strength and conditioning assistants to recruiting strategists. Last August, UF opened the $85 million Heavener Football Training Facility, a state-of-the-art complex that Napier says will help the program in both recruiting and efficiency.

“We were very patient the last few years,” Napier said. “This path was right. That's what I would say. There's not a day that I woke up and said am I at the right place or not? I've got conviction about that.

“And the more I'm here, every day that I'm here, the more I'm confident about what we can accomplish here. So it's a blessing to be at the University of Florida and represent such a great place.”

Napier had prior experience in the SEC as a wide receivers coach at Alabama from 2013-16. But he’s had some ups and downs in his first stint as an SEC head coach with the Gators, including a 26-16 home loss to Kentucky and a 38-33 loss at Tennessee in which he coached aggressively but left points on the board by going for a pair of 2-point conversions on back to back fourth quarter touchdowns (neither one was successful). Last week, Napier earned his first SEC coaching win as the Gators held off Missouri 24-17 with a late defensive stand.

Napier said he’s taking the same approach to coaching in the SEC as he did in his four years with Louisiana.

“A lot of what we do here we’ve been doing it,” Napier said. “We’ve just got a lot more people watching now. They’re a little bigger, little faster, but certainly, a lot of more people watching. I think football is football. Having been around it a lot of different places and we’ve got the resources. We’ve got a good plan. We’ve hired good people.”