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Billy Napier isn’t Lincoln Riley or Brian Kelly. That’s okay, Florida Gators fans.

Southern Cal and LSU land bigger names, but Billy Napier fits Florida’s needs.
USC hiring Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma was a massive shakeup to the college football landscape that overshadowed the Florida Gators getting Billy Napier.
USC hiring Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma was a massive shakeup to the college football landscape that overshadowed the Florida Gators getting Billy Napier. [ ASHLEY LANDIS | AP ]
Published Nov. 30, 2021

The splash around Florida hiring Billy Napier lasted 42 minutes.

That’s the amount of time between when the Gators announced Napier as their new coach Sunday and when The Athletic reported Southern Cal was hiring Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma.

By Monday night, the USC bombshell was overshadowed by an even bigger one: LSU hiring Brian Kelly from Notre Dame.

Over 36 hours, one premier team poached the winningest coach at one of the sport’s most storied programs away from a team that’s still in the College Football Playoff hunt. Another landed an offensive genius with four Big 12 titles, three playoff appearances and two Heisman winners.

The Gators got a 42-year-old from the Sun Belt.

Related: 5 takeaways from Billy Napier’s first remarks since taking Florida Gators job

If you measure success in social-media buzz, then UF came up short. Far short.

But success at Florida, LSU and Southern Cal is measured in championships.

And there’s a chance Napier delivers the most of them all.

Kelly and Riley are more established than Napier, and their chances of success are higher. But neither is a sure thing because sure things don’t exist in this industry.

The last hire of their magnitude came in 2017 when Jimbo Fisher left Florida State for Texas A&M, famously giving him an undated national championship plaque in honor of his eventual title.

Related: We time-traveled to witness Jimbo Fisher’s national title at Texas A&M

Fisher has lost at least four games in three of his four seasons and has not yet made the playoffs. His win over Alabama this season and an elite incoming recruiting class provide optimism he can eventually etch a date on that plaque. So far, he’s 0 for 4.

UF was active that cycle, too, and watched as Chip Kelly chose UCLA and Scott Frost left UCF for Nebraska. The Gators settled on Dan Mullen.

Mullen won almost twice as many games at UF (34) as Chip Kelly has at UCLA (18). His five wins from this failure of a season equal Frost’s best total with the Cornhuskers.

But UF is in this position, again, because Mullen did not work out. The safe hire quickly turned into a dumpster fire. That’s how unpredictably the coaching carousel spins.

It’s fair to question whether UF should have taken bigger swings in its week-long search for Mullen’s replacement instead of quickly zeroing in on Napier — the only candidate athletic director Scott Stricklin said he met. An SEC rival reeling in a marquee name stings.

But it’s also possible that Napier was simply the best match for UF.

The Gators need an ace recruiter who can build a roster capable of consistently challenging Georgia and Alabama. Napier knows the landscape and has the skills to make that possible.

The Gators need someone who can install the infrastructure and culture needed to win at the highest level. Napier saw how that process works firsthand at ‘Bama and did it on a smaller scale at Louisiana.

Related: Can Billy Napier Sabanize the Florida Gators where Jim McElwain, Will Muschamp couldn’t?

The Gators need someone who can, as Stricklin said, “have a lot of little things in place” to sustain success. One of Napier’s biggest strengths is, as Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said, “the level of care and deliberation he puts into making decisions.”

Yes, Napier is a riskier hire than Riley or Kelly. But their success isn’t guaranteed, either.

Though Riley is the game’s top quarterback developer and should sign elite recruiting classes in talent-rich California, he’s going from one of the most stable athletic departments in the country to one that has spent the last decade in disarray. Can he fix USC?

Kelly made it to the BCS national championship once and the playoff twice. But his Irish were outscored by 72 points in those games. Was that because of Notre Dame’s glass ceiling or because of flaws in game/roster management that will follow Kelly to LSU?

We don’t know. And that’s the point.

Related: 5 things Florida fans should know about Billy Napier

We won’t find out through social-media buzz or victories in introductory news conferences. We’ll find out on the field, through the championships that are won or lost.

Riley and Kelly have realistic chances to bring titles to USC and LSU. Just as Napier does at Florida.

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