TALLAHASSEE — If you’re one of those Florida Gators fans who’s nervous, if not frustrated, with the team’s performance under first-year coach Billy Napier, Bryan Maggard has news for you.
“It’s like, just let this guy do his job, right?” Said Maggard. “Give him some time because he knows what he’s doing.”
Maggard knows this better than anyone; He’s the Louisiana athletic director who hired Napier and then watched him grow into the best coach his program has ever had.
Maggard sat down with the Tampa Bay Times in the press box at Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday, a few hours before his Ragin’ Cajuns lost at Florida State… and a few hours before Napier’s Gators lost 6-5 at Vanderbilt. The fact that the four disappointing quarters in Nashville did not overshadow the four years of success is evident in Maggard’s raving about his former employee.
Maggard knew Napier had a lot of potential when he pulled him out of Arizona state in December 2017. Although Napier was not yet a household name, he was a skilled schemer, charismatic recruiter, and meticulous planner. When Maggard saw Napier in action during his freshman year, his faith was strengthened.
“You knew even then that we could do some special things here,” Maggard said.
The results didn’t necessarily confirm him. 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. However, behind the scenes, Maggard saw Napier install a Championship Foundation.
“He did a great job coming in and establishing a culture,” Maggard said. “It was legitimate. It was real.”
Such were the relationships Napier forged. Assistants came to Maggard to tell him how much they enjoyed working for Napier. Maggard saw trust develop in the players from Napier putting his arm around them and the way they spoke in team meetings or hallway chats.
Progress began at the end of Napier’s freshman year, beginning with attrition and talent acquisition — the stage the Gators will officially enter after their regular season ends Friday night at FSU. Louisiana signed a recruiting class ranked #1 in the Sun Belt and #13 among Group of Five programs. Six signers started 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 their freshman year.
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“I think that’s when he really needed to come in and set his program…” Maggard said. “I just think he was able to really execute[his culture]and take his program to the next level.”
Success came immediately in the sophomore year, beginning with a contest 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 by going 10-1 in 2020 and sharing the conference title, then winning the championship 12-1 last year before Napier left for Florida.
There was no ill will when Napier got the job at Gators. Far from it. Maggard told UF athletic director Scott Stricklin his tenure was like enticing Oklahoma Bob Stoops away from Florida’s staff ahead of the 1999 season; Stoops led the Sooners to a national title and rebuilt them into a consistent national force.
“It’s going to be so profound to get Florida back to where they need to be — to compete for and win national championships,” Maggard said. “I believe that with all my heart.”
Florida fans may falter in that belief after Napier’s mediocre start included losses to Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU and Georgia and a close decision against USF. Maggard, however, remains steadfast.
“I have no doubt,” Maggard said, “Florida will be extremely successful.”
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