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What a Nick Saban bestseller taught us about Florida Gators’ Billy Napier

From big-picture philosophies to parking spots, UF’s new coach got a lot from the Alabama icon.
Nick Saban's influence on Florida Gators coach Billy Napier is evident.
Nick Saban's influence on Florida Gators coach Billy Napier is evident. [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP ]
Published Aug. 25|Updated Aug. 26

Though first-year Florida Gators coach Billy Napier isn’t a Nick Saban clone, you can see Saban’s fingerprints everywhere in Gainesville, down to the parking spots.

That’s the biggest takeaway from “The Leadership Secrets of Nick Saban: How Alabama’s Coach Became the Greatest Ever.” We received an advanced copy and read it through the prism of Napier and his five years at ‘Bama. Though Saban’s impact on Napier is well chronicled, the similarities were still striking.

Related: What’s the best Florida college football game this season?

Here are five takeaways on the Wall Street Journal bestseller, written by AL.com’s John Talty:

Everything comes back to recruiting

In his first meeting at ‘Bama, Saban told the entire staff, “Everything we do is about recruiting.” The message applied to coaches, janitors and everyone else. How a secretary answers the phone shapes how outsiders view the program, which affects recruiting.

On Day 1, Billy Napier stressed the importance of recruiting.
On Day 1, Billy Napier stressed the importance of recruiting. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel (2021) ]

Napier made his priority clear on Day 1, too, when he called college football “a talent-acquisition business.” Napier said he looks for three traits in potential hires across the organization: a sincere care for others, subject-area expertise and the recruiting footprint or personality/networking skills that “they bring to the table from recruiting dynamics.”

The recruiting approach is similar

Saban’s Crimson Tide have “critical factors” for each position. Defensive backs, for instance, must be 6 feet tall with 33-inch arms. The “Saban sheets,” Talty writes, eliminate office politics through clear criteria.

Napier cites “critical factors” often, too. On signing day, he stressed players’ height, length, verified speed and functional movement.

Related: One key to Billy Napier’s Florida Gators turnaround: Socks?

One thing that isn’t a critical factor: a player’s ranking. In his introductory news conference, Napier said UF won’t “get consumed with the stars” and will instead focus on evaluation. It wasn’t well received by every Gators fan, but the approach works for Saban. Rick Trickett — who worked with and under Saban before becoming a Florida State assistant from 2007-17 — said Saban succeeds because he “still trusts his eyes.”

Nick Saban continues to win big at Alabama because he trusts his staff's recruiting evaluations.
Nick Saban continues to win big at Alabama because he trusts his staff's recruiting evaluations. [ Times (2016) ]

“I think what hurt us at Florida State at the end was we quit trusting our eyes,” Trickett said. “We cared more about the recruiting magazines telling us we were No. 3 in the nation.”

The FSU recruiting class that was No. 3 in the nation in 2016 went 10-3, 7-6, 5-7 and 6-7 on the field.

Talty writes that Saban routinely reviews previous classes “to know what he and his staff missed in their evaluation so it wouldn’t happen again.” Napier’s staff includes a spot for a director of research and evaluation to study player production and the program’s scouting process.

‘Pick where you can win’

After leading Michigan State to a top-10 season in 1999, Saban left for LSU. Why? “I’ll never be Michigan.”

Only a dozen or so programs can be Michigan. LSU is one. So is Alabama. And, yes, Florida.

The Gators weren’t the first Power Five program to try to hire Napier away from Louisiana. But they succeeded because they have the resources and willingness to invest in Napier’s vision, which he called “the most important part” in his decision.

The Florida Gators' Heavener Football Training Center is a sign that UF remains a major player in the sport (recent struggles aside).
The Florida Gators' Heavener Football Training Center is a sign that UF remains a major player in the sport (recent struggles aside). [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]

It was the same for Saban at LSU and Alabama. Both programs were starved for success and agreed to give Saban whatever he wanted, from an expanded football facility to better parking spots for players. Though UF’s $85 million football complex was already in the works, UF tweaked it for Napier’s needs. And one of the first things Napier’s staff did this spring? Improve players’ parking.

Related: With Florida’s $85 million football facility open, Gators’ excuses are over

The secret to the massive staff: clear roles

Saban’s process is known for his massive support staff, but it works because every role is defined. “In clear and concise language,” Talty writes, “(Saban) explains what their job responsibilities are and what success looks like.”

Napier follows that blueprint. The Gators expanded their staff for him, because his vision was detailed: Napier needs this specific position for this specific purpose.

“He didn’t just bring you here to bring you here,” director of college personnel Bird Sherrill said this spring. “There’s a thorough, detailed plan.”

Related: The Florida Gators built Billy Napier’s army. What will it actually do?

If that sounds obvious, it isn’t. Athletic departments can be inefficient bureaucracies like any other workplace.

The emphasis on structure across the organization comes back to something Napier said at the start of preseason camp: “The gray area is the enemy.” Both Napier and his former boss try to eliminate it.

There are differences, too

Saban yells often. Talty tells the story of Saban unloading on a ball boy one minute and screaming at offensive coordinator Jim McElwain the next. Napier doesn’t. At media day, punter Jeremy Crawshaw said he had not yet seen Napier mad. Napier shows his intensity differently.

Steve Sarkisian is one of many coaches whose careers were rejuvenated by his time at Alabama under Nick Saban.
Steve Sarkisian is one of many coaches whose careers were rejuvenated by his time at Alabama under Nick Saban. [ Times (2017) ]

Though Napier’s massive support staff is inspired by Alabama, it’s not a carbon copy. Napier’s analysts and quality control staffers are up-and-comers. Many worked for him at Louisiana Lafayette.

Saban hires some of those, too, but there’s an entire chapter dedicated to the way he gives “distressed assets” a second chance. Fired coaches like Butch Jones, Lane Kiffin, Charlie Strong and an offensive coordinator Clemson canned after the 2010 season: Billy Napier.

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