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Florida hires Billy Napier as head football coach

The Gators have their man — one of the coaching industry’s up-and-coming names.

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NCAA Football: Sun Belt Conference Championship-UL Lafayette at Appalachian State Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Florida has hired Billy Napier as its head football coach, the school announced Sunday.

Florida’s release includes quotes from both Napier and athletic director Scott Stricklin.

“We are humbled and honored to accept this incredible opportunity to be the head football coach at the University of Florida,” Napier said. “Our team, staff and entire organization will work daily to establish a program with integrity and class that we all can be proud of. More importantly, we will build a culture that is centered around making an impact on our players: as people, as students, and on the field.

”We embrace the expectations and are excited about the challenge ahead. We will assemble a special group of people and immediately get to work building a great program. A special thank you to President Dr. Fuchs and Athletic Director Scott Stricklin. We look forward to getting to Gainesville and starting this journey!”

”I’ve followed and studied Billy Napier’s career with interest, and he became the primary target immediately after this position came open,” Stricklin said. “We felt confident he would be an excellent leader for the Gators, which is why he was the only candidate I met with about the job.

”Billy’s ability to bring highly-talented people together — players, coaches, and staff — along with his vision for having a strong, relationship-based culture is what made him such an attractive choice. Add in how detailed his plan is for player development, staffing and recruiting, along with a sustained desire to improve, and it’s easy to see why he’s been successful.

”I’m so pleased that Billy, Ali, Annie, Sammy Nelson and Charlie are coming to Gainesville. It’s an exciting day for the Gators.”

Napier, currently the coach at Louisiana, was the only coach meaningfully linked to the position since last Sunday’s firing of Dan Mullen, with reports of Florida focusing on him propagating on pay sites and message boards since last Monday and excitement about his candidacy leading Gators fans to scrutinize flight plans by Florida’s private planes in an effort to scry when Napier might meet with Florida.

That was followed this weekend by a series of reports — by John Brice of Football Scoop and Ross Dellenger and Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated on Saturday, then Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports, Bruce Feldman of The Athletic, and Brett McMurphy of Action Network on Sunday — suggesting variously that Florida had focused on Napier, made him their leading candidate, targeted him, was expected to hire him, and that Napier will replace Mullen.

To say this was expected would be an understatement.

Napier’s star has been burnished by his time on the bayou in Lafayette, where he has led the Ragin’ Cajuns since 2018 and put together three straight 10-win seasons, the first such string of sustained success in program history.

And Louisiana’s five losses in its last three years are all plenty understandable. 2019’s 11-3 record featured a hard-fought season-opening loss to Mississippi State and two losses to a 13-1 Appalachian State squad; 2020’s only loss came to fellow gate-crasher Coastal Carolina in one of the season’s best games; and 2021’s lone defeat came at Texas.

But Napier’s results, while impressive in their own right, pale in comparison to his reputation as a young coach who has learned plenty about program building during stints under both Dabo Swinney at Clemson and Nick Saban at Alabama.

Napier spent several seasons at Clemson in multiple roles before rising to become Swinney’s first offensive coordinator, then — after being fired by Swinney in 2010 — became one of the first coaches to take an analyst role at Alabama, departing the school in 2012 for Colorado State alongside Jim McElwain and returning in 2013 to be the wide receivers coach most responsible for stocking the Crimson Tide roster with game-changers over the last half-decade, then spent a single season at Arizona State as an offensive coordinator before being hired by Louisiana.

Napier is regarded as a very good recruiter, if not necessarily a legendary one, but he and his staff have been lapping the field in the Sun Belt — where four-star commits are nonexistent — for the entirety of his tenure. And he’s also regarded as a good but not scintillating offensive mind and play-caller; Louisiana’s remarkable No. 8 finish in total offense in 2019 is most notable for its balance (3,604 rushing yards, 3,314 passing yards) of the kind Saban used to crave in his early years at Alabama.

Florida’s aim, as articulated by Stricklin in his press conference following the announcement of Mullen’s firing, is for the Gators to shore up the weaknesses of the Mullen regime — diagnosed by most as subpar recruiting and a lack of consistency that allowed good games and years to be followed by puzzling ones — with this hire. And the hope is clearly that taking a chance on a coach who has most recently been outside the aristocracy of college football despite his intimate knowledge of two programs near the top of it will pay off with a poured foundation that allows the Gators to consistently compete with Alabama and Clemson — and also Georgia, and LSU, and all the other major programs Florida crosses paths with regularly.

“Scared money don’t make money,” Napier quipped earlier this year, explaining his decision to go for a touchdown instead of a field goal at the end of the first half in a tight game against Ohio.

That choice paid off: The Ragin’ Cajuns scored then, and went on to a 49-14 thumping of the Bobcats. They finished their regular season 11-1 on Saturday, holding off rival Louisiana Monroe, and will play for the Sun Belt Championship on Saturday, December 4, with Napier coaching them in his last game with the team.

In his tweet announcing his departure, Napier made clear his gratitude for his time at UL.

Napier will then come to Gainesville on Sunday, December 5 for an introductory press conference. While he will not be the Gators’ head coach for their bowl game — it’s overwhelming likely that will once again be interim head coach Greg Knox, joined by whichever members of Florida’s current coaching staff stay for the bowl game instead of taking other jobs — Napier is sure to be a figure at bowl practices while he begins to build his own staff and hits the road to recruit with a Gator Head on his chest for the first time.

By zeroing in on Napier to the exclusion of any other candidates, Stricklin has done his own version of what Napier did that night, pushing his chips to the center and seeing how the hand plays out.

Florida fans who have seen their share of flops — in multiple senses — might simply be eager to see how the next new coach can break their hearts in different ways.

But if Napier and Stricklin are convinced they have the nuts, there’s plenty at stake for them to rake into their respective piles — and the Gators’ trophy case.