A quarter century ago, the University of Florida made what turned out to be one of its greatest hires in school history when they pried away a 30-year-old head coach from a mid-major school at Marshall to take over its basketball program.
That was the birth of BillyBall, an up-tempo, entertaining style of play that evolved into a spectacular 20-year run in Gainesville for Billy Donovan, now the head coach of the NBA Chicago Bulls. The personable New Yorker became wildly popular and produced two national championships, a feat that eventually compelled UF to put his name on its basketball court.
The Gators hit the coaching jackpot on that Billy. They took a chance on a promising young coach, who had acquired a vast depth of knowledge from hoops savant Rick Pitino, and he became a rock star in the profession.
It remains to be seen whether that hiring formula will work as Florida gets ready to welcome another ascending Billy with a similar pedigree – 42-year-old Louisiana head coach Billy Napier – as its next football coach.
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“There’s no secret sauce and there’s no blueprint [for a successful hire],” said Greg McGarity, who served as Georgia athletic director from 2010-20 before accepting a position in January as the Taxslayer Gator Bowl president and CEO. “You just got to hope and pray you made the right decision and you won’t know that for three or four years.”
Florida AD Scott Stricklin wasted no time after firing Dan Mullen eight days ago in pursuing Napier, not bothering to interview any other candidates who might have had more head coaching experience at Power 5 schools.
Just as retired Gators’ AD Jeremy Foley pulled the trigger on a potential rising star in Donovan a generation ago, Stricklin is banking on Napier restoring the football Camelot that Florida enjoyed under Steve Spurrier (1990-2001) and Urban Meyer (2005-10). They became legends, but first delivered unprecedented success at schools with no big football tradition -- Duke and Utah, respectively -- before UF hired them away in their early 40s.
Napier has done a similar thing at Louisiana, where the Ragin’ Cajuns will be vying for the Sun Belt Conference title on Saturday against Appalachian State. The same program in Lafayette where Napier has 39 victories in four years, including four straight SBC West division titles, won only 78 games in the 20 years prior to his arrival.
Roll of the dice
While Southern Cal made what can accurately be described as a “home-run hire” in prying Lincoln Riley away from the Oklahoma Sooners, the truth is most hires like Napier are a crapshoot unless there’s a previously established relationship between the administration and coach.
“The toughest thing that any AD has to deal with is how really well do they know the person they’re hiring,” said McGarity, who in 2016 hired former Alabama assistant Kirby Smart to coach the Bulldogs, now the nation’s No. 1-ranked team. “If you’ve never had a conversation before and it’s based on one or two interviews, you’re rolling the dice.
“Everybody is so pumped up at the time of every hire. You tell me a school that hasn’t been excited about a new hire in football or basketball. It’s reinvigorating. But the jury is out until year three or four. You just don’t know.”
Gators’ fans, who became disenchanted with Mullen as Florida’s season spiraled downward, received the news of Napier’s hiring with either genuine enthusiasm or remain cautiously optimistic. Like most fans where a coaching change is made, they welcome a new direction.
But if recent years have taught us anything about coaching hires, it’s that the pendulum can swing both ways in a hurry. Mullen was the toast of Gainesville after he led UF to the SEC East division title last year and nearly toppled Alabama in the conference championship game.
Eleven months later, the Gators went into a deep funk and when Mullen couldn’t pull them out of it, he was a goner.
“You really can’t tell how these hires are going to work out until three or four years later,” said McGarity. “Everybody at FSU was excited about Mike Norvell and he’s just now finally got some traction in year two. Everybody thought Chip Kelly at UCLA would be an incredible hire. He’s just now starting to get it going.
“[Recently fired] Justin Fuente was a can’t-miss at Virginia Tech when he got hired. People told me I should have hired Fuente instead of Kirby Smart [at Georgia]. Scott Frost was a can’t-miss at Nebraska. Everybody at Florida thought they were on the right track with Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain after two years. It’s not easy finding the right one.”
Second act of BillyBall
By many accounts, Napier has similar traits to what attracted Florida to Donovan in his younger coaching years, particularly when it comes to his enthusiasm and relentless drive to succeed.
Just as Donovan learned under the tutelage of Pitino -- both as a player at Providence and a Kentucky assistant coach -- Napier spent five years on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama, including four years (2013-16) as the Crimson Tide receivers coach.
When Foley began his basketball coaching search to replace Lon Kruger, who saw things get stale at the end of his six-year tenure after taking the Gators to a Final Four, he wanted a young, ascending coach who could sell the program to recruits.
“There’s no perfect formula or exact science. You put a lot of research into it, trust your instincts and go from there,” said Foley. “We were going to do something different. We were going to find an up-and-comer. We were looking for that type of person. We had pockets of success in basketball, but were never able to sustain it.”
Two decades of BillyBall produced a 467-186 record (.715), six SEC regular-season titles, four SEC tournament titles, four Final Fours and two national championships. With all due respect to Spurrier and Meyer, an argument could easily be made for Donovan being UF’s all-time best coaching hire.
Foley’s instincts on Donovan proved to be correct. He hit a grand slam on a candidate few Gators ever imagined would become a coaching legend.
“When you got in front of Billy, his passion and ability to communicate his vision struck you,” said Foley. “His incredible enthusiasm, seeing him sit on the edge of his chair. You know how Billy can talk. No selfishness or 'me' about him. He’s a guy you want to be around. I could see him sitting in a living room and conveying that same passion to recruits.”
That’s exactly the kind of coach the Gators hope Napier, who has routinely brought in the top recruiting classes in the Sun Belt, can become at Florida. They want to get back on equal footing with the twin football monsters of Georgia and Alabama.
Now it’s Napier’s turn to try and become the long-term answer that 3M -- Muschamp, McElwain and Mullen -- never could.
Can a second act with a different version of BillyBall be anywhere near as successful as the one in basketball? We’ll see. The Gators are staking their football future on history repeating itself.
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Florida Gators hope Billy Napier is football version of Billy Donovan