Talk to almost anyone with the Florida Gators about first-year coach Billy Napier, and you’ll hear comments like this one from offensive line coach Darnell Stapleton.
“Coach Napier is an awesome man,” Stapleton said this spring. “Not even talking about football, not talking about X’s and O’s, just as a person.”
UF is counting on it. Napier’s personality will be pivotal in whether he can sidestep a problem that has plagued the Gators: coaching burnout.
This isn’t a new topic of conversation around the program. Gators legend Tim Tebow and athletic director Scott Stricklin talked about it in 2017 as Stricklin conducted the search that ended with Dan Mullen’s hiring.
“(Tebow) said, ‘Scott, it’s a great job and it’s a dream job, but we have to be honest about what kind of job it is,’” Stricklin recounted that fall after Mullen’s introductory news conference. “‘The two most successful coaches in the school’s history have basically — they got burned out, or there was a sense that they got burned out. We’ve got to be honest that it’s a hard job, and it’s a challenging job.’”
Urban Meyer resigned twice because he was consumed by his own intensity and the pressure of the job. When Steve Spurrier stepped down in January 2002, he expressed some discontent with the championship-or-bust expectations his success created.
“Now it’s a disgrace every time we lose,” Spurrier said in his farewell news conference. “It’s almost like a relief when we win.”
To be fair, Florida isn’t the only program that demands titles, and burnout is a concern across every part of college athletics. But, as Tebow said, the pressure cooker in Gainesville has a history of breaking down coaches. Including, arguably, the last two.
Jim McElwain was under fire from the fan base because of his 3-3 start in 2017 when he went out of his way to bring up death threats received by members of the program — claims he did not elaborate on with his administrators. It was not a normal comment or a normal news conference or a normal sequence of events. It was a sign of a coach who was struggling to handle a spiraling team and what was at stake.
Mullen seemed to have issues, too, toward the end of his tenure, starting with the way he dismissed valid recruiting questions immediately after the 27-point loss to Georgia. Mullen was often prickly after losses but usually cooled off by his weekly Monday news conference. Not that time. His refusal to engage with another recruiting question two days later caused a deteriorating situation to snowball. Three weeks later, he was fired.
That’s the background of the process that led Stricklin to Napier. Though Stricklin has not criticized how Mullen handled himself, he acknowledged the fact that the right temperament is vital to a coach’s success in this job.
“We spent a lot more time focusing on the person and a lot less time on what someone’s schematics were,” Stricklin said.
One example: While vetting Napier, Stricklin called John McDaid, who oversees officials at the SEC and the Sun Belt (Napier’s league at Louisiana). Stricklin wanted to know what referees thought about how Napier handled questionable calls on the field and what he said about those calls a few days later.
“I thought that would give me insight into emotional intelligence and conflict resolution …” Stricklin said. “I kind of wanted to know that about a guy.”
Stricklin apparently liked what he found out, otherwise he would have hired someone else.
Emotional intelligence won’t determine Napier’s success or failure by itself. Though nice guys don’t always finish last, finishing last will get a guy fired, no matter how nice he is. Will Muschamp was (and still is) well liked around the program; UF canned him after he lost 20 of his first 47 games.
But Napier’s demeanor will be crucial to whether he can succeed where some of his predecessors failed. Stricklin said you don’t want a coach in any sport whose self-worth depends on contract figures or external opinions. Napier doesn’t seem consumed by either.
Coaches who work for Napier say they appreciate the way he promotes a work-life balance — a relative term in an industry without much of an offseason. When he introduced himself to fans during his spring speaking tour, he didn’t begin his presentation by going through his playing career, his time as an Alabama assistant or his Sun Belt title at Louisiana. He talked about his wife and three children.
It’s easy for a coach to be level-headed in the honeymoon phase while he’s still undefeated. It will grow harder when the losses inevitably come.
Napier knows that. He likes to say that the profession and grind can “chew you up and spit you out if you let it.”
The Gators are counting on him having the mentality and personality to make sure it doesn’t happen to them again.
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