Once in trouble, the Cajuns bought into Napier right away
MOBILE, Ala. — In the final three years of the Mark Hudspeth football coaching era at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the Ragin’ Cajuns were a team in trouble.
In stepped Billy Napier, hired away from Arizona State — where he spent the 2017 season as offensive coordinator — to replace the fired Hudspeth.
In two quick seasons, UL earned back-to-back bowl bids.
It lost to Tulane at the 2018 Cure Bowl in Orlando, Florida, and is preparing now to play 8-5 MAC-champion Miami (Ohio) in Monday night’s LendingTree Bowl.
Under command of Napier, now a coach in demand and one whose name pops up each time an SEC job opens, the Cajuns have won back-to-back Sun Belt Conference West Divisions titles.
And they’ve gone 10-3 to date, winning a school-record number of games, all in the regular season, and doubling their total number of victories from 2017.
“Coach Napier came in, and he’s definitely changed things around for us,” senior linebacker Ferrod Gardner.
“We bought in to what he’s preaching and what he’s believing, and we believe in him.
“So we just want to get out and win games for that man,” Gardner added, “and win games for this community and this program.”
From 2015-17, UL had three straight losing seasons.
After four consecutive 9-4 seasons and four New Orleans Bowl wins in a row under Hudspeth from 2011-14, the Cajuns went bowling just once in that aforementioned span — a 2016 New Orleans Bowl loss to Southern Mississippi.
The program played under the cloud of NCAA sanctions stemming from an investigation into recruiting improprieties that resulted in the loss of 11 scholarships, recruiting restrictions and the vacating of all victories from the 2011-14 seasons in which ineligible players took part. Controversy came when an anti-Donald Trump video shot in the UL locker room surfaced. A handful of players were arrested.
But soon after he was hired, Napier — also a former Clemson offensive coordinator who spent four seasons from 2013-16 as Alabama’s receivers coach — established a rapport with Cajuns players, most of whom he had not personally recruited.
“We don’t just look at him like a father figure,” said senior defensive lineman Bennie Higgins, who like Gardner was recruited by Hudspeth and his staff. “We look at him like a brother, too.”
'HE'S HARD ON US'
That is not to suggest, however, that Napier and his staff of assistants are easy on the Cajuns.
Rather, the former college quarterback at Furman in the early 2000s has struck a balance, knowing when — and how — to work and when to enjoy the journey.
It started immediately in the weight room and with conditioning on the practice field.
“I don’t think in the past we ever really worked as hard as that,” senior linebacker Jacques Boudreaux said.
“It was a different type of training (previously). But the training we have now, it’s vigorous. It commands a lot out of us, and it requires us to be mentally prepared and physically prepared as well.”
In film and meeting rooms, the focus evidently became more nuanced. Schemes were changed, techniques altered. Eyes that once saw things one way started to see them another.
“He allowed for our minds to change about the way we think about the game of football, from an Xs and Os standpoint as well,” Boudreaux said.
“That whole coaching staff came and tried to teach us more about the game than we knew, and it turned out we didn’t really know a whole lot about the game.”
So Napier weeded out some players. He added several of his own.
And, with Cajun roster numbers out of whack due to earlier departures, he put several deserving walk-ons on scholarship.
It all struck a chord.
“He set a standard for us, from the first day he came in,” senior receiver Bam Jackson said. “He told us exactly what it was gonna be, and he held us to the standard.
“And if you couldn’t rise to the standard, he wasn’t gonna drop it for you. Either you come up, or you’re not gonna be here.
“That’s something that was big for the program, because we had a lot of guys that felt they were above the standard,” Jackson added. “But they were below it, and they couldn’t stick around.”
The Cajuns who stayed, and who are reaping the benefits now, took to Napier’s style right away.
They soon figured out that behind the Southern-raised coach’s country roots was a work ethic born in the son of a longtime, now-deceased high school coach who mentored him at Murray County High in Chatsworth, Georgia.
Bill Napier lost his battle with ALS — Lou Gehrig’s Disease — in 2017, when son Billy was working at Arizona State.
“He’s hard on us,” Jackson said. “He pushes us to get everything out.
“But when it’s time to relax and it’s time to let us unwind a little bit, he lets us. But he also keeps us sharp at the same time.”
THE SABAN INFLUENCE
The style is an amalgamation from the many coaches Napier has spent time observing, starting with his dad. It also obviously includes Alabama coach Nick Saban, who first hired Napier for the 2011 season as an analyst after Dabo Swinney had just fired him as Clemson’s offensive coordinator. Then Saban brought Napier back later as receivers coach.
“He has an organization,” Napier said of Saban.
“He’s got a firm grip on everything that he does, whether it’s academics, strength and conditioning, nutrition, the training room, equipment, offense, defense, the special teams for sure.”
Napier said he borrows from Saban’s “year-round plan for player development,” taking the big-picture approach he saw at Alabama and using it to implement about 70 percent of what he has done in his first head coaching job — on any level — at UL.
It is a big part of how the protege found success so soon.
“I certainly wouldn’t be standing here today without that experience,” Napier said.
“But I think one thing that gets overlooked — I worked for some really good guys, whether that’s Todd Graham (at Arizona State), Jim McElwain (at Alabama and later Colorado State), Buddy Pough (at South Carolina), Tommy Bowden, Dabo Swinney (both at Clemson), a number of different coaches.
“Certainly my dad, being a high school football coach, made a tremendous impact on me,” Napier added. “(But) it’s not just those head coaches. I think when you go work at these places, you’re exposed to some extremely talented assistant coaches, and you observe them and you take things from them that you think are really good.”
Now, two years after arriving at UL, the question of where Napier will coach next looms overhead as the Cajuns get ready for their second bowl under his watch.
UL on Thursday confirmed it had agreed to terms on a two-year contract extension, bringing his current deal through 2025.
But Napier’s name was mentioned as a potential candidate for several job openings late in 2019, and when Mississippi State fired Joe Moorhead on Friday morning, Napier was back in the news.
He reportedly had no interest in recent openings at Arkansas, Missouri and Ole Miss, and one report states he turned down an opportunity to pursue employment at Mississippi State, which also had genuine interest back in November, when it also considered firing Moorhead.
Instead, Napier, who hasn't publicly addressed the Mississippi State opening, is being quite selective about where he goes next.
Still, how long the Cajuns really can hold onto him remains to be seen.
For the time being, though, UL players — even those done after Monday — are happy he’s stayed as long as he has.
“He’s got a great opportunity to make this program much bigger,” Higgins said. “It can go sky-high with him.
“Him coming in, we knew his name was gonna get bigger — especially with the group of guys (already in place). All we needed was a coach like him to get on us.”
The hope now is that Napier will continue to coach the Cajuns for many seasons to come.
But the reality is Napier’s time in Lafayette could be limited, and that someday — later this year, perhaps next, no one can be sure when — he will take the next step.
“We all know he could have every opportunity, every reason to leave, every excuse to leave,” senior safety Deuce Wallace said of the past week’s developments. “But he doesn’t want to do that. He wants to build a dynasty.
“He wants to do it the right way so when he does leave … he left it how it’s supposed to be, he left it at a certain standard.”