New Cajuns coach Napier shaped by so much in his past
It’s January, a month and change after he was hired, and Billy Napier is settling into his new job as head coach of the UL football team.
He sits behind the desk in a sparsely decorated office, one occupied only by Mark Hudspeth from the time it was built until early December of last year, and so much is so new.
It is Napier’s first head coaching position on any level, and he’s never truly run the show before.
Not the whole shebang.
Flash forward to mid-March, and Napier has just come off the field following his first spring practice in charge of the Ragin’ Cajuns.
It still all seems somewhat surreal.
“It’s hard for me to believe they pay me to do this,” he said then. “You know, I wanted to be an ol’ high school football coach.”
By story’s end, the reason will be apparent.
“But to get to do it at a place like this, with this group of players, which I really like, you know,” Napier said, “is something you’ve been dreaming about doing for a long time.”
It’s about to get real.
UL opens its season Saturday night at Cajun Field against Grambling, followed by games later in the month at Mississippi State, against Coastal Carolina to open Sun Belt Conference play and at defending national-champion Alabama.
Who is this guy leading UL into perhaps its toughest September since it played Kansas State, No. 9 LSU and No. 25 Nebraska in 2009?
Napier has not yet turned 40 — that comes in late July of next year — but already the accomplishments have far surpassed that initial aspiration:
» eleven seasons spent as a full-time assistant coach at FBS programs, nine bowl games worked over those 11 years;
» offensive coordinator — a second chance with his own offense — under Todd Graham last year at Arizona State;
» receivers coach under Nick Saban from 2013-16 at Alabama, a span that included a national championship in 2015 and a title-game appearance the next year;
» offensive analyst at Alabama in 2011, when the Crimson Tide also won a national title;
» five-year assistant at Clemson and offensive coordinator there under Dabo Swinney for two years starting in 2009.
Just seven seasons removed from throwing for 2,475 and 16 touchdowns — and getting picked off eight times in 276 attempts — in his final season playing quarterback at FCS Furman University in South Carolina, Napier had his first coordinator job at an FBS program.
He had not turned 30, and he was offensive coordinator at Clemson. The gig didn’t last long — two seasons — before Swinney fired him.
But now, even before the big 4-0, everything his under his command.
He has the corner office, with all the windows. He's making the big bucks. He does the hiring and, yes, the firing.
To make it work, Napier has taken influence from each of his stops — including one in 2005 at South Carolina State, one under Jim McElwain in 2012 at Colorado State, all that time at Clemson and Alabama — and used all of it to mold the head coach he is now.
A 'GENUINE' MAN
What Napier both saw and experienced at Arizona State last year impacts much of what UL’s offense will be doing this year.
The responsibility that come with being a head coach, however, means things are not exactly like his days as a mere offensive coordinator.
“You kind of go to the park with the same offensive blueprint, to some degree, that (was) used last year at Arizona State,” Napier said.
“But you’re looking at things from a different perspective while you’re out there, to some degree,” he added. “You’re observing special teams periods instead of working with quarterbacks. You have a general feel for what the defense is doing.”
It’s those days — years, actually — at Alabama, though, that may shape Napier the most.
He is, after all, someone already being dubbed Nick Jr. in Lafayette for the way he’s handled things after arriving at UL about two weeks after Hudspeth was fired following his seven seasons as coach of the Cajuns.
“He just did a great job the five years he was there, soaking up everything,” said Rob Sale, who was a strength and conditioning assistant and offensive analyst while spending four seasons in Tuscaloosa, including the one Napier spent there as an analyst.
Alabama, however, is not Sale’s only tie to Napier.
Last season, the former LSU offensive lineman was offensive line coach and run game coordinator for Arizona State’s Napier-coordinated offense.
When Napier left Arizona State for UL, Sale came with him.
His buddy with the Georgia drawl — called “chill” by multiple Cajun players shortly after he arrived in Louisiana — is as authentic as they come, Sale suggests.
“When you just meet him — either media, fundraising or whatever you do; players, recruiting — you can just see how genuine the man is,” Sale said. “And on top of that he’s a great football coach.”
'HE KNOWS HIS STUFF'
Sale now coaches the Cajuns’ offensive line, and holds the title of UL offensive coordinator as well.
But it’s Napier, make no mistake, who is producing and directing the Cajun offense.
“He’s gonna call the plays,” Sale said, “but our verbiage and our system — it’s just a fit.”
It’s not only UL plays that will have Napier’s thumbprint, though.
Whereas Hudspeth also had the title of special teams coordinator for UL throughout his tenure, Napier is doubling as the Cajuns’ quarterbacks coach — a position he held previously in his one season at Arizona State, his one at Colorado State, part of his time at Clemson and in his one at South Carolina State.
By all accounts, he is quite hands-on.
Cajun QBs meet with Napier daily, and he is right there with them during all offensive periods in practice.
When he’s not, like during special teams periods, graduate assistant Matt Bergeron — who also followed Napier from Arizona State — is.
“Coach Napier, he knows his stuff,” said senior quarterback Andre Nunez, who has been battling sophomore Levi Lewis to be UL’s No. 1.
“So being with him every day,” Nunez added earlier this month, “it definitely takes our competition and our mental aspect of the game to a different level. He’s helping a lot.”
When it comes to working with QBs, Napier is in his element — no matter what primary title he may hold, be it offensive coordinator or head coach.
But he did go into the UL job understanding, and accepting, the fact he now has plenty more duties than when he was a mere position coach.
“The big thing is it’s really a challenge to your self-discipline, to some degree,” Napier said early last spring. “You’ve got to be really efficient with your time, and you’ve got to flip that switch.
“I love it, man. That’s what I would tell ya. I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else.”
Picking plays is in Napier’s blood.
The father of four — three young boys and a girl — is all about making the call, except when it comes to deciding when it’s time to clean up, and then his wife is the one wearing the headset.
“I ask Ali every day, ‘What you think? … Do you want me to keep this, or shave it off?’” he said on one of the fresh days for his face. “So, we let her make that decision.”
So she takes care of that.
He has someone handling the Cajun defense, too.
But point production? The buck stops with Napier.
“I’m gonna take the same approach that some of the mentors that I’ve worked for would take,” he said. “I’m gonna coach the offense.
“Certainly we’re very fortunate to have a veteran, experienced defensive coordinator (Ron Roberts, former head coach at Southeastern Louisiana and Delta State), whom I’m very comfortable with him running it.
“My job,” he added, “is to define the expectations. I hold everybody accountable to those standards.”
IT ALL MAKES SENSE
It’s August, and UL’s opener against Grambling — the first that will count on Napier’s record — is right around the corner.
With that comes roads not previously crossed.
“It’s a new set of challenges, you know?” Napier said. “It’s a new set of problems.
“I think when you’re an assistant coach, you’ve got your grass to mow and you mow your grass. … You’re a coordinator, and you’ve got to see it from a little bit different perspective.
“Then this is a head coach/play-caller job, you know?” he added, “and I think the thing you really start to value is hiring a good staff and putting good people around you — you know, people that you can trust, people that are professional in their approach.”
Though born in Cookeville, Tennessee, Napier is Georgia-raised, learning so much of what he has as the son of a man who spent plenty of time on the 100-yard lawns there.
His father spent 25 years at Georgia’s Murray County High in Chatsworth, which he left as its all-time winningest football coach, and where Billy played. After a couple other stops, Napier’s dad worked his final seven seasons on the staff at Dalton High in Georgia.
Bill Napier passed late last September, at the age of 60, ending a battle with ALS — Lou Gherig’s disease — that started in 2013. As the tales have been told, it's apparent he kept calling the plays for as long as his health would possibly allow.
Remember what the Cajun coach said on that first day of spring ball?
“It’s hard for me to believe they pay me to do this. You know, I wanted to be an ol’ high school football coach.”
It all makes sense now.