“Execute, play with class and sportsmanship, but when we get them between the pines, they’re ours.”
The bronze plaque mounted on the green, wooden frame stands watch over Murray High School in Chatsworth, Georgia, day and night. The face that stares out from above those words isn’t smiling, but it isn’t frowning, either. It’s all business. It looks focused. Like it’s already working through the next offensive playcall in the midst of a methodical 14-play, 82-yard scoring drive. Probably an inside zone run behind the right tackle.
It is not the flashiest quote. No one is going to confuse it with Vince Lombardi. But it is deliberate, designed to get straight to the point. A plan, a process and an end goal, with a little motivational pop to boot, all executed in only 16 words. Ridiculously efficient. Zero energy or time wasted. It is attributed to the man behind that intent bronze face: “Coach Bill Napier … Most Wins By A Coach In School History.”
This is where the DNA strand begins, the one that leads us 415 miles south and into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Where the oldest of Bill’s four kids stands watch over another football field. The Swamp. When Billy Napier talks football, he uses the word “fundamentals” at least once per sentence. When he talks about offensive football, his specialty, the former Furman and two-time All-Southern Conference quarterback dissertates on protecting the ball and maintaining a solid run/pass balance. When he talks about his haircut, a buzz job that looks like he might do it himself with some clippers over a sink in the Florida Gators locker room, he explains the beauty of its simplicity: “I have more important things to worry about than my hair.”
He certainly does.
Like making people forget about his 6-7 debut as head Gator, a campaign that started with a huge season-opening win over Utah and a promising 5-2 record before ending with three straight losses, including Florida’s first defeat at Vanderbilt since 1988, the year before beloved son Steve Spurrier was hired to save the program.
Like trying to avoid the program’s first streak of three consecutive losing seasons since the 1950s, while staring in the face, what is undeniably one of the nation’s most difficult schedules, beginning with Thursday night’s rematch at Utah (8 ET, ESPN) and including dates with Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, LSU and Florida State.
Like the fact that dynamic quarterback Anthony Richardson is now an Indianapolis Colt, All-American offensive lineman O’Cyrus Torrence is now a Buffalo Bill, and three assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, also left for the NFL.
And like, convincing people that he isn’t boring.
OK, that last one he actually doesn’t care about. He’s good there. Seriously.
“Boring?” the 44-year-old said, chuckling, but also pausing to consider it as truth. “I prefer the word ‘deliberate.’ I think that there is something to be said for being able to stick to your plan, even if people outside don’t think it’s moving fast enough. If you can see the improvement internally, and I think we are light years ahead of where we were this time last year, then that’s the goal you have to remain focused on.
“Be better today than yesterday. Learn from yesterday, but don’t dwell on it. And even if the end result, like our record last season, isn’t what you or anyone else wants, but you know you are better now than you were then, then focus on that. We can’t do anything about the games we’ve already played. But we can sure do something about the ones we’re going to play, right now but especially on down the road.”
Napier is talking about a long-term reconstruction project. Slowed traffic and road cones and guys holding signs that read “SLOW.” Anyone who has ever traveled in or through Florida knows it’s a state that specializes in those projects. There is definitely nothing sexy about them. And there is certainly no patience to be found among those packed in minivans and eager to get to the beach, the Magic Kingdom or a Florida Gators bowl game.
The people in the vans with Gators stickers in the windows don’t really know what to do with this idea of being deliberate, following the process, practicing patience, whatever you want to call it. In their defense, they’ve never done boring. Spurrier, who indeed saved the program in ’89 and beyond via 122 wins, six SEC titles, a natty, 11 New Year’s Day bowls, Fun ‘n’ Gun and on and on, might be the least boring head coach of all time.
Urban Meyer’s two national title teams honestly could have been a little more boring off the field. Even the coaches in between who struggled to get traction in the Swamp weren’t boring. Ron Zook and Will Muschamp had veins perpetually sticking out of their necks in anger. Jim McElwain, as uneven as his three-year tenure always felt, still won two SEC East titles. Dan Mullen, the man whose firing opened the door for Napier, rocked custom Jordans, wore Darth Vader costumes and did Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot dances on the sideline.
But Mullen appeared to tire of certain aspects of the job. The Gators’ recruiting efforts slipped considerably (the 2022 class fell out of the ESPN rankings at one point and finished No. 32, last in the SEC) and as a result, Napier inherited what was easily the most talent-poor Gators locker room (save for Richardson and Torrence) since Spurrier took over, five months after Napier’s 10th birthday.
Still, Napier and his staff managed to cobble together some solid signings with only a few weeks to do so last year. This year, with actual time to work, they have reconnected with the legendary in-state high school talent mines and are expected to land a top five national recruiting class.
They have also ridden the transfer portal like Laird Hamilton on the Banzai Pipeline, assembling an offensive line with pieces taken from Baylor, Kentucky and even Alabama. They will be charged with protecting Wisconsin transfer quarterback Graham Mertz and what might very well be the nation’s top backfield duo in Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne. They combined for 1,560 yards and 16 touchdowns a year ago. In Napier’s bor … er … fundamental offensive scheme, they will literally shoulder the load this fall.
“I think there’s a loyalty component,” Napier said of his ability to sign talent, whether prep or portal. “You want to be at your best for your staff, for your players, and you want them to sense that. And there’s just a long list of things to do. I mean, you’re literally giving a year of your life away to solve a lot of problems. We’ve established systems and everything that we do. We’ve rebuilt to some degree all of our processes. Now we kind of get to enjoy some of the adjustments that we’ve made. And so, I enjoy it. I think that we went through a very similar process at Louisiana to some degree.”
Ah yes, Louisiana. His first head-coaching gig after learning at the knees of Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban and even Todd Graham and Jim McElwain. In four years, he took the program to four division titles, two conference titles and four straight bowl games. Every single year, with Napier calling plays, the offense improved across nearly every column on the stat sheet.
“I see signs of that now, of improvement, even though 6-7 wasn’t what anyone wanted,” Spurrier said of Napier, suggesting that a 7-6 season with a bowl win would be a realistic and acceptable indication of progress this season. “I think the coaching staff is better than it was. I think there are players in the building who want to be here. And I think if you watch them closely, there are a lot of signs of everyone being on the same page.
“I like him. I like his approach. It’s different maybe than what people at Florida are used to, but if they let him, I think he can build something that lasts.”
If Napier were to hear or read those words, he would be thrilled. Back in the day at Murray High, Bill Napier loved what Spurrier was doing at Florida so much that he changed the team’s color scheme to match the Fun ‘n’ Gun Gators. Billy was a preteen, soon to be his father’s quarterback, wearing that UF-inspired uniform during what he still looks back on as the most special days of his childhood. If Billy were to hear what Spurrier said, his first instinct would be to call Bill and tell him. But his father died in 2017 of Lou Gehrig’s disease the season before Billy landed the Louisiana job.
If Napier were to hear or read that endorsement from the Head Ball Coach, he’d no doubt call the current coach at Murray, little brother Kurt. Or the head coach at LaGrange High, about 150 miles south of Chatsworth, his other brother, Matt. He calls them all the time, along with his sister, Whitney, and his mom, Pam, who still lives in the house where Billy grew up.
“You’ve got to, man. You’ve got to take care of yourself. You need that time,” he said of his family. “I need time with my wife. I need time with my kids. I need it. That makes me better when I’m with the staff and when I’m with the players. We can always spend two more hours in the office, but if I’ve checked in with family, those hours I do have to spend in the office, they are the best hours. Doing your best work. I love it.”
That’s exactly why Billy Napier will likely never see or hear Spurrier’s optimistic take. Just like he never hears the rips coming from Gators fans, already impatient to get back to the glory days. He’s too busy being boring. Trying to execute. Trying to coach with class and sportsmanship. Because, one day, if the process works the way he believes it can, when he gets them between the pines, they’ll be his.