Note: A version of this story was first published in 2018
Although he didn’t say so, there was a person who Billy Napier would have given nearly anything to be on hand when he was introduced as the new football coach of the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns — his father.
Also named Bill, he was a football man too.
A longstanding high school coach in Northern Georgia, all three of his sons followed in his footsteps, although it was the eldest who ventured to see what the college game had to offer. “I grew up in his hip pocket,” Billy Napier said. “In the weight room. In the equipment room. In the field house. On the practice field. On the sideline. In the bus going to camps. In the truck to go pick up players ...”
He dreamed of someday being a coach just like his dad.
The father who was diagnosed with ALS in 2013, died in September at age 60.
Just three months later, Billy was named a Division I head coach for the first time.
“My dad really valued his day-in, day-out relationships with his players and his staff,” Napier said. “That’s probably what he valued more than anything. He was always very consistent. You always knew what you were going to get. I think that’s something young people need today, consistency and that’s really what I try to do.
“I don’t make too many quick decisions. I’ll take some time and think about what’s right, and I think I learned that from my dad in terms of the character and integrity that you want to operate with.”
Napier didn’t know it at the time, but his hiring was also the start of a new branch in the Nick Saban coaching tree, which was already getting so big that it actually might classify as forest.
Overall, Saban had 100 assistant coaches during his first 24 years as a head coach, including his two seasons in the National Football league. Of them, 26 had gone on to be a head coach, including 22 at the Division I or NFL level.
That didn't include Geoff Collins, Saban’s first director of player personnel at Alabama who became the head coach at Temple.
Moreover, 46 had become offensive or defensive coordinators at the Division I or NFL level.
It should be noted that a handful came in with that level of coaching experience already, and there’s some overlap of those eventually becoming both a coordinator and head coach. Others, such as Napier, worked for Saban more than once. It’s still an impressive coaching heritage, and growing.
“What blew me away was that he was doing what I thought in my mind ’This is the way it should be done,’ and then I walk in the door and I’m observing all these things ... obviously the success speaks for itself,” Napier said.
While most attention regarding Saban’s coaching tree centers on the big-name programs such as Kirby Smart at Georgia, Jimbo Fisher at Florida State and now Texas A&M, Mario Cristobal at Oregon, Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss and Mel Tucker ,others have landed jobs at smaller schools as well.
Saban wasn’t Napier’s only influence, either.
Like Saban had numerous mentors including Don James, George Perles and Bill Belichick, Napier has worked for Dabo Swinney, Jim McElwain and Todd Graham.
As a player, he was a quarterback and team captain at Furman, and helped lead the Paladins to the 2001 Division I-AA national championship game. In 2002, Napier was named a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, that division’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
He then started down his coaching path as a graduate assistant at Clemson (2003-04), primarily working with video coordinating, and a year later with the players on the field.
In 2005, Napier was hired to be the quarterbacks coach at South Carolina State, and subsequently offered the position of offensive coordinator only to decline for a chance to return to Clemson and coach tight ends.
Napier continued to take on more responsibilities with the Tigers, working with special teams and was named recruiting coordinator in 2006. When Swinney replaced Tommy Bowden as head coach during the 2008 season, he promoted Napier to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
At age 29, Napier was the youngest OC in the Football Bowl Subdivision. ]
A year later, when the offensive production fell, he was out of a job.
Enter Saban, who hired Napier as an Alabama analyst — a job that pays very little but has been known to reap huge rewards. It changed his view of coaching and how to run a program.
“Certainly that year, 2011 in Alabama, was the most valuable year of my coaching career,” Napier said. “I’m thankful to Coach for that opportunity, but also he turned around and hired me back a second time just a year later.”
Specifically, near the end of the 2011 season, Alabama offensive coordinator McElwain accepted the head coaching job at Colorado State and made Napier his quarterbacks coach. From there he was lured away by Fisher to be Florida State’s tight ends coach, but just three weeks after signing his contract the call came from Saban, who needed a wide receivers coach.
The next thing Napier knew, he was back in Tuscaloosa.
“Working at that place makes you better,” said Napier, who stayed through the 2016 season before serving as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator last season. “Coach has a great understanding of seeing things from an organizational [standpoint].
“He often refers to his team and program as an organization and he certainly views it that way. He has his imprint, and hand on everything, and he has clearly defined roles within the building. It’s run like an organization and he knows exactly what he wants out of all those areas and he’s always looking to improve those areas.”
Now that he looks back, Napier can see how all the steps helped prepare him to be a head coach, even the setback in Clemson. Maybe he wasn’t ready for that opportunity when it came around, but he’s learned from it.
Saban’s process helped with that. Even when Napier was a player, an analyst, an assistant coach and coordinator, he always thought about how he would do things and handle situations as a head coach. What Saban showed him was how to do so in a working structure, and how a decision in one area could influence another.
He also learned what it took to make every aspect of a program successful.
So like with every other head coach, Napier will implement things he’s learned from a variety of sources, only now has a better framework for implementing what he wants, defining roles and establishing what is expected out of everyone in the program.
“It’s combination of all those things,” Napier said. “I don’t think there’s one thing in particular that I can say is my idea. I think it would probably be a little too much for me to say that because you steal everything you’ve got.
It’s the bottom line, you learned it from someone.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns weren't about to turn into Alabama West, but Crimson Tide fans saw some familiarity just like they do with nearly every other former Saban assistant turned head coach.
Some things that might work well for Alabama might not fly at Louisiana, which plays in the Sun Belt Conference, and there’s a clear difference in talent level. But Saban’s name still carries a lot of weight in that state, and the importance of of a name is something Napier’s father knew as well as anyone.
He’d occasionally tell his kids, like when dropping them off at school, that they were always representing their name even if nothing else.
“He wanted that to mean something,” Napier said. “There’s a certain level of pride associated with that. He motivated people by not wanting to let them down to some degree.”
Like father, who would be very proud, like son.