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There’s a New Boss at Florida, and His Name Is Billy Napier

The Gators’ coach will wrap his first spring in Gainesville on Thursday night, but his plans to remake the program are well underway.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It’s Billy Napier’s first spring practice at Florida, and he’s doing something that much of the hype surrounding his first offseason hasn’t been too focused on: coaching actual football. He’s with the quarterbacks, and he’s coaching his players as well as the student managers who set a drill up in the wrong place, proving that it takes everybody a little time to get used to things on Day 1.

“That’s the cool thing about football,” he said to reporters after practice. “It’s not just the players, man. You get to know the managers, the student trainers, the video crew. We’ve got a lot of people that make up the team. You want each one of those people to take pride in their role. When we win, they win.”

Napier, the coach, has seemingly given way to Napier, the CEO, since he’s arrived on campus. It’s easy to see why when you consider the task of the modern head football coach at a program with championship aspirations.

Billy Napier coaches during Florida spring practice

Napier instructs during spring practice.

“You’re taking what is already a large organization in our athletic program and you’re building an organization within that organization that then has to tie back into the larger organization, and you do it in a short period of time,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin says. “You’re not taking 10 months to do it, you’re doing it in a couple weeks.”

In more ways than the obvious ones, the fact that Napier did not take any of the multiple jobs he’s been connected to over the last few coaching cycles paved the way for him to become the new coach at Florida.

While he was at Louisiana, Napier had been linked to Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Baylor, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas to varying degrees. The fits weren’t right, nor was the timing or the scenarios he’d be entering into. That hesitancy is what got him on Stricklin’s radar.

“Usually that guy, when an SEC job approaches them, jumps at the opportunity,” Stricklin says. “He didn’t do that. That’s different, right? You’re always curious about people who do things differently. That’s probably when I first started noticing and paying attention.”

Napier stood pat in Lafayette and won 33 games in three seasons. Shortly before Napier won his second conference championship in a row, Stricklin stood in the coach’s home for their first meeting, late at night a few days before Thanksgiving.

“He was my priority. [With] everything I’d learned about him, he was the first guy I wanted to go see, and I wanted him to know he was the first guy I wanted to go see,” Stricklin says. “I said, ‘I want you to know my goal is that these conversations are gonna lead to you being the next football coach of the Florida Gators.’ He was like, ‘O.K., let’s do it.’”

There was a two-pronged reasoning for the meeting that Stricklin termed as more a recruiting trip than an interview. First, he wanted Napier, who was already sought after in the coaching cycle by that point, to know the interest was real. And secondly, he wanted to make sure the person he’d seen on YouTube and heard about through others in the industry was legit. They didn’t even really talk about football that night. Napier didn’t have a giant binder detailing every part of his program organization. Stricklin joked that it’s a good thing he didn’t because Napier’s level of detail meant they probably wouldn’t have gotten through it considering the meeting occurred after 9 p.m.

When you ask people who work with and for Napier what he’s like as a boss, his detail-oriented nature is one of the first things they point out. He’s known amongst his staff for taking copious “Napier Notes,” always handwritten because iPad stenography is a little too new-school for the 42-year-old. He quality controls every part of the organization, using notes to focus his one-on-one meetings with staffers and set the agenda for daily 7:45 a.m. full-staff meetings. Those are attended not just by the coaches, but most of the football building as well—the “army” of people Napier said he was going to hire. Included in that list are Katie Turner (assistant AD of recruiting strategy) and Bri Wade (director of on campus recruiting and events).

“I couldn’t ask to work for a better person. He gives me full autonomy in my role,” Wade says. “He doesn’t micromanage; he fully trusts me with my vision. All I have to do is communicate with him. This is what I’m thinking and this is why I’m thinking this, and he’s like, ‘I trust you,’ and he lets me go with it. I don’t think I’ve found that at a lot of places, and I don’t think I will find that at a lot of places.”

Wade and Turner’s group chat with Napier features a constant stream of consciousness from the head coach about ideas. It’s the communication that is key for any organization to make sure the left hand knows what the right is doing. There are new roles on Florida’s organization chart, with some who have come from Louisiana and some from other places across the country. Everyone has to quickly get in sync. Turner worked with Napier when he was a position coach at Alabama for Nick Saban as well as at Louisiana.

“He demands a lot out of you; he never stopped doing that,” Turner says. “The way that we coach the players or we interact with them or we have visits. He’s the same person day in and day out. I think that’s what makes him really great at his job because when someone’s super consistent it’s easy to know ebbs and flows.”

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When Napier started coaching he was on a staff with nine assistants, two graduate assistants, an operations person and a high school relations person. One of the nine assistant coaches ran the entire recruiting operation. It’s safe to say things have changed, and Florida is trying to get near the forefront of that change.

Stricklin says the total staff is only about 15% more than what former coach Dan Mullen had in the building, and Napier downplays the actual size of the org. But the message is clear. The teams Florida wants to compete with—particularly national champion Georgia, which happens to be one of UF’s fiercest rivals—is backed by a listed staff of around 70 people. Keep up with the Joneses, or get left behind. Florida’s Twitter account announced hires (the number sits somewhere over 50, at present) one-by-one over multiple months. Everyone got a tweet, from dieticians to offensive coordinators. Accompanying was a graphic and a small press release to keep the momentum going. Fans definitely noticed; Wade says she was stopped by someone on her second day in town, something that surprised “a girl from Mississippi.”

“There’s nobody that’s just sitting around eating popcorn watching the game. We’ve got things for them to do,” Napier said in January. “We’re not gonna hire anyone we don’t have a clearly defined role for.”

Support staff does just that: support. Napier talks about analysts, grad assistants and quality control assistants being extra sets of eyes for the on-field coaches, but they also can help take stuff off the plate of those coaches so everyone that can have a work/life balance (something anathema to the job description of a football coach at some spots). Much of the new roles are also focused on recruiting infrastructure. Of Mullen’s missteps in charge, Florida’s inability to recruit at the highest level was the biggest issue. It was never more clear than after the 31–7 rout by Georgia in 2021, where Mullen dodged questions about recruiting and the talent gap between the teams for multiple days while Dawgs head coach Kirby Smart told reporters directly after the game: “I believe you better always be recruiting. Always be recruiting because if you're not, someone else is."

No detail is too small around the Gators program. For instance, Napier and Turner (who previously worked with Smart at Georgia) recently met about where recruits sit at home games. Whether or not the current field level bleachers in the end zone behind some hedges is the best vantage point is yet to be decided. They’ll work through it to see if a temporary fix is needed with stadium renovations down the road that are part of a broader facilities push that includes a new football operations center, which Stricklin says soothed any concerns Napier had about facilities. It’s part of a recruiting strategy that is focused on hospitality separate from evaluation. (There are staffers for the latter, including some focused on high school scouting and other keeping tabs on transfer portal players).

Napier is also very keyed into the way the program is portrayed. He admits recruiting is a sales business. Look closely at the staff announcements and you’ll notice a design element that’s become a staple of Florida’s online brand, a stripe pattern that’s on the team’s main helmets. It can be seen everywhere from Florida’s social media posts, to media credentials, to Napier’s own business card.

Those stripes and the Gators script have been on the team’s helmet since 1979. It’s not a coincidence that the stripes are now part of the front-facing identity of the program, popping up in most of the in-house graphics made since he took over. It stands to reason the script and the stripes are going to be staple design elements moving forward.

Napier is a traditionalist by his own admission, especially when it comes to uniforms. Florida has only once strayed from its orange, white and blue uniform color combinations (doing so in 2017 for a one-off alligator skin pattern). That’s going to change soon.

“We’re gonna wear black uniforms here at the University of Florida,” Napier says. “But each one of those uniforms that we wear we are going to auction off, and we’re gonna sell those and take the money and we’re gonna give that to families that maybe had some type of injury and setback and are living a little bit different lifestyle as a result of their military service and their setback.”

Napier doubts the Jordan Brand will be able to turn around black uniforms for the 2022 season, but does anticipate doing so for ’23. From his experience at Louisiana, he knew it was important to grant his player’s wishes to don black, while using it to teach a lesson. He brought guest speakers in the week of the game to teach the Ragin’ Cajuns players about different branches of the military, and his staff wore camo on the sideline for its ’20 win over South Alabama, held the week of Veteran’s Day.

There’s a notion with Napier of everything tying into a broader purpose. He says his biggest leadership tool is the example he sets, and the relationships he builds with those on his staff are patterned after how his father, a high school coach, related to his players and coaches. Napier’s father, Bill, passed away in 2017, but his mother, Pam, is still there to set him straight—like the time he let a curse word slip in a pregame speech that made its way into one of Louisiana’s promo videos, prompting a text from the matriarch that asked, “Did I hear this correctly?”

“To get where you want to go, it’s important that you know who you are and what you stand for. I think that we want our brand to reflect those things,” Napier says. “It is about recruiting, but more importantly it’s about once the player arrives, the brand should reflect who you want the people to become and the example that you want to set. There’s a fine line in there between being old school and new school and we’re always looking for that.”

Napier talks about constantly tweaking the various systems that make the program operate. Those who work for him say he’s eager for new ideas, even ones he might not agree with. There is no quick fix to contend longterm with behemoths like Georgia, Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State on the recruiting trail or on the field. It takes time and effort. Florida has a six-stage recruiting plan and an eight-stage football plan it’s moving through to get ready for the season. In some ways football is just like any other business, but in many ways it isn’t.

“It goes back to those notes,” Napier says. “It’s like ironing a shirt that’s got a bunch of wrinkles in it. You keep ironing that shirt until you get the wrinkles out.”

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