As first impressions go, the one Billy Napier delivered on a soggy Saturday in Gainesville whizzed past electric and seismic, pulled away from classic, and nudged the bumper of historic.
Napier’s inaugural game as a Gator — a 29-26 upset of No. 7 Utah — certainly ranks among the most memorable college football coaching debuts in this state’s rich history. But was it the greatest ever? It got us to contemplating, and delving.
Upon further review, it’s in the running. The following are what we deem the five greatest coaching intros, based on quality of the opponent, and — in hindsight — historical significance. See if you agree.
5. Jim Leavitt, USF
USF 80, Kentucky Wesleyan 3
Sept. 6, 1997
So what if the opponent would have been a six-point underdog to St. Pete High? That’s not the point. A half-dozen years after the formation of a task force to study whether football would work at USF, the Bulls debuted with Broadway-smash aplomb before a Houlihan’s Stadium audience of 49,212. Facing a Division II non-scholarship foe, Leavitt’s team collected 548 yards, allowed only 74, and scored on 12 of its 16 possessions. In recent years, replicating that opening-night buzz has been, well, a struggle.
4. Larry Coker, Miami
No. 2 Miami 33, Penn State 7
Sept. 1, 2001
Though Butch Davis bequeathed a national title-caliber team to Coker, one still never can be sure how said team will respond to a new voice. This romp in State College, Pa., served notice the Hurricanes wouldn’t miss a beat under their new boss. Before a prime-time audience of 109,313, Ken Dorsey threw three first-half touchdown passes as UM scored on six of its first seven possessions, keeping Joe Paterno’s career win total at 322 — one shy of what was then the major-college record held by Bear Bryant.
3. Steve Spurrier, Florida
Florida 50, Oklahoma State 7
Sept. 8, 1990
Unlike prior opening-day routs, which served only to tease UF’s longsuffering fan base, the return of Gainesville’s favorite son on this sultry Saturday afternoon at Florida Field served as a harbinger of the radical transformation to come. Quarterback Shane Matthews, a depth-chart bottom feeder prior to Spurrier’s arrival, passed for 332 yards in his first collegiate start as the Gators amassed 567 yards. “Hey, Coach Spurrier made a believer out of me,” Florida cornerback Richard Fain said. “It’s been a long time since I saw our offense moving up and down the field like that.”
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2. Billy Napier, Florida
Florida 29, No. 7 Utah 26
Sept. 3, 2022
Only six weeks ago, a chunk of the fan base wanted to annul the school’s marriage to Napier because of a couple of recruiting misses. Today, he’s the second coming of Spurrier (sans the visor). By unleashing Anthony Richardson — the school’s most exciting quarterback since Tim Tebow — against the Utes and pumping a few cc’s of grit into the Gator defense (how about that goal-line stand), Napier sent the Gator Nation into a tizzy. Of course, at a place like UF, the next revolt is one sloppy effort away.
1. Jimmy Johnson, Miami
No. 10 Miami 20, No. 1 Auburn 18
Aug. 27, 1984
After their improbable run to the 1983 national title under Howard Schnellenberger, the Hurricanes had nowhere to go but down. In Johnson’s inaugural year, they did, but not right away. On a Monday night in East Rutherford, N.J., Bernie Kosar brandished his moxie and proficiency from the previous year (329 yards, two TDs), while his defense mostly stonewalled Bo Jackson (20 carries, 96 yards). Five nights later in Tampa, the Miami staged a stunning rally in the waning moments for a 32-20 win against Florida.
And the five worst debuts
(in chronological order)
Bobby Bowden, FSU, 1976
Seminoles’ 21-12 loss at Memphis State starts three-game skid ... but things get better quickly.
Butch Davis, Miami, 1995
No. 12 Hurricanes fall 31-8 to UCLA for only fourth regular-season loss in UM’s last 50 games.
Mario Cristobal, Florida International, 2007
Miami’s current favorite son gets demolished 59-0 at Penn State in his Panthers debut.
Willie Taggart, USF, 2013
Coach T’s “bus” is sideswiped by Division I-AA McNeese State in 53-21 embarrassment.
Willie Taggart, FSU, 2018
Seminoles commit five turnovers in 24-3 home humiliation vs. Virginia Tech.
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