The New Ball Coach
After a two-decade climb, Billy Napier ’03 reached the top of the college football mountain in 2021, when he was named head coach at the University of Florida.
Before Billy Napier ’03 landed one of the nation’s top head coaching jobs at the University of Florida, he was one of the most successful quarterbacks in Furman history. The Chatsworth, Georgia, native still holds several Paladin career passing records and led the team to 20 victories in his two seasons as the starting quarterback, which included a spot in the FCS national championship game against Montana in 2001.
If anyone is surprised that Napier was able to take his gifts as a player and successfully transmit them to the coaching profession, it’s not the Paladin coaches who knew him best.
Tim Sorrells ’81, a Paladin assistant football coach for three decades, says he never worked with another player more consumed with the game than Napier. He might not have been the fastest or most physical of Furman’s quarterbacks, but he was a marvel of organizational efficiency and a player whose ego was nowhere to be found on game days. That meant Napier could fit seamlessly into any game plan that gave the team its best chance to win.
“Billy didn’t care about personal statistics,” Sorrells says. “He wasn’t going to say he didn’t like the game plan because he wanted to throw the ball more. All he wanted to do was win.” Bobby Lamb ’86 was an assistant for Napier’s first three seasons at Furman and head coach for his final one. He says Napier brought a laser-like focus to everything he did and was perhaps the most serious player Lamb can remember coaching.
“Billy was serious about school, and he was serious about football,” Lamb says. “He was always analyzing things. When we would talk to him about something we wanted him to do, he wouldn’t react right away. He would think about it for a few moments and then answer us. I would try to joke around with him at practices, and I could tell he was thinking, ‘Come on, let’s get to the serious part.’”
Napier can’t disagree with anything his coaches remember about him. He wanted to do his best in every game, and he was constantly examining everything that impacted his performance.
“There’s a loyalty to your teammates,” he says, “and I wanted to be able to do my job for the team. There’s no question that approach carries over to coaching, and there is even a higher level of responsibility as a coach.”
‘HIS LIFE’S CALLING’
Sorrells knew Napier had already decided he was headed into the coaching profession after Furman, which is why he was so interested in learning about every detail of every decision the coaches made.
“He wasn’t thinking, ‘Well, I’m here to play a little college football and have some fun,’” Sorrells says. “He was preparing for his life’s calling.”
Napier might have known he was headed into the coaching profession, but it wasn’t the college path he was interested in. He planned to be a high school coach, just like his late father, Bill. Napier wrote a paper for a senior project at Furman that outlined the kind of high school program he wanted to create. He attended Clemson to earn a graduate degree that would allow him to make more money as a teacher.
But it was at Clemson that his path changed. When the Tiger coaches contacted the Furman staff to let them know they needed to fill a graduate assistant job, the Furman coaches gave them Napier’s name. It turned out to be a fortuitous suggestion, because Napier would not be a normal graduate assistant.
“We got a call later from one of the coaches at Clemson and he asked who in the world have you sent over to us,” Lamb says, laughing. “They said most GAs sit in the back of the room and just absorb what’s going on. But Billy was diagramming plays and making suggestions about game plans.”
So, Napier moved on from his high school coaching dream and made a steady climb up the college coaching ladder the next 20 years, holding assistant and coordinator positions at South Carolina State, Clemson, Alabama, Colorado State and Arizona State. He finally landed his first head coaching position at Louisiana-Lafayette in 2018, where his highly successful four-year record there led to the Gators naming him head coach in 2021.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
But it all started at Furman, where Napier met his wife, the former Ali Gunn ’03. And there may be no alum who knew more about the university prior to enrolling. Napier began attending Furman’s football camps with his father when he was very young and continued doing it every summer throughout his high school years.
“I was very familiar with Furman,” says Napier, who was elected to the university’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2022. “I was comfortable with the people and the place. It was a stable environment where both football and academics were important. I liked that I had to be prepared every day, both in class and on the field. And then there was the character and leadership piece the coaches provided. It helped me to be around that many good people every day.”
Napier says those Furman coaches shaped his career as a player and laid the foundation for his coaching philosophy. He likes the fact it takes a hundred people to be successful in football because the challenge is getting all those people to perform to their highest potential.
“I love the planning part,” he says. “I love the leadership aspect. The game is a lot more fun to play when you’re well prepared. It’s no fun if you’ve cut corners and you’re not ready. Football will teach you a lot about life if you let it.”
Napier certainly has his challenges at Florida. The football program has won three national championships in the last 27 years, and the school has cycled through three head coaches in the past decade looking for someone who can lead the program back in that direction. The school also plays in the brutal Southeastern Conference, where it’s possible to be both the third best team in the country and the league.
Sorrells knows just how fickle the coaching business can be, especially these days when fans and athletic administrators exhibit so little patience and coaches are provided so little time to change a program’s fortunes. But he believes the Gators have found their leader.
“Billy is highly organized, and he pays attention to detail,” Sorrells says. “He wants to know exactly what everybody is doing and when they’re doing it. When coaches are good at that and can communicate what they want without being the guy nobody wants to see come around, that’s a gift. So, I’m not surprised he’s gotten the job at Florida. I’ll only be surprised if he’s not successful.”