How USF’s win over Florida Gators’ Billy Napier still shapes college football

GAINESVILLE — Although the No. 18 Florida Gators come into Saturday’s game against USF bruised by the loss to Kentucky, first-year coach Billy Napier knows things could be worse.

Much worse.

As they were a dozen years ago in the last game Napier coached against the Bulls – a low-to-the-bowl loss that began his detour to one of the best jobs in the country and continues to shape the sport.

Related: Inside the 20-year relationship between Florida Gators’ Billy Napier and USF’s Jeff Scott

Napier entered Clemson’s 2010 season in good shape as the nation’s youngest major program offensive coordinator. The Tigers were 2-0 before an overtime loss to eventual national champion Auburn snowballed into a 6-6 draw. But ahead of the Meineke Car Care Bowl against USF, coach Dabo Swinney said he doesn’t anticipate any personnel changes.

Billy Napier was Clemson’s offensive coordinator in 2009-10. [ PATRICK COLLARD | AP (2009) ]

“If I feel like there needs to be changes, I’ll make them…” Swinney told reporters. “But I’m not going to make a change just to make one.”

The Bulls forced his hand.

In front of what The Associated Press called a “small group of his disgruntled fans,” Clemson sputtered in Charlotte, North Carolina. Napier’s offense mustered just 296 yards – the fifth time in the last eight games that it has failed to reach 300. The Tigers had just 13 points in the first 58 minutes before a late rally won’t make the final score (31-26) any closer than it was.

The Bulls reveled in the triumph, with coach Skip Holtz calling it “a great team effort all around.” Clemson was fuming. Swinney said he didn’t “blame the fans at all for being ticked off” and pledged to do everything possible to prevent it from happening again.

USF Coach Skip Holtz and President Judy Genshaft hug after the Bulls win over Clemson.
USF Coach Skip Holtz and President Judy Genshaft hug after the Bulls win over Clemson.
[ Times (2010) ]

Looking back, Clemson’s low season was a blow caused by a drop in the roster. The Tigers had just lost All-American CJ Spiller to the NFL, and the next wave (DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd) hadn’t arrived or weren’t ready for stardom yet.

“I’ll say this about that 2010 team: (Napier) did a great job,” said Brad Scott, a Napier mentor and assistant on that team. “We just didn’t have the talented players we would soon have.”

It didn’t matter. Something had to change.

Two days after the loss, Swinney fired Napier and running backs coach Andre Powell.

“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my profession…,” Napier said during a spring stop in Tampa, “because I got a chance to go and work in Alabama as a ‘analyst”.

Spending 2011 under Nick Saban allowed Napier to replenish his network with Sabanites, including some who work for him now. Freed from the day-to-day responsibilities of a field assistant, Napier got to see firsthand how Saban’s famous process works.

Related: What a Nick Saban bestseller told us about the Florida Gators’ Billy Napier

“In that year,” Napier said in December, “I think I learned more than I learned in the previous 10.”

Napier used those lessons to build Louisiana into a Sun Belt powerhouse. The proven formula caught the attention of Gators administrators who wanted him to bring this plan to Florida.

A plan he might never have had, if not for that loss to the Bulls.

The aftershocks also reverberate elsewhere. Although Napier was not Saban’s first analyst, his second act in the profession validated the role. Fired coaches like Steve Sarkisian and Butch Jones (now the head coaches of Texas and Arkansas State) eventually followed.

Clemson's loss to USF marked the start of the best decade in Tigers history.
Clemson’s loss to USF marked the start of the best decade in Tigers history. [ Times (2010) ]

Shortly after the embarrassing loss, Swinney boldly proclaimed the Tigers were about to begin the best decade in program history. Sure enough, Clemson overtook Florida State as the biggest heavyweight in the ACC and won two national titles.

Napier’s firing led Swinney to hire Chad Morris (now a USF analyst) as offensive coordinator. His success with the Tigers landed him the head coaching job at SMU, which allowed Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott to share the coordinator position. Scott used it as a springboard to take over USF, while Elliott is in his first year as Virginia’s head coach.

Related: Florida Gators have elite line, big efforts, says USF coach Jeff Scott

But the biggest transformation took place with Napier, who went from a top aide in a major program to a 31-year-old unemployed. Being in what he called a “very humiliated place” forced him to start over with low-level work that gave him the restart his career needed.

“It probably wasn’t that day,” Brad Scott said, “but he got up, didn’t he?”

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