The Billy Napier Story
09/14/2018 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey
Gallery: The Billy Napier Story [5 Images] Click any image to expand.
Ragin’ Cajuns Football Enters A New EraBy Scott Brazda | Photos By Lee Ball
“I was born in Chatsworth, Georgia, a small town in northwest Georgia, right at the foot of the mountains,” says Billy Napier. “My mom still lives there, in the same house. It’s just a big, big county with one main city, a rural kind of blue-collar, rough-around the edges people.”
The 39-year-old Napier pauses for a second. “I know how I grew up, and I know the experiences that I had and it shapes you. That kind of upbringing definitely helped make me the kind of coach—and the kind of man – that I’ve become.”
UL’s new head football coach appreciates where he’s been because, as he says, that has defined the man who sits across from me in his office at the UL Athletic Complex. “Take my father,” continues Napier. “Dad was the football coach in that little community, and he was an offensive coach who called the plays. He just worked hard and got his teams to probably play a little better than they were.”
“If I can do that – get our guys to believe in themselves and have confidence that they can compete in the games in which most people don’t think they have a chance —we can be a very talented and successful football team.”
December 17, 2017 was the day Billy Napier officially replaced Mark Hudspeth as the Ragin’ Cajuns new coach. “You know, I took the job site unseen,” he laughs, “but I had some friends who had a good eye on what was happening here, so I was able to get a pretty good pulse on the current situation: how the program had success, where maybe they went wrong, and that helped me to begin putting some processes and people in place to making things right.”
Still…sight unseen? You left Arizona State for a place you’d never seen? Credit University leadership for getting Napier to take a leap of faith. “Well, my conversations with Dr. Maggard (UL Director of Athletics) about what was needed for us to have success were very convincing,” Napier recalls, “and then knowing that we had a great alignment with Dr. Savoie (University president) and his vision for athletics just added to that. They helped me to quickly understand the financial capability and the resources within Acadiana, and I became more and more intrigued with the possibilities.”
So, you take over a program that hadn’t had a winning season since 2014. Where, oh, where does one start to right the ship? “The first thing I did was, basically… just came in and listened,” he smiles. “Seriously. I was able to retain some critical people who really care about this place and want to see things done in a certain way. Plus, I said to the veteran players, ‘Hey, you are the guys who have been here awhile and saw the good and the decline; what happened?’ I threw it out there on the water to see what we’ve got, and we had some tremendous conversations, me and a bunch of people who truly believe in this team, this school and this part of Louisiana.”
Napier has brought back a number of former players to assist, in one way or another, the next phase of Ragin’ Cajuns football; plus, new pieces to his staff include coaches with Sun Belt Conference (and state of Louisiana) experience. “Jabbar Juluke (Assistant Head Coach/Running Backs) coached at Louisiana Tech where he competed with UL, and Ron Roberts (Defensive Coordinator) has been in this state a number of years. I think all of those things, and all of those different conversations, helped us make a few decisions every day for the past eight months. It’s been a lot of fun, I’ll tell you that.”
Another fun thing for Billy Napier has been going to work each day to a place where it’s clear that his bosses care about the workplace. “We’ve got a very functional space, we’ve got a very good first impression in recruiting and it’s relative to the competition. It’s an advantage for us,” says Napier. “I think the key to the drill is realizing how much making a commitment to the facilities has helped us, and how if we continue to be aggressive and continue to improve our facilities every year, we can keep that advantage, and you can make it an even bigger advantage. It just screams ‘commitment’ when you bring a young man and his family on campus.”
First-class facilities at UL should also help with the ‘Saturdays-in-the-Fall’ product as well. “Most definitely. I think it affects the players, a place where they’ll work every day, a place where they can be excited, and you know, they’re willing to do a little more.”
Napier’s coaching career has featured stops at some big-time programs--- Arizona State, Alabama (twice), Colorado State and Clemson (twice) --- stops that have given him a perspective and knowledge that many others in his profession lack. “I believe there’s a commonality watching all of these teams that are having success and how they operate, what they believe in, the infrastructure that they have and the workflow they’ve established,” he explains, “and I feel like we can do that in a cost-effective way. I feel like here at UL, we are committed to getting that done.”
There’s an energy about Acadiana, theorizes Napier, a fire and a drive to take both the University and Acadiana to whole other level. “I believe there’s a big picture, big aspirations here, and the belief that Lafayette is a city that has no limits. In terms of football, it’s the aggressive belief about expansion, the ‘Hey, we want to get into position that we can be competitive, if not dominant, in Group of Five football. I don’t know how many years that will take, but we’re gonna’ focus on what we have to do to get into that conversation as soon as possible.”
The biggest transition in making another move was really just those first few weeks. “Just settling in with the typical Year One bumps in the road,” he chuckles. “My wife Ali and I had done this a number of times, and once we got moved in, it has just become the typical day-to-day. Our calendar in this profession is very seasonal, with some very long days; but Ali and I have gotten used to our groove—our little routine in college football—and it’s been great.”
Another great thing about his first head coaching job is being just that: the head coach, a position that also allows him more flexibility with a more important job, namely, being the father of three young children. “Let’s see, Annie is six, Sammy is three and Charlie is one, and no matter where we are, they’re getting older, they’re more curious, they have more thoughts. Their dialogue is much more intense, and just watching them grow up is amazing.” And because he’s the head coach? “I’m able to set the schedule, and tweak the schedule to make sure both myself and our assistant coaches can leave and do a good job at home. I want the people that work here to prioritize and to make sure that we keep things first.”
So, when fans head to Cajun Field this fall to see a Billy Napier-led team clad in vermilion and white, what can they expect?
“We want to play with great effort, we want to be very physical, and hope we’ll be great competitors and have some mental toughness,” he says. “I want our guys to respond to adversity, improve as we go, and not be a team that beats itself.” Ultimately, Napier hopes his Cajuns will become a squad that controls the things it can control. “Our effort and our response when things get difficult. Being a great teammate when things get difficult. It’s about the intangibles, and some disciplined young men that care and go out to play to their potential.”
New quarterback (although both have experience), new specialists (some great competition), and a much-improved defense (15 new players plus three who have moved over from offense). Those are the main spots that Napier eyes as crucial to success in his inaugural season. “I really think we have a talented team and feel we can play at a high level. I think if we’ll do our job ---evaluating, recruiting—with where we’re located, we can be a program and a team that everyone is really proud of.”
And if things go well? If this Ragin’ Cajuns team, and this program, becomes something of which everyone is really proud?
“Well, we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” begins Napier, “but if the hard work we’re putting in pays off…. this is a place that can explode.”