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What if the next USF football coach wins big, then bolts? ‘You made a great hire’

We talked to a successful Group of Five athletic director about the perception and reality of stepping-stone jobs.
We don't know how long USF fans will be cheering for the Bulls' next coach.
We don't know how long USF fans will be cheering for the Bulls' next coach. [ Times (2021) ]
Published Nov. 29, 2022|Updated Nov. 29, 2022

As USF’s football coaching search continues, let’s address a concern we’ve heard from a pocket of Bulls fans.

What if USF hires a coach who has three or four great seasons, then uses the Bulls as a stepping stone to get a Power Five job?

“You made a great hire,” Louisiana athletic director Bryan Maggard told the Tampa Bay Times recently.

Related: 3 thoughts on the USF football coach search, coaching carousel

Maggard made one five years ago when he brought Arizona State assistant Billy Napier to Lafayette. Napier wasn’t a huge name then, but he became one after making the Ragin’ Cajuns a top mid-major program.

Maggard said he knew quickly that Napier was a rising star in the business. And rising stars, eventually, get other options.

Billy Napier went 22-2 in his last two seasons at Louisiana before getting the Gators job.
Billy Napier went 22-2 in his last two seasons at Louisiana before getting the Gators job. [ JIM LYTLE | AP (2018) ]

“I think as much as I want Louisiana to be a destination location for my coaches, I also understand that we’re not going to be able to compete salary-wise,” Maggard said before Louisiana’s Week 12 game at Florida State.

Napier made $2 million a year at Louisiana. He makes more than $7 million annually at Florida.

Maggard also knew Napier would want to compete for a national championship. That hasn’t been feasible at Louisiana, which he and the school’s administrators knew.

“I think people kind of understood that he may leave for a better opportunity …” Maggard said.

Related: Just let Florida Gators’ Billy Napier do his job, ‘because he knows what he’s doing’

With that in mind, Maggard asked Napier early in his tenure to let him know if his phone was ringing from other schools. When Maggard saw the Florida job open, he figured it had the championship possibilities Napier wanted. Napier was upfront with his boss. There were no surprises.

USF has some advantages over Louisiana. The Bulls are in a better conference (the AAC), which will help when the College Football Playoff expands. The Bulls also have a brand-new indoor practice facility, plans for an on-campus stadium and a deeper recruiting footprint.

USF broke ground on its indoor practice facility last year. It has opened for limited use before a formal ceremony in the coming weeks.
USF broke ground on its indoor practice facility last year. It has opened for limited use before a formal ceremony in the coming weeks. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]

But both teams are mid-major programs with mid-major budgets — the types of schools that are often poached by big-time athletic departments. Scott Frost and Josh Heupel won big at UCF, then went to Nebraska and Tennessee. Mike Norvell won big at Memphis and went to Florida State. Luke Fickell won big at Cincinnati and just left for Wisconsin.

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“It’s just going to be hard,” Maggard said. “Somebody goes (to USF) and has great success, kind of like Napier had at our place, I mean, realistically, he’s probably going to bounce and take another opportunity.”

And that’s OK.

Related: How good is the USF football job? Better than it was in Bulls’ last coaching search

Maggard said Napier’s success made Louisiana “a very coveted job,” leading to a bombardment of calls about the opening. That’s because Napier was the first coach in program history to use the Ragin’ Cajuns as a springboard to something else — one of the most desirable jobs in the industry. That made Louisiana more desirable, too.

“I think what we showed people is this is the ability of success we can achieve here,” Maggard said.

Ideally, USF’s next coach will create and sustain a high level of success for years without leaving. That’s the goal at Louisiana with Napier’s replacement, Michael Desormeaux. If Desormeaux thrives after a 6-6 first season, Maggard is hopeful he can retire without conducting another coaching search. Hiring someone with strong local ties — Desormeaux is a former Ragin’ Cajuns quarterback — might help.

But if USF hires a Napier who wins big before leaving for a bigger job? That means the Bulls made a great hire.

Related: USF football coaching search: What types of hires win big at programs like the Bulls?

And it becomes that much easier to make the next one.

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