LAFAYETTE, La. — Billy Napier isn’t in a hurry. The football coach sits in his office at the University of Louisiana on a Friday morning earlier this month, leans back in a red leather chair and waits patiently for the question he knows is coming: What’s he still doing here?
It’s blunt, but there’s a sense the 42-year-old can see through useless subtlety. So, sure, wonder aloud why arguably the hottest commodity on the coaching market remains at a relative outpost less than an hour’s drive from in-state powerhouse LSU but a world away from all the money and resources and bells and whistles afforded to college football’s elite.
On paper, Napier should have left for greener pastures by now. His résumé includes time with Nick Saban and with Dabo Swinney, and he has won big at a place unaccustomed to winning. UL is coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons — the only 10-win seasons in its history.
His reason for staying is complex. It’s part upbringing. It’s part that a roller-coaster start to his career caused him to rethink everything. Something special would have to come along for him to leave this place, which has an active swamp in the middle of campus and is surrounded by some of the best talent in the country.
He loves it, Napier says, “this little Cajun culture.”
He’s his father’s son, devoid of flash, having grown up around high school football fields in rural Georgia with his father coaching at the same high school for more than 20 years. Napier played quarterback in the FCS, and his first full-time job was in the MEAC. When UL gave him a new vehicle as one of the perks of his contract, he turned it down. Instead he drives to work every day in his own nondescript, years-old white Ford Explorer.
During each of the past two offseasons, after his name was connected to job openings at places such as Mississippi State, South Carolina and Auburn, he has made statements reaffirming his commitment to UL.
It’s not that he didn’t think about leaving. Fielding calls during the coaching carousel each winter is enough to make his head spin, he says.
He listened because he’s pragmatic and, like everyone in this sport, a competitor. He’s confident in his plan and enjoys a challenge, otherwise he never would have come to UL in the first place. “Methodical” is one word staff often use to describe him.
Despite everything the Ragin’ Cajuns already have accomplished, he talks about how there’s more to be done. Winning a share of the Sun Belt last season was nice, but they want the whole thing. They want to upset Texas in the season opener Saturday. They want to avenge last season’s loss to Coastal Carolina, reach a New Year’s Six bowl and establish themselves as the top program in the Group of 5.
Maybe after all that, he’ll be ready to move on.
In college football, the window of opportunity can close quickly on up-and-coming coaches. But on the eve of his fourth season in Lafayette, Napier isn’t anxious about his career prospects.
His patience has been a virtue that led him to this place and this moment. He’s not changing now.
HERE’S THE THING about Napier: He has been that guy before. He was only 38 when he got this job — his first as a head coach — but this is already his second act in coaching. He was once that young and ambitious hotshot, certain he had it all figured out.
When Swinney became the full-time head coach at Clemson in 2009, he elevated a 30-year-old Napier to offensive coordinator, making him the youngest playcaller in the Power 5. At the time, Swinney called Napier “one of the finest young coaches in the nation” and one who “will be a head coach someday.”
Two years later, Swinney fired him.
After Clemson fell from third to 10th in the ACC in points per game, Napier had to drive home and explain to his wife that he was no longer employed. He had poured everything he had into his career, and not in a healthy way. He was a self-described workaholic, getting to the office by 6 a.m. and not leaving until close to midnight.
“I’ve been on that roller coaster where you think you’re going to the top,” he says, admitting he was arrogant at the time. “And then you get the rug pulled out from under you.”
Getting fired was a humbling experience. He was forced to re-center himself, he says, and accept his reality.
A few weeks after he was let go, Napier got a call that would test his newfound perspective. Saban wanted him to come to Alabama, but he didn’t have a coordinator or even a position coach opening available. He offered the role of analyst instead, meaning Napier would not coach in a hands-on capacity.
This was well before Saban had popularized the analyst role, bringing in former head coaches such as Butch Jones, Steve Sarkisian and Mike Locksley. If Napier accepted, it was going to be a very public step down, essentially rewinding his career clock to a decade earlier when he was a graduate assistant straight out of college.
He said yes.
Reinvigorated by the opportunity to learn from arguably the greatest coach in college football history, Napier confirmed some of his core beliefs as a coach and reevaluated others. He began to better understand the value of organization and saw the benefits of delegating to others. Everyone worked hard, of course, but he noticed how they did their best not to get bogged down in minutiae. In other words: With so many people in supporting roles, the workaholic in Napier could have more balance in his life, maybe take a day off every once in a while.
He became a right-hand man to offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, and when McElwain left the next season to become the head coach at Colorado State, Napier followed, returning to on-field coaching. When Saban called a second time to bring him back to Alabama as a receivers coach a year later, he said yes again.
But just as he was getting reacquainted with Tuscaloosa, Napier received devastating news. Right before the season was about to begin, his father had been diagnosed with ALS.
“The reality is, look, he’s getting ready to go through a very difficult downhill descent here,” Napier says. “There’s no cure, there’s no doctor, there’s no medicine, there’s nothing.”
Seeing his father navigate such an excruciating disease was gut-wrenching but also inspiring. He saw no self-pity, no temper tantrums in the face of such an unfair outcome.
“That changes you,” Napier says, “and I think for good.”
ON THE TOP floor of Louisiana’s new athletic facility, on a wall leading to Napier’s office, is a pyramid of 3D boxes that serves as a sort of road map to the upcoming season. There’s a box for each regular-season opponent, for the Sun Belt West and for the Sun Belt Conference as a whole. Beneath each box is one of the program’s core values — words like “INTEGRITY” and “RESPECT.”
Atop the pyramid is a box with the Ragin’ Cajuns logo above the logo of each of the Group of 5 conferences, a nod to the stated goal of being the top program in the G5.
The words inscribed underneath that box are “BE THE DIFFERENCE” and “MAKE AN IMPACT.”
They’re guiding principles that come straight from Napier’s father, who died in 2017.
“He could tell that the ALS thing was eating me up, that I was out of sorts and found it to be challenging,” Napier recalls. “So he sat me down and says, ‘Look, we’re not going to make excuses here, we’re not going to complain. We’re going to try to make an impact. We’re going to try to use this and be a difference-maker.'”
There’s a purely football way of looking at those two principles; they’re about helping teammates and the program as a whole. But Napier says it’s also a lesson for the young coaches here about when they encounter a fork in the road during their careers to make the right turn and be a difference-maker in a positive way.
His time at the crossroads came early, and he made the right decision. He listened to his father and spent four seasons at Alabama. He then broadened his roots by going West to Arizona State and soon afterward found himself as a 38-year-old in the running to take over a program in UL that had fallen on hard times. Its previous coach, Mark Hudspeth, had been fired and had some of his wins vacated due to NCAA sanctions.
Napier knew from his time recruiting at Alabama what a talent-rich area it was. Saban had once left Michigan State for LSU because he understood that no state in the country produced more NFL players per capita than Louisiana.
UL athletic director Brian Maggard saw Napier as someone well beyond his years. He speaks deliberately and takes copious notes.
The only person Maggard says he has ever met like Napier is Bill Snyder, the white-haired dean of coaches who retired from Kansas State at the age of 79. But most of all, Maggard was impressed by Napier’s vision.
He came in with a plan. He was determined to beef up the Cajuns’ support staff à la Alabama, and because they couldn’t afford the same salaries as Saban, he relied on volunteers and young coaches eager to get their start.
His staff meetings even look like Alabama’s, with Napier surrounded by some 40 people each morning as he outlines the day ahead. And that’s not counting folks in the weight room and nutrition staff, which basically didn’t exist before his arrival.
Before a practice recently, a staffer who spent time at Alabama was asked how Napier and Saban differ. He thought for a minute, then another, then shook his head in defeat.
“One guy coaches offense and the other coaches defense,” he says. “That’s it.”
There’s no detail too small for Napier to consider. An athletic administrator recalled how Napier once asked him why the team website wouldn’t allow the roster to list heights down to the 1/4 inch. While most schools would fudge Levi Lewis‘ height up to a more quarterback-friendly 6 feet, Louisiana lists him at 5-foot-10.
Linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill joined the program shortly after Napier’s arrival in 2017 and felt the impact of his new coach’s plan immediately. He watched as Napier pulled together a fractured locker room and was blown away by his level of organization.
“He can tell you what he’s gonna do in the next 15 minutes, the next hour, the next two hours,” McCaskill says. “He has his whole day planned out, and he can tell you what he’s doing around this time next year.”
The result is a program that has gone 28-11 in three years. And for the first time in the modern era, the Ragin’ Cajuns enter the season ranked.
“I don’t know if the word ‘surprise’ is correct, but certainly it has happened very quickly,” Maggard says of UL’s rapid ascent under Napier. “Did I think he had the potential to do this and potentially have a sense of success in his first few years? Yes. But to the point of 10-win seasons in Years 2 and 3? It’s been a very pleasant experience and ride so far, I’ll say that.”
But like any ride, it begs the question: When will it end?
UL pays Napier $2 million a year, less than what a handful of Power 5 assistant coaches make. Bryan Harsin took a long-awaited step from Boise State to Auburn this offseason and will earn $5.25 million per year as the Tigers’ head coach.
While there was some consternation internally when Napier’s name was connected to South Carolina’s job opening, Maggard insists he wasn’t worried Napier would leave. Maggard believes he has a feel for the boxes Napier wants to check in his next job, and so far, they have yet to be met.
“My intention is to keep him around here as long as humanly possible,” Maggard says. “I absolutely believe he can and should be the winningest coach in program history. If this was his first and last head-coaching job, he wouldn’t find anybody any happier.”
INDUSTRY SOURCES DON’T anticipate a lifetime stint for Napier in Lafayette. There’s an anticipation that he’ll leave when the right job comes along — one with a track record of winning, a commitment to football and a clear alignment from the school president to the athletic director.
To that end, Maggard says he’ll be happy to help Napier with his next opportunity — “one he really wants,” he says.
Looking ahead, Virginia Tech could be an intriguing option, should it become available, and it’s hard to escape the potential of LSU, considering its proximity.
While Napier awaits those difficult conversations to come, he’s content where he is. He appreciates that his president is “passionate about athletics” and how he has a good relationship with Maggard, whom he calls a “rising star.”
And that’s to say nothing of the players. Twenty of 22 starters are back from last year. The offense is poised to be even more dynamic with Lewis returning at quarterback and some young talented receivers ready to make an impact. The defense could be flat-out great with Zi’Yon Hill wreaking havoc on the line and Bralen Trahan and Eric Garror back patrolling the secondary.
Napier has stayed as long as he has in part because of how he has recruited and developed his roster. These kids, he says, are different. They’re not sitting around and waiting for the day they’ll be drafted.
“They’re thinking about, ‘I love to play, I love to be a part of the team, I love the things that come with this game,'” he says. “You know, I have a lot of fun with it.”
Coaching the players here and becoming part of this community feels a lot like what he grew up watching his dad do at Murray County High School in Chatsworth, Georgia. Maybe he didn’t have the best talent, but he built something over two decades there.
Napier smiles and chuckles to himself, thinking about a memory from middle school.
Dad was offered a lot of jobs back then, he says, but this time he was really considering an opportunity that would bring in some more money. And while that in itself was cause for panic for Napier and his brother, Matt, it wasn’t the worst of it.
The job was with their rival in a neighboring county.
The boys were distraught. They were all-in on Murray County. They hated their rivals.
No, they told their dad, no way.
Defiant, they said that if he went, well, “We’re not going!”
It might have been the only time they ever threatened their dad, which causes Napier to laugh again.
Dad stayed, and the school board put a new roof on the house as a sort of thank-you.
Three decades later, his son stayed where he was and UL gave him a $1 million raise.
It’s funny because on the face of it, the situations are so wildly different yet from where Napier sits, they feel so much the same.
It’s clear that Napier is holding on to something here, a version of football that’s purer than what awaits him at the next level. “Certain things come with that,” he says bluntly.
Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t believe how he coaches won’t work at a high-profile program. He’s confident it can, but he’s still trying to work out how in his head.
“What’s it going to look like?” he asks. “How do you create the quality of life and the pace that you want to have?”
He has seen a lot, he explains.
“And I think I’m fortunate in that regard,” he says. “So I kind of feel like I know when I’ve got something that’s pretty good.”