GAINESVILLE — Though the No. 18 Florida Gators enter Saturday’s game against USF bruised from the Kentucky loss, first-year coach Billy Napier knows things could be worse.
Like how they were a dozen years ago in the last game Napier coached against the Bulls — a rock-bottom bowl defeat that started his detour to one of the top jobs in the nation and continues to shape the sport.
Napier entered Clemson’s 2010 season in good shape as the nation’s youngest major-program offensive coordinator. The Tigers were 2-0 before an overtime loss to eventual national champion Auburn snowballed into a 6-6 failure. But leading up to the Meineke Car Care Bowl against USF, coach Dabo Swinney said he didn’t anticipate any staffing changes.
“If I felt like there have to be changes to be made, I’ll make them …” Swinney told reporters. “But I’m not going to make a change just to make one.”
The Bulls forced his hand.
In front of what the Associated Press called a “small group of its disgruntled fans,” Clemson sputtered in Charlotte, North Carolina. Napier’s offense mustered only 296 yards — the fifth time in the final eight games that it failed to hit 300. The Tigers had only 13 points through the first 58 minutes before a late rally made the final score (31-26) look closer than it was.
The Bulls reveled in the triumph, with coach Skip Holtz calling it “a great team effort all the way around.” Clemson fumed. Swinney said he didn’t “blame the fans one bit for being ticked off” and vowed to do everything possible to prevent a recurrence.
Looking back, Clemson’s down season was a blip caused by a roster dip. The Tigers had just lost All-American C.J. Spiller to the NFL, and the next wave (DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd) either hadn’t arrived or wasn’t yet ready for stardom.
“I’ll say this about that 2010 team: (Napier) did an excellent job,” said Brad Scott, a mentor to Napier and an assistant on that staff. “We just didn’t quite have the skill players that we would soon have.”
It didn’t matter. Something had to change.
Two days after the loss, Swinney fired Napier and running backs coach Andre Powell.
“It was the best thing that’s happened to me in my profession …” Napier said at a spring speaking stop in Tampa, “because I had the chance to go work at Alabama as an analyst.”
Spending 2011 under Nick Saban let Napier restock his network with Sabanites, including some who work for him now. Freed from the day-to-day responsibilities of being an on-field assistant, Napier got an up-close view of how Saban’s famed process works.
“In that one year,” Napier said in December, “I think I learned more than I learned in the previous 10.”
Napier used those lessons to build Louisiana into a Sun Belt power. The proven formula attracted the eye of Gators administrators who wanted him to bring that blueprint to Florida.
A blueprint he may never have had, if not for that bowl loss to the Bulls.
The aftershocks reverberate elsewhere, too. Though Napier wasn’t Saban’s first analyst, his second act in the profession validated the role. Fired coaches like Steve Sarkisian and Butch Jones (now the head coaches at Texas and Arkansas State) eventually followed.
Not long after the embarrassing loss, Swinney boldly proclaimed that the Tigers were about to start the best decade in the history of the program. Sure enough, Clemson shot past Florida State as the ACC’s biggest heavyweight and won a pair of national titles.
Napier’s dismissal led Swinney to hire Chad Morris (now an USF analyst) as offensive coordinator. His success with the Tigers got him the head coaching job at SMU, which opened up the coordinator job for Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott to share. Scott used it as a springboard to take over USF, while Elliott is in his first year as Virginia’s head coach.
But the biggest transformation was with Napier, who went from a hotshot assistant at a major program to an out-of-work 31-year-old. Being in what he called a “very humbled place” forced him to start over with a low-level job that gave him the reboot his career needed.
“It probably wasn’t that day,” Brad Scott said, “but he got back up, didn’t he?”
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