When the Florida Gators hired Billy Napier last fall, they didn’t just choose a football coach. They chose an organization — a blueprint that brought national titles to Alabama and Georgia and a Sun Belt crown to Napier at Louisiana.
That blueprint required Napier to build an army of “unprecedented” size to create the infrastructure he believes UF needs to become a contender again.
“It’s like he’s assembled the Avengers,” director of football operations Joshua Thompson said.
We’ll save the superhero talk until the Gators start taking down their nemeses in Tuscaloosa and Athens. But a spring spent talking to Napier’s lieutenants reveals some insight into what his $5 million support staff will buy.
Napier’s army is unquestionably larger than what UF had before. How much larger is tricky to pin down.
The Gators say it’s about 10-20% bigger than what Dan Mullen had. Last year, the program listed 45 support staffers on an archived directory or in the preseason media guide (excluding Mullen, interns and the 10 on-field assistants). A comparable figure this year: 59. Napier said about 250 people contribute to the program in some way.
Regardless of the exact head count, some broad trends are easy to see. The Gators have a dozen staffers identified as analysts or in quality control. Mullen had four. UF lists three more employees in recruiting/personnel (13), more roles in player development, personal development, nutrition and video, plus the addition of a director of logistics.
The extra bodies serve several general purposes, starting with the obvious.
“It just spreads out the workload,” athletic director Scott Stricklin said.
That’s critical for the 10 assistants the NCAA allows. Those coaches must handle on-field responsibilities and the constant recruiting grind. If Kareem Reid (quality control, defensive line) can do a film breakdown or phone call for defensive line coach/co-coordinator Sean Spencer, that’s one less thing Spencer must do. The lighter daily workloads eventually add up.
“I learned that over time when you walk into meetings, you’re a little more prepared, a little better rested,” Napier said.
Most college programs have one offensive line coach. Because Napier coaches the quarterbacks himself, the Gators deploy two.
“Two sets of eyes are better than one, two brains are better than one,” said Darnell Stapleton, one of UF’s two brains on the offensive line.
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A second set of eyes at practice means more individual attention for every lineman. That should help development at a pivotal position group.
Across the program, the extra bodies and brains allow for more preparation. Co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney said this staff spent more time focusing on fall opponents during spring practice than anywhere else he has been.
Another example: director of player athletic development Joe Danos works with players who have moved on from the daily care of the medical staff but aren’t yet healthy enough for full drills. That role that didn’t exist when Danos worked at Florida State a decade ago but helps injured players get back to full speed without slowing down everyone else.
When Kelsee Gomes heard Napier’s pitch to join UF, she zeroed in on two points. Instead of overseeing 28 sports as she did at North Carolina, she’d focus on one as UF’s director of sports nutrition, football. And she could have a better work/life balance by hiring a pair of full-time dietitians under her.
“So if I need to go pick my kids up from school, they’re here,” said Gomes, who has two children under the age of 5.
Outside linebackers coach Mike Peterson called sacrificing family time “the scary part about being a coach in college football.” He doesn’t want to be too busy coaching other people’s kids that he never spends time with his own (Mike Jr. and Gavin).
“(Napier) allows that for us,” Peterson said, “and it’s a lovely thing.”
Ask Napier about the philosophy, and he’ll tell you he wants to support his staffers in everything, including their home lives. But a better quality of life might also lead to a better onfield product.
Burnout is an industry-wide concern. Georgia lost one of its top assistants, Matt Luke, after the championship because he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Napier likes to say the profession will chew you up and spit you out, if you let it. A better work/life balance is one tool to keep that from happening to his staff.
The Gators have a staffer in charge of high school recruits (Jacob LaFrance) and another in charge of junior college recruits and the transfer portal (Bird Sherrill). Beneath them are two personnel analysts (one on offense, one one defense), and under them are five paid interns each. That brigade makes sure the Gators “find any guy, no matter where he is,” said Bri Wade, the director of on-campus recruiting and football events.
Besides unearthing potential sleepers, identifying prospects early allows the staff to spend more time building relationships with them. That should lead to more signing day success in future classes.
Wade said the army helps in other ways. What if a visiting recruit wants to talk to a dietician, but that person is unavailable? It’s not a problem if you have two others he can meet.
“You want to roll out the blue carpet,” Wade said, “and you can’t do that without having those resources.”
When Napier took over the Gators, two of his first tangible impacts were upgrading meals (French toast Friday is a favorite) and opening up more parking near the stadium to keep players from racking up hundreds of dollars in tickets. Why?
“Everything matters,” Napier said.
And because everything matters, his army can make sure everything is addressed.
UF was one of the first programs in the country to add a director of name, image and likeness (Marcus Castro-Walker). Having three more employees in the Gator Made program — which focuses on players’ personal and professional development — allows senior director of student-athlete development Vernell Brown to “focus more on the guys that really need that attention.”
Football has a higher player-to-coach ratio than other sports, so Napier sees his army as a way to ensure that meaningful relationships are built with every athlete.
“I think in today’s world with NIL, with the transfer portal, with cut-throat recruiting in the SEC, every advantage that you can create for yourself relative to player experience, I think is critical that you do that,” Napier said.
And if it works out? Napier’s $5 million army will be worth every cent.
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