TALLAHASSEE — If you’re among the Florida Gators fans who are antsy, if not frustrated, with the team’s performance under first-year coach Billy Napier, Bryan Maggard has a message for you.
“It’s like, just let this guy do his job, right?” Maggard said. “Give him some time, because he knows what he’s doing.”
Maggard knows that better than anyone; he is the Louisiana athletic director who hired Napier, then watched him develop into the best coach his program has ever had.
Maggard sat down with the Tampa Bay Times in the Doak Campbell Stadium press box Saturday, a few hours before his Ragin’ Cajuns’ defeat at Florida State ... and a few hours before Napier’s Gators lost at Vanderbilt to drop to 6-5. But you can tell by the way Maggard gushed about his former employee that the four disappointing quarters in Nashville wouldn’t overshadow their four years of success.
Maggard knew Napier had a lot of potential when he pulled him away from Arizona State in December 2017. Though Napier wasn’t a household name yet, he was a skilled schemer, charismatic recruiter and meticulous planner. As Maggard saw Napier in action during Year One, his belief was fortified.
“You just knew right then that we can do some special things here,” Maggard said.
The results did not necessarily back him up. Louisiana won the Sun Belt West Division title but dropped the conference championship game and Cure Bowl in Orlando to finish a pedestrian 7-7. Behind the scenes, however, Maggard saw Napier installing a championship foundation.
“He did a great job of coming in and establishing a culture,” Maggard said. “It was legitimate. It was real.”
So were the relationships Napier was building. Assistants came up to Maggard to tell him how much they enjoyed working for Napier. Maggard saw trust develop with players by how Napier put his arm around them and how they spoke in team meetings or hallway conversations.
The progress began to take off at the end of Napier’s first year, starting with attrition and talent acquisition — the phase the Gators will formally enter after their regular season ends Friday night at FSU. Louisiana signed a recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the Sun Belt and 13th among Group of Five programs. Six signees started in the 2021 conference championship game, including offensive lineman O’Cyrus Torrence, who is having an All-America season after following Napier to Florida.
That momentum flowed into Napier’s second spring, which he and his players could attack with a sense of familiarity and routine they didn’t have in Year One.
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“I think that’s when he really got to come in and establish his program…” Maggard said. “I just think he was able to really implement (his culture) and take his program to the next level.”
The success happened immediately in Year Two, starting with a competitive loss to Mississippi State in the opener. The Ragin’ Cajuns won 11 of their next 13 games in what was (at the time) the best season in program history. They followed that by finishing 10-1 and sharing the conference title in 2020, then going 12-1 and winning the championship outright last year before Napier left for Florida.
There was no ill will when Napier got the Gators job. Far from it. Maggard told UF athletic director Scott Stricklin his hire was like Oklahoma luring Bob Stoops away from Florida’s staff before the 1999 season; Stoops led the Sooners to a national title and rebuilt them into a consistent national power.
“It’s going to be that profound, in terms of getting Florida back to where they need to be — competing for and winning national championships,” Maggard said. “I believe that wholeheartedly.”
Florida fans may be wavering on that belief after Napier’s mediocre start featured losses to Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU and Georgia plus a close call against USF. Maggard, however, remains steadfast.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Maggard said, “Florida’s going to be extremely successful.”
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