No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing — if he wants it
LAFAYETTE, La. — A pensive look paints Billy Napier’s face as the Louisiana football coach gazes out his office windows.
The shortest question I ask him on this June day is the one that has him lost in thought.
What motivates you?
Thirty seconds pass as Napier considers the question. He alights on some advice his dad, Bill, gave him. Bill, who died in 2017, was a longtime Georgia high school football coach.
"He would often say that football is a game of people, strategy and competition — but you’ve got to always keep people at the top of that list," Napier said.
"Sometimes, we think that strategy is going to be the answer. Sometimes, we think we're going to outcompete everybody, we’re going to outwork everybody. In reality, what matters the most is the people — being invested in the people, having genuine relationships."
The Ragin’ Cajuns believe they have the right person in Napier.
The fourth-year coach led Louisiana to its first top-25 finish in program history last season. The Ragin' Cajuns went 10-1, including a season-opening win over Iowa State, which finished as the Big 12’s runner-up.
But Louisiana’s biggest victory is that Napier still calls Lafayette home.
Napier fielded interest from South Carolina and Auburn during the last hiring cycle — Louisiana athletic director Bryan Maggard admits he briefly wondered whether he’d lose Napier to the Gamecocks — after Baylor and Mississippi State reportedly pursued him following the 2019 season.
Louisiana rewarded Napier, who is 28-11 after three seasons, with a new contract in June that will pay him $2 million annually. He is among a handful of Group of Five coaches to reach that salary threshold, but it pales in comparison to SEC salaries.
So, why is Napier still here?
“I think there’s a lot left to accomplish here,” he said.
“The measuring stick in the Group of Five is a New Year’s Six opportunity,” Napier said.
Do that, and Napier will find his name on another set of hiring wish lists.
Such is the byproduct of success in the Group of Five.
“Every major job that opens up, it’s certainly well known here that he’s getting calls. It’s better than the alternative,” Maggard said.
“The good thing about Billy Napier is, he’s not driven by the money. There are so many other boxes he needs to check.”
Shaped by the Power Five
Conventional wisdom says Napier would have left by now for a Power Five opportunity. That’s not an indictment on Louisiana but a reflection of how many coaches use the Group of Five as a steppingstone to more lucrative pastures.
Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn each parlayed one-year stints at Arkansas State into SEC jobs. More recently, Scott Frost used his two seasons at Central Florida to become Nebraska's coach, and Eli Drinkwitz bolted Appalachian State after one season to become Missouri’s coach.
Napier, 41, has dined at the grandest tables. He has the distinction of being an assistant for Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Alabama’s Nick Saban. He was Arizona State’s offensive coordinator before Louisiana hired him.
“I think my perspective would be different if I hadn’t been at these places, if I hadn’t coached in the SEC or the ACC or the Pac-12,” Napier said. “I think I understand what goes with those challenges, and to be honest with you, I really appreciate what we have here.
“I’ve had a lot of jobs at a lot of different places, and I think I know a good one when I see it. It’s going to have to be a really unique, special situation for me to have a change of scenery.
“I think if you hadn’t been in the middle of those battles in the past, then you’d be a little more enamored with it, if that makes sense. We’ve got a lot left to accomplish here. That’s what I think about.”
The Group of Five mountaintop
When Maggard arrived at Louisiana in 2017 after 21 years as an athletics administrator at Missouri, he wanted the Ragin’ Cajuns to think big about their football program.
Louisiana already had an established top-25 softball program and was perennially solid in baseball. Given the fertile recruiting territory — the university is within 220 miles of Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Houston — Maggard saw no reason why Louisiana shouldn’t succeed in football.
Napier shared Maggard’s vision and told him as much while interviewing for the job in December 2017 after Louisiana fired Mark Hudspeth.
“I remember in our meeting, we both used the term gold mine,” Maggard said. “This place is a hidden gem. It’s just a gold mine of talent. We can win at a high level here.”
In Maggard’s view, the key to a Louisiana football ascent was landing attainable recruits from the school’s footprint rather than losing those prospects to lower- or middle-tier Power Five schools.
“Billy and his staff are doing that,” Maggard said.
Louisiana’s last three signing classes ranked atop the Sun Belt Conference in the 247Sports composite. Napier dubs his incoming class — freshmen, plus transfers — his best group yet.
Louisiana’s 2021 class ranked 68th nationally — the best ranking in program history and ahead of Power Five schools Illinois, Texas Tech, Purdue, Arizona, South Carolina and Oregon State.
When Maggard considers the next few years for Louisiana football, he wants the Ragin’ Cajuns to be mentioned in the same breath as premier Group of Five programs like Boise State, Cincinnati and UCF.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are No. 25 in USA Today's offseason ranking. They return many of last year’s standouts, including quarterback Levi Lewis and top tacklers Lorenzo McCaskill and Ferrod Gardner.
“We absolutely now are vying for the top Group of Five spot in America,” Maggard said, “and we believe that if we run the table this year, we’ll be that program.”
No trophy is awarded for being considered the premier Group of Five program, but the benefit for attaining that perch could increase in the coming years.
A proposal to expand the College Football Playoff to 12 teams is gaining momentum. In the proposed format, at least one playoff spot would go to a Group of Five school.
As difficult as it is to retain an in-demand Group of Five coach, doing so can reap rewards.
Luke Fickell is entering his fifth season at Cincinnati, which nearly beat Georgia in the Peach Bowl in January. Boise State ascended during Chris Petersen’s eight-year stint. Gary Patterson never left TCU, taking the program from Conference USA to the Mountain West to the Big 12.
“Let’s just say he ends up staying here. He’ll be the winningest coach in program history,” Maggard said. “He’ll have statues made after him here, and he’ll be the king of this kingdom — not that that’s what he’s about, but he knows he can be successful here, and I know he appreciates that.”
Fired by Swinney, hired by Saban
Napier, who was born in Cookeville, Tenn. and raised in Chatsworth, Ga., didn’t envision being in this world. Coaching, yes, but not Division I football.
He figured he’d become a high school coach, like his dad. Napier’s brother Matt is the coach at a Georgia high school, and his brother Kurt is the coach at a Georgia middle school.
But after playing quarterback for Furman, Napier became a graduate assistant at Clemson. By 26, he was an assistant coach for the ACC school. He became Clemson’s offensive coordinator at 29.
“I don’t think I knew whether the ball was pumped or stuffed at that point,” Napier said.
He got fired after two seasons as Dabo Swinney’s offensive coordinator.
More than a decade later, Napier says that humbling experience benefited his outlook.
“At that point in time in life, I was probably a little arrogant,” Napier said, “probably a little out of control to some degree, a little bit consumed with strategy and competition, when in reality, I think I needed to re-center myself a little bit. I think being fired will do that to you.”
Napier briefly re-engaged the idea of becoming a high school coach. Instead, Nick Saban snapped him up as an analyst.
Napier calls the 2011 season he spent as an Alabama analyst — the Crimson Tide won the national title — the most valuable year of his coaching career. He returned to Saban’s staff in 2013 for a four-year stint as a wide receivers coach.
When Napier got hired by Louisiana, he wanted to implement a lot of the processes and structure he learned from Saban.
Maggard gave him the means to make that happen, at least on a Group of Five scale.
When Maggard became Louisiana’s AD, the athletics department didn’t have a full-time nutritionist. Now, it has three. Louisiana ramped up financial commitment for assistants and support staff.
The biggest immediate change Gardner, a seventh-year senior linebacker, noticed after Napier became the coach?
Eyeballs. More of them. More graduate assistants. More quality-control analysts. Eyeballs everywhere during practice and workouts.
“I think that made everybody want to work a little bit harder,” Gardner said.
The next step in the university's investment in the program is a $65 million stadium project that will feature a new press box and the installation of suites, loge boxes and other club and premium seating, along with a new videoboard, lighting and sound system.
Maggard plans for construction to begin before the 2022 season, with the renovations unveiled by the 2023 season.
Sights set on Sun Belt
Napier reads a devotional each morning, along with other material.
If he comes across words of wisdom he thinks could be useful to his football program, he shares them in his staff meetings.
Such was the case on June 2, when he closed his morning staff meeting with this:
A blessing offered too soon is not really a blessing at all.
Perhaps, those words apply to his Louisiana program.
Louisiana had a chance to avenge its only loss of the 2020 season with a rematch against Coastal Carolina in the Sun Belt championship game.
The Ragin’ Cajuns already had traveled to South Carolina before Napier had to inform his team that the game was canceled after a positive COVID-19 test and subsequent quarantining within Coastal's program.
Louisiana's players didn’t take the news well, Gardner recalls. They felt like 2020 was their year to win the Sun Belt championship after losing in the conference title game to Appalachian State the previous two seasons.
“It still bothers us a lot,” Lewis said of the game’s cancellation.
Napier and his Ragin' Cajuns can seize the blessing in 2021.
Our preseason Top 25
For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.