The 2021 college football coaching carousel was endlessly fascinating. Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma to go to USC. Brian Kelly left Notre Dame to go to LSU. Scott Frost was not fired by Nebraska. Bryan Harsin was not fired by Auburn.
Washington did fire Jimmy Lake after only one full season on the job. Brent Venables finally left Dabo Swinney to pursue his first head coaching job at Oklahoma. Mario Cristobal bolted Oregon to come home to Miami, pushing out fellow Miamian Manny Diaz. Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich left Clemson to become Miami’s AD and Cristobal’s immediate supervisor. James Franklin stayed put at Penn State. Mel Tucker stayed at Michigan State. Jim Harbaugh flirted with the Minnesota Vikings but was rejected. College football delivered drama off the field in yet another year in which the College Football Playoff semifinals lacked suspense. The carousel was a remarkable soap opera in so many ways.
The Florida Gators had one of the less soap-operatic coaching searches. They had their target. They got him. It was clean and surgical, but the outcome was nevertheless surprising for a few obvious reasons.
It is not commonplace for an elite program to hire a head coach directly from a Sun Belt or Conference USA-level program. Usually, a coach must test himself in the Mountain West, AAC, or a lower-tier Power Five school before getting the keys to a prime program such as Florida.
If you consider the two great coaches in Gator history, they both fit that conventional pattern. Steve Spurrier coached at Duke before being given the UF job on December 31, 1989. Urban Meyer won the Fiesta Bowl with Utah before getting the Florida job in January of 2005. Coaches usually have to pay some dues in the middle tiers of college football before ascending to a dream job, a place where one can win a national championship and attain gridiron immortality.
Florida cut against the grain – and the Spurrier and Meyer examples – by entrusting its program to the head coach of the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns. This is not a conventional choice. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice, only different from the norm. Florida is taking a risk, but when one looks at the rest of the SEC, it’s worth keeping in mind that Arkansas took a risk with Sam Pittman, who lacked head coaching experience. That move has turned out to be brilliant for the Razorbacks. Auburn, conversely, hired a very successful Boise State head coach, Bryan Harsin, and is in deep trouble right now.
The conventional decision is not always – or even usually – the right one. Nevertheless, Florida felt it needed to hire Napier. The commitment from Florida’s side was noticeable.
One of the striking aspects of this hire is that Napier – who presumably could have made a run at the LSU job if he desperately wanted it – was more than willing to take the Florida job. Industry speculation conveyed the sense that Napier was waiting for the big job in the state he knew best, the state where he worked at ULL. That speculation turned out to be untrue. Napier was mentally prepared to get a big job outside the state of Louisiana. When Florida zeroed in on him, the pairing became a reality and provided another twist to the carousel.
Entering the 2022 season, expectations for Florida are not through the roof. Everyone in Gainesville can see that Georgia has attained superpower status under Kirby Smart and is in no position to be dethroned by a first-year coach inheriting the mess Dan Mullen left behind. If we are being brutally honest, Napier is entering a season in which he needs to learn what he is up against and process the various details of his situation. Napier’s learning experience in Year 1 must lead him to identify not only the most acute needs on a roster with plenty of holes, but more urgently, a larger recruiting approach which can meet various goals and set Florida on firm footing heading into 2023. Kirby Smart is a recruiting giant, so while the 2022 season will contain its share of drama and intrigue, the big story in Gainesville revolves around recruiting, and how Napier can lift Florida to top-tier prominence in that component of cutthroat SEC competition. If Napier struggles on the field in 2022 but recruits like a heavyweight in the next cycle for the 2023 class, Florida fans will feel that the program is headed in the right direction. Mullen was so substandard as a recruiter that his play-design acumen didn’t amount to much, or at least, not nearly as much as it should have. Mullen is a gifted schemer and play sequencer, but his lack of recruiting prowess caught up with him, especially against the Kirby Smart machine. Georgia was able to roll out the biggest, fastest guys on the field and physically overwhelm not only Florida, but the rest of the SEC East.
Napier knows that if he doesn’t make magic on the trail, his gameday coaching savvy and expertise won’t have their full effect. Kirby Smart will continue to rule the SEC East, and Florida will be trapped, much as the Gators have been for most of the past several years of Georgia supremacy.
If there is a sign of hope for 2022 in Gainesville, it’s that Todd Grantham – kept on the job by Mullen far longer than what was necessary or appropriate – is finally gone as defensive coordinator. Mullen the play caller was great, but Mullen the recruiter and Mullen the supervisor of defensive assistant coaches was neglectful of his tasks. Florida’s new coaching staff might be great in its own right – we will soon find out – but the staff is already an upgrade from Mullen’s 2021 staff due to addition by subtraction.
“Third and Grantham” no longer exists in Gainesville. Billy Napier can now author a new story Gator fans will hopefully love … and which will need at least one year to emerge in its fullness.