It’s daybreak of a new day for Gator football, and Billy Napier is building his army to rule that day. Photo: Phelan Ebenhack, Associated Press
On Monday, we published part I of our two-part investigative deep-dive into the culture of the Florida Gators football program.
The reason for going into such depth about all the ugliness that took place wasn’t to kick any of the characters while they were down, or to beat a dead horse. The reason for rehashing all those inglorious moments was simply to paint a picture of the “before times.” In order to truly appreciate what you currently have, you must have a basis for comparison. Most of the players I spoke to for this piece (who played for him) had nothing but positive wishes for the departed Dan Mullen, but speaking to enough of them made it clear that a change was needed.
And to hear the current players tell it, Billy Napier is the right man for the Florida Gators job by every sense of the phrase. It’s a sentiment that goes way beyond his first-impression-centric moves of upgrading the players’ food and parking situations. Players are quick- adamant, even- to point out that that wasn’t a front. Napier’s care for the players is shown even more behind closed doors more than in the public light.
But it’s even more than that. Billy Napier isn’t merely Dan Mullen’s polar opposite temperamentally; he’s Mullen’s polar opposite as a recruiter, as a coach, and most importantly, as a CEO of a program.
This is the story of how Billy Napier cleaned out the cancer that was eating Florida’s program from the inside, and installed his own culture- a culture that’s built on accountability, trust, and relationships.
Billy Napier: “a genuine businessman”
Linebacker Shemar James is one of those guys who knows he’s young and has a lot to learn simply because of that, yet at the same time has become a leader and a veteran-like presence on and off the field. His game film from 2022 told the tale of an energetic playmaker who showed both intelligence and tremendous physical ability on a consistent basis. On the rare occasions he did something wrong, he’d be sure to correct it the next time a similar situation played itself out, proving coachability and a willingness to grow.
James, though, almost never came to Florida in the first place. He committed to the Gators under Mullen and then-LB coach Christian Robinson in June of 2021, but as the losses piled up in 2021 and the buzz around Mullen started to grow, he had second thoughts, and began looking heavily at rivals Georgia, FSU, and Alabama. It was Napier- with less than three weeks to cobble together his first recruiting class- who personally singled him out as a priority, went out and took him back.
James grew visibly excited when I asked him about Billy Napier, as though the opportunity to discuss his coach was a privilege. “When Napier says something, he means it,” James told me, less than a second after I’d asked him to “tell me about Coach Napier,” as though he’d been itching to give his coach this glowing review. “He’s a genuine guy, a player’s coach. And I did my research, asked around. Louisiana improved every year he was there not just in terms of their record, but in terms of their internal team buy-in and chemistry.”
That’s high praise for such a soft-spoken man without much of an ego, and it’s echoed by the upperclassmen.
Wide receiver Ricky Pearsall transferred into Florida from Arizona State, and he says he’s forever grateful for Napier bringing him to Florida.
For nearly two hours after putting on a show in Florida’s spring game, Pearsall signed autographs, took pictures, and struck up conversations with a long line of fans. After being the center of attention for so long, Pearsall seemed delighted to stay on the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to talk about his coach.
“Napier is all about relationships, man,” Pearsall told me with a laugh after the Florida spring game. “He’s all about developing relationships with the guys you go to work with every single day. Napier preaches that when you know the guy to your left and your right, when you really know him know him, it makes it different. You don’t want to let those guys down.”
In response to that, I followed up: “What does Napier do, specifically, that makes sure this message he preaches is truly delivered?” …and Pearsall was more than ready for it. “He practices what he preaches,” he told me. “It’s not just a talking point during media interviews. When the cameras are off, he’s the exact same guy. Genuine as they come. And he’s a businessman. He only brings in guys who are true leaders and make business decisions to do what has to be done for the better of the team, and he leads by example by making business decisions in every aspect. He’s a genuine businessman.”
To that last point Pearsall made, it’s much more than just being a genuinely nice man. That’s part of it, but by no means all of it. There’s a business aspect to this too, and Napier is no less authentic when it comes time to be a businessman.
Scooby Williams, who came to Florida as part of Mullen’s final class, notices a huge difference in the operation. He likes Mullen a lot and wishes him well, but he was quick to tell me that the difference in how the program is run is night and day. “I love Dan Mullen,” Williams told me. “I’ll always be grateful to him. But there’s just no debating the fact that things are so much more laid out and regimented here. That’s the standard now. You know what you have to do before you do it. Your tasks are all laid out so clearly for you, so there’s no way you can fail. Coach Napier puts you in positions where you can’t fail.” Williams went on to describe how every moment of every day is well-regimented, to the point that it feels like a business. “And we love being a part of it.”
That’s all a stark contrast to the way things worked under Dan Mullen, who insisted on retaining Todd Grantham and John Hevesy despite mounds of evidence- both internal and external- that suggested he should not, only giving Kyle Trask a chance on the field after the struggling Feleipe Franks broke his leg, and doing the bare minimum on the recruiting trail to pull in back-to-back top ten classes… which quickly disintegrated as members of those classes left the program for one off-the-field reason after another. And nowhere is that contrast felt more than on the recruiting trail.
Billy Napier as a recruiter
There’s no such thing as “recruiting season” for Billy Napier. Or, rather, there is- and it’s indistinguishable from any other juncture in time, because it covers all 365 days of each calendar year. Billy Napier is notorious for recruiting with maddening repetition, and bringing only the best athletes and characters into his program.
Which is much easier to say than to do. And so the above quote from Pearsall got me thinking: how does Napier do that? It can’t be easy to thoroughly vet so many prospects’ leadership capabilities, so how does Billy Napier pull it off?
I reached out to a number of high school coaches in the state of Florida, and in talking about Billy Napier, they described a man with a vision for every minute. Every minute of every recruiting trip is planned, including when to be on the phone texting recruits and even when to go to the bathroom. He sets this itinerary, and any assistant that goes with him isn’t merely expected to follow the plan; they’re said to be in lockstep with him about each step of the way. And when talking to high school coaches and teachers, he’s hunting for clues that the kid he’s recruiting displays those same qualities.
Yulee High School special teams coach Larry Hurlbut said he’d never spoken to Napier directly, but five minutes with Florida recruit-turned-signee Treyaun Webb at a local Jacksonville football camp left him with quite an impression. And it’s an impression he’s more than happy to share publicly as well as privately. “Treyaun is such a great kid,” Hurlbut said on a twitter space earlier this offseason. “Talking with him even for such a short time makes it very obvious that there’s a certain character type that Napier is going for.”
Safety Kamari Wilson is described in a very similar manner by his coaches. Wilson was an ultra-talented five-star prospect who flipped from Georgia to Florida at the last second of the 2022 recruiting cycle, and he said it was because of how down-to-earth Napier was. “Being real with you,” Wilson told me, “Florida was always my dream school. I’m a Florida boy. But that’s not why I’m here.”
Wilson went on to detail the immense amount of respect he had for Kirby Smart and Georgia, but then came back to his desire to blaze his own path. “Georgia is an elite program,” he told me. “I respect them tremendously. But I want to be a leader, not a follower. If I went there, I’d just be one of many names to go through an established system. I want to go down in history as the guy who started that process for a program and blazed that path forward.”
It was that exact attitude that Napier saw in Kamari Wilson that sought him to push hard for him in the dying days of the 2022 recruiting cycle. And Wilson, for his part, was hooked. “I trust Napier completely,” Wilson remarked. “He came into contact with me with a fully laid-out plan for how he was going to develop me and put me in the league. I trusted his process.”
“How has Napier done in terms of keeping that promise so far?”, I asked Wilson. “He’s kept it,” Wilson replied. “And then some. I feel better, smarter, stronger, than I did twelve months ago. And as for him being genuine, what you see is what you get. The people I interacted with as a recruit are the same people I interact with now, and they act no differently now.”
Running back Trevor Etienne, another one of Napier’s eleventh-hour signees in his abbreviated 2022 class, co-signed all of those sentiments. “I loved LSU and Clemson, I really did,” he explained. “But I’m from Louisiana and my brother Travis was a star at Clemson. I didn’t want to be the guy who stays at home or who’s known as “Travis Etienne’s brother” at Clemson. I wanted to forge my own path. And when I came to Florida- the campus, the environment, the top five academic school- I truly fell in love.”
Remembering what Kamari Wilson had told me, I didn’t want to lead Etienne to a certain answer with a follow-up question, so I worded it very neutrally: “Can you tell me a little bit about what Coach Napier is like behind closed doors?” Trevor smiled. “I could,” he responded. “But I don’t need to. You see it when the camera’s on him. That’s him, all the time. He’s the same guy all the time. I’ve never even heard him raise his voice to a player or assistant.”
Sure, part of what makes Napier so easy for recruits to gravitate toward is his easygoing personality- which everyone will be quick to tell you is not a front. But again, to reiterate, just because he has such an easygoing personality doesn’t mean it’s easy to be a Florida Gator football player. Players are not only expected to come to Florida ready to work harder than they’ve ever worked before, they’re expected to be natural leaders who can police themselves and be trusted to make selfless choices that benefit the team.
It’s one thing to recruit top caliber athletes to Gainesville; it’s entirely another to recruit that top caliber of athlete while not sacrificing character and leadership skills for that caliber. To Napier, it’s not a choice of recruiting thing one or the other; the kids he seeks on the trail are required to have both. And that’s why, as of this publication, Billy Napier currently has the #3 ranked recruiting class according to both 247Sports and On3.
That’s all a stark contrast to how things worked under Dan Mullen, who had zero interest in doing the due diligence required to vet, recruit, and land this caliber of athlete, only wanted to draw up plays on a whiteboard, carried a massive ego, and either failed to stop or outright allowed some members of the football staff to smear departing members of his team. And by taking the time to recruit the right type of player, Napier is seeing results- even if the public can’t yet.
“We’re Setting A New Standard In Gainesville”
Not everybody that Napier brings in has the same personality as the ultra-affable Ricky Pearsall and Shemar James. Baylor offensive line transfer Micah Mazzccua, for example, though a perfectly respectful and polite guy, is much more quiet and introverted around new people. But Mazzccua- who’s working to rehab an injury- didn’t need much prodding to confirm his teammates’ words. I simply asked him how he liked Gainesville so far, and he didn’t hesitate with his answer. “I may be new here, but it’s been so noticeable to me how genuine and how hard-working everyone here is,” Mazzccua remarked. “And people hold each other accountable here.”
While players’ personalities differed, every player I spoke to agreed on a basic thesis of how genuine and organized as a CEO Billy Napier was. But perhaps it was Miguel Mitchell who really pinpointed the difference being held to a higher standard than the previous standard. Not just from Billy Napier, but from other players.
Mitchell is a pretty well-qualified person to talk about that. A three-star athlete who barely cracked the top 1000 of the 247Sports Composite recruiting rankings and who was lightly recruited, Mitchell quietly worked his way onto the field and produced as a true freshman in 2022, racking up fifteen tackles and forcing a fumble. Along the way, he beat out scores of older players for playing time, a direct reversal of the way Dan Mullen decided playing time- and the older guys were more than cognizant of that. And they didn’t like it.
Standing outside of the Social at Midtown in Gainesville on a gray February day, Mitchell verbally sketched out his reality of going to practice every day as a true freshman: the infamous Marco Wilson shoe throw from 2020 was seldom spoken of, but it was on his mind as an example of what not to do. “That shoe throw was a big part of Gator history, if you ask me,” Mitchell stated. “You just never know what would have happened after that. I can’t help but wonder.”
When he first saw the play on television, it alerted him to the possibility that discipline was not something Florida coaches were high on, and though he committed to a different coaching staff, he was still wary of that theory. What he saw at practice got his attention.
“We’re setting a new standard in Gainesville,” Mitchell declared. “This program used to let things slide. No more. Stuff that would fly in the past doesn’t fly anymore.”
“Any examples that really stand out?” I followed up. “Sure,” Mitchell replied, “there are several. There’s one in particular that stands out.”
“Not long ago, (an upperclassman) was clearly going less than 100% in a team run. That didn’t sit right with me because I worked too hard to get here. So I ran up to him and motivated him- not yelled, but motivated. I said, ‘Hey man, come on. You know you can give more effort than that, and you’re only cheating yourself if you don’t. It’s gonna pay off in the end.” And unlike how such teammate-on-teammate motivational efforts went during Mullen’s time at Florida, this time, it achieved the desired effect.
Mitchell is popular among his teammates, but the players I spoke to were quick to point out that this motivational tactic wasn’t unique to Mitchell. “He’s a great dude,” Ricky Pearsall said of Mitchell. “Love that guy. But it’s not just him, see. That’s the kind of leader that every player Coach Napier brings in is.”
That’s all a stark contrast to the way things worked under Dan Mullen, where he seemed content to settle for outgaining his opponents in blowout losses, players made selfish decisions to chuck cleats down the field and value their own efforts over the team’s result, not give their full focus or effort or… well, however you want to synopsize the Chris Steele situation. And part of that means acknowledging the ongoing process of rebuilding the team’s chemistry- which has a lot more to do with a team’s results than some may think.
A vastly improved team chemistry
By nature, Pearsall is an easygoing guy who loves life. Signing autographs and taking pictures with fans seems every bit as enjoyable as playing football. But when it comes to football, he’s all business- and that’s part of why he came to Florida. “As our coach, Billy Napier has this way of just making us all want to take what he said to heard to heart, and run through a wall,” Pearsall stated. “He’s really locked in, he makes sure everyone else in the program is locked in, and he only brings in people who are locked in, too.”
Offensive lineman Austin Barber echoes that sentiment. “Our team is far more united now than it was in 2021,” he told me. “We just do a lot more things together. The team eats together in the new dining hall. Our lockers are more mixed up now between units, so it’s not just all defensive and all offensive guys grouped together.”
I took those quotes and relayed them to senior linebacker Derek Wingo for a different perspective- one who was around for the program’s demise under Mullen. “Do you think that really helps?” I asked him. “Of course,” he replied. “The atmosphere between players is so different than it used to be. It’s not coach speak. It really does make a difference when you do things with your teammates. What Ricky told you, about knowing the guy to your left and your right and playing for them? That’s 100% accurate. The longer we’re together, the more you’ll see it.”
In the very next breath, Wingo smirked as he heard my next question to him, about Shemar James. “Shemar is my son,” he responded playfully. “I’m raising him to be one of the greats.” Wingo then got serious and went on to talk about all the hard work James has put in so far in the offseason, praising his attention to detail and consistency in the weight room and the practice field.
Some of that playfulness existed between friends on the team under Mullen. But what I noticed as I kept asking various players to comment on their teammates was that they were all truly excited to get to brag about their fellow Gators. There was always something positive to say about each teammate, and an anecdote on the front of their minds to back it up. “It wasn’t always like that,” Wingo said when I told him this.
Wide receiver Caleb Douglas says he’s even noticed more cohesion since he first got to campus in 2022. “We’re way more of a team now,” he remarked. “It didn’t seem that we were that connected when I first got here. Now, we’re a lot more of a family.”
It might seem like a cliche line calculated to drum up positive vibes after a 6-7 season, but the more players I talked to, the more I felt like the players believed in each other. Linebackers would express trust in wide receivers to do their jobs. Defensive backs trusted their running backs to do their jobs. And so on.
That’s all a stark contrast to the way things worked under Dan Mullen, where players openly squabbled and fought as a lack of effective leadership created a vacuum that sucked the potential out of the team. And Napier’s priority on recruiting leaders to his program isn’t just limited to his players.
“It’s a coach-fed, player-led operation at Florida”
Even though he’s gone now, former wide receivers coach Keary Colbert left a lasting impression on Caleb Douglas.
“He was a thousand yard receiver in college, and I knew that he’d help develop me,” Douglas told me. And he was right. Douglas didn’t play much early in 2022, but broke onto the scene late in the year against Texas A&M with three catches and a touchdown.
But Colbert didn’t let Douglas get complacent. “Hey, great job today,” Colbert told Douglas after the game. “Now go build on that and do it again next week.” And Douglas did, leading Florida receivers with three receptions for 53 yards as Florida thrashed South Carolina, 38-6.
That’s part of a theme I noticed when talking to Florida players for this piece. And it’s twice as nice for Florida’s offensive linemen, who have two different coaches in Darnell Stapleton and Rob Sale. “Having two position coaches is great,” Barber commented. “You have two voices. It’s all love from both of them, but sometimes you need to be yelled at and motivated, and sometimes you need to have something explained in detail. When one coach does one thing and you need the other, the other guy will happily do it.”
“Coach Napier only hires the best,” one of the players who asked to remain anonymous for this piece told me. “If you can’t recruit and develop players, he won’t have you on his staff. The coolest thing to me is that these assistants all have different personalities; some yell and curse more, some are more analytical with their interactions with players, but they all have a common goal. You can clearly tell they want to be doing what they’re doing. And they truly care for their players. There’s not a single coach on this staff that does not genuinely love their players and want them to succeed.”
Florida’s current group of assistants has made it clear, at various points to their players, that practice and workouts are not to be walks in the park. But there’s not the vitriol behind their words the way there was when Grantham and Hevesy roamed around. “The new group of coaches are there to help,” another former Mullen-era player who spoke on the condition of anonymity for the first part of this piece told me. “I watched one practice and immediately wished I could have played for these guys.”
This aforementioned former player sadly shook his head when we met virtually to discuss the differences between the two coaches. “Too many people are going to read this piece and say, ‘oh, wow, Hevesy used demeaning language,” the player commented. “Too many people are going to go, ‘Wow, Hevesy said the word p***y!’ It’s not about that. It’s not an issue of us being soft or part of a soft generation or anything like that. Coaches curse, that’s football, and that’s not the problem. This current staff of coaches values their players as human beings first, football players second. John Hevesy and Todd Grantham did not value us as either. They didn’t care for us as human beings OR as football players.”
To that point, this Florida staff has made it a priority to be there for its players whenever they need them.
Offensive lineman Austin Barber admits to having gone through some rough moments in 2021 and 2022, and credits his coaches for helping him get through them. “I’ve had some moments where things got pretty serious and I just had to go in and vent, and this staff was there for me,” Barber told me. “These coaches care about us. All of them. Coach Napier, both my position coaches, every single one of the other position coaches, every last one of them. They give us the resources we need, and they’re here to help us get what we need to succeed.”
Florida safety Javion Toombs agrees. “When Hurricane Ian came through last year, the first thing Coach Napier did was ask me how my family was doing,” Toombs told me on the In All Kinds Of Weather Forecast this past winter. “His focus is always on doing whatever he can do to help us. And the same goes for every assistant coach.”
But players don’t rely on their coaches to do everything for them. “Part of being a leader as a coach is molding your players into leaders themselves,” Wingo told me. “The leadership is being passed through the channels here. Everyone, from the top down, from Coach Napier to our equipment people, has that capability. That’s why we’re all here.”
And it’s more than that, even. The culture that’s been built has Florida players thinking differently about the less glamorous parts of their responsibilities, like the pre-dawn workouts and hot summer practices in pads. “Practice and workouts aren’t just part of the job here,” Shemar James declared. “No. We’re excited for that. We’re excited and ready to go in 2023. It’s been a true grind, but we’re ready because we’re being tested physically and mentally. Going to the weight room isn’t easy. It’s very difficult because of how hard we’re pushed, but you know what? It’s fun.
“Why and how, exactly, is it fun?” I followed up. “It’s fun because we know what’s going to happen as a result of our hard work” James replied. “Those results are what will be fun. And we all trust Coach Napier to guide us to those results because we see his vision.”
“It’s a coach-fed, player-led operation at Florida,” Ricky Pearsall asserted. “Coach Napier brings us together, but we all go out there and play. And if it has to be done, we’re the ones that hold each other accountable.”
Indeed, it is player-led. And under Billy Napier, the best players play- regardless of how young they might be. A bevy of true freshmen such as Trevor Etienne, Kamari Wilson, Devin Moore, Chris McClellan, and Shemar James all saw valuable minutes in 2022, and players are quick to point out that the theme will continue in 2023. “Aidan Mizell is a beast,” Toombs asserted. “And he’s not alone. These guys he’s brought in this year just have unbelievable work ethics and leadership abilities.”
That’s all a stark contrast to how things worked under Dan Mullen, where he first hired ineffective assistants, and then compounded that issue by standing by and doing nothing as those assistants made empty promises, openly ignored players as they passed them in the halls of the facilities, seemed to relish every opportunity to belittle them, lost their players’ trust, failed or outright refused to play the best players, and in some cases, smeared the names of outgoing players. And with this culture having been installed into the Florida program, there’s reason to believe it’s set up for long term success.
2023 and beyond: daybreak for the Billy Napier era
“Here’s what I think it boils down to,” one of Mullen’s former players told me.
“Dan Mullen loved being the offensive coordinator at Florida, because he got to work with some of the greatest players to ever step foot on a football field. And as the OC, all he had to do was call plays and coach his QB’s, the two things he was really great at. And he loved being the head coach at Mississippi State because he could still do those two things, and delegate everything else. Nothing else was his problem. He didn’t have to personally recruit at a high level. He just had his assistants do that, so they brought him players and he coached them and called plays. And I think when he was offered the head coaching job at Florida, he thought he could combine those two worlds. He thought he wouldn’t have to recruit, he could have assistants do that for him, and he could just coach QBs and call plays and everything would work out. And for awhile it did- but when adversity came to him and forced him to make a change, he didn’t do it. He realized it wasn’t what he signed up for, and he let it all collapse.”
“But Billy Napier, on the other hand,” the former player continued, “Billy Napier wants to be the head coach of the Florida Gators. And he wants to do every single thing that holding this job requires, and more.”
That’s a common theory among the people I spoke to for this piece. Though they’re no longer suiting up, because of the way Napier welcomes former players back within the program to watch practice and speak with the team, many of Mullen’s former players I interviewed for this piece have had the chance to see the new way this program operates for themselves. And they like what they see.
There’s no finger pointing, no deflecting blame, and no sugar coating the situation this offseason. The players I spoke to knew that I was writing a piece detailing how Billy Napier was turning things around from a culture standpoint, but the depths to which they each answered every question and the genuine excitement they all displayed in talking about their teammates- and the program overall- made it clear that they wholeheartedly meant to convey the sentiments of positivity and hope. Example after example of players picking each other up and helping each other be better poured from the players’ mouths as I asked them about the difference in the culture this offseason, with most of them centering around players who hadn’t even known each other before entering the program. There’s an aura of optimism that wasn’t there even before Napier’s first season.
But at the same time, players know that there’s work to be done.
Maybe “appalled” and “disgusted” aren’t quite the right words to describe Florida players’ feelings toward the 2022 season. It’s more of a “that wasn’t us” type of mentality. But it was them- and they know it. They also know 2023 has to be better. And they all know what they have to do to make that happen.
“I’d like to see our defense improve,” linebacker Shemar James told me. “No. Scratch that. I want to see our defense be one of the best in the entire country. Specifically, you’ll see more experience from the linebackers- you can count on that.”
“Those 50/50 balls, I want to start turning them into 80/20 balls for me,” wide receiver Caleb Douglas declared. “And I’d like to help out my quarterback and improve my yards after the catch.”
“2022 was a learning lesson for us all,” remarked running back Trevor Etienne. “We know what to do now. We know what not to do. We know what our mistakes were. That season was an eye-opener for us, and we’re going to be better because of it.”
I took all these closing quotes from the respective players and relayed them to Miguel Mitchell, who as an underclassman had no fears about going to a player older than him and calling him out for his lack of hustle. “Everyone has something they want to work on, and that’s awesome,” I said to Mitchell. “But they could have all said the same thing before 2022. Why is this year different?”
His response was a combination of themes that I’d collected throughout the months of investigating. “Well, those new guys that Napier brought in, they work really hard, I gotta shout them out again,” Mitchell told me. “But here’s the difference. Mullen guy, Napier guy, three-star, four star, doesn’t matter. We’re a team now.”
The gruff, arrogant, and downright egomaniacal attitude that Dan Mullen not only carried himself with, but allowed to seep into the program and ruin it, took more than a day for Napier to eradicate. Players were used to getting away with being selfish, bickering with teammates about their efforts and responsibilities, not giving their full attention to the team, and fearing their coaches rather than respecting them. Change isn’t easy for most people, let alone 18-22 year old men, and Napier has certainly had his share of bumps in the road to navigate early in his tenure.
Napier took over the Florida program as the clock struck midnight for his predecessor, and the proverbial early-morning hours of his tenure- the entire 2022 season- were long and often dreadful for both Napier and fans alike. One of the low points came when his hand was forced and he had no choice but to dismiss linebacker Diwun Black, a fan favorite who worked his way through junior college just to live his dream of being a Gator. Other bleak moments included losing to Vanderbilt and Kentucky, nearly blowing a game in catastrophic fashion to 1-11 USF, kicking Brenton Cox off the team, and finishing the season with an ugly 30-3 loss to Oregon State.
That all happened in the wee hours of the morning of the Billy Napier era in Gainesville, when it was pitch-black outside. The saying is that it’s always darkest before dawn; in college football terms, that means that every successful coach will typically struggle a good deal in his first season, while he’s feeling his way around and trying to lay down the blueprint for success. Indeed, that was the case for Dabo Swinney at Clemson, Nick Saban at Alabama, Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, Kirby Smart at Georgia, and Mack Brown at North Carolina (in his first stint).
And while this isn’t the time to argue that Billy Napier will replicate any of their successes, Napier, like them- and unlike Mullen- has also showed that he isn’t afraid to make a business decision. He’s willing to do something that stings today and is sore tomorrow, but will ultimately yield a complete healing process. Bandaids and microwave quick-fixes simply don’t interest him. Napier has gone about addressing his program’s issues with the extensive surgery it needs to be back up and running for the long runs, not a series of band-aids that will fix things in the short run but that don’t address the deeper internal issues.
“Culture is a real thing,” Wingo told me. “It’s not a corny coach line. It’s real, and it plays a huge role in a program’s success.”
The sun still hasn’t even really risen on the Billy Napier era, in truth. Napier’s first full recruiting class hasn’t even played a down yet. But at the same time, the darkest hours of the Napier era- which were caused mainly by the storm clouds that Mullen’s regime generated toward the end of their tenure- appear to be behind him.
By now, Billy Napier seems to have detected and disposed of most of the remaining pieces of the program that held it back. There’s never been any interest on Napier’s part to hire friends within the industry or pen a starting lineup based on seniority. Assistant coaches are there to be teachers, mentors, and at times guidance counselors- which does require some tough love and unpleasant moments every now and then- but they’re not there to lambast the players and belittle them as people.
Billy Napier, like Ricky Pearsall says, is a businessman, and the result is a new-look, businesslike Florida program that only recruits players after carefully vetting them for leadership and character, operates with much more accountability, and- perhaps most importantly- features a culture where players embrace going through the grind with each other.
“I’m so excited to get to work with everybody else,” Trevor Etienne said. “I’m so excited to go to work with my brothers. These memories are memories we’ll never get back, never get to recreate, and I will never forget a single one of them.”
Shemar James displayed an easygoing and affable attitude throughout the time I spoke with him, but toward the end, he got serious. “You know what, last year was simply unacceptable,” he said. “On defense, that was completely unacceptable. It’s mental mistakes, missing assignments. This is Florida. We have to do better than we did last year. Everything is laid out for us to succeed. The foundation has been set, we have our mission very clearly laid out for us now, and now? Now we’re going to war with our brothers.”
It’s always fashionable to tear into the coaching staff that got fired and go on and on about how the new staff is better. It’s a pitfall I, as the author of this investigation, struggled to avoid falling into.
Because the truth is, we don’t know how the Billy Napier tenure is going to wind up. We don’t know that he’ll lead Florida to a national championship, or even that he’ll match Dan Mullen’s success. We’d all like to think he will, but we don’t know that. We don’t have crystal balls. We don’t see into the future. I certainly do wish that, as the author of this investigation that I worked six months on, I could provide readers with the classic, fairy-tale, “and they all lived happily ever after” type of ending that such a story deserves.
But I can’t do that. Because much of the story remains unwritten. These players still have to go out there and back up their optimism with results.
That said, talking to all the players I spoke to for this piece, two things have become clear. One, that the infrastructure of the program under Dan Mullen was broken beyond repair and a change in leadership was needed. And two, while it’s true that Napier hasn’t seen the on-field success yet, he’s checked the boxes that are most important for sustained success: recruiting- and not just from a raw ratings perspective, but from a character standpoint as well- and methods of operation. His businesslike approach to everything might not lead Florida to success, but if it does, there’s a good chance that success will be replicated for years to come. Because there’s no ego behind this man, no insistence on doing what he wants to do despite there being no justification for it, and no adverse attitude toward recruiting.
And if nothing else, Gator fans can rest easy knowing that the man at the controls has systems in place that are designed to work for the long haul. It’s no coincidence that many of the best players on the field in 2022 were either transfers or true freshmen. And if we see progress in 2023- not even a CFP berth or an SEC East title, but just progress and improvement- there’s a good chance that Florida will have found its man to lead the program for years, and maybe even decades, to come.
“Coach Napier is right when he says football is about people,” declared Pearsall. “Because it is. And we’ve got the right people in this program. And that starts at the top.”