New UL-Lafayette football coach Billy Napier was in Acadiana for only six days before heading back to his Arizona home for a quick Christmas holiday with family.
The time between his Sunday arrival and this weekend’s return was a nonstop gauntlet of tasks, meetings, interviews and appearances, all aimed at retooling and revitalizing the Ragin’ Cajuns football program and readying things for the 38-year-old Napier to hit the ground running just after New Year's Day.
He did find time to sit down for a question-and-answer session in his office in the Mosing Student-Athlete Performance Center, on a wide range of topics surrounding his hiring, what he saw upon arrival and his immediate plans for the program.
The Advocate: In your first news conference, you talked about knowing the potential of the UL-Lafayette program. How and when did you first become aware of the Cajuns?
NAPIER: I think, to be honest, it was during the good times during Hud’s (previous head coach Mark Hudspeth’s) career, we were playing a common opponent and I saw the film. As I recruited this state and got comfortable with the dynamics, you think about the potential. Where I was, we were always competing against LSU, but you also got a feel for the type of football in the state. I always heard about the facility commitment that was made the last couple of years here, and I had some friends on the staff. I knew they had done very well, they had a good thing going. They didn’t perform quite like they would have liked over the last couple of years, but certainly they made themselves significant.
The people here are committed. This facility screams commitment. I think we’ve got great leadership, and I think it’s an outstanding opportunity.
What was your first reaction when you heard about the opening here?
I had told people before, friends and high school coaches in the South, if this job comes open one day, that would be a great place to start as a head football coach. A good friend who’s joining our staff, Rob Sale, is a Monroe native, played at Neville High and at LSU and worked in this state. We became good friends at Arizona State. When the job came open, he may have kicked me under the table at a staff meeting. In general, people know what this place is capable of. With him being very familiar with this state, we both had the common belief that this place could be an outstanding place not only to put together a great football team and a great program, but a great place to raise a family, a great place to settle in and have a great time. We’re looking forward to that, man. We’re right here at the beginning, and we’re going to roll our sleeves up and go to work.
From talking to (athletic director Bryan Maggard), you obviously did a lot of homework and went into your interview very well prepared.
I made several phone calls, about the facilities, the administration, the type of football team they had coming back, what were the issues, and are they correctable. And everywhere I went it was a yes, it was an open door. I really became intrigued after my first phone conversation with Dr. Maggard, and I started researching his background. He’s unique in that he’s been involved, he’s been behind the scenes, he understands the nuts and bolts of a major football program. That made it even more intriguing, because that’s rare. College football’s extremely competitive, and the advantages are within the inner workings to some degree, how you put together your operation and your organization, the work flow, the infrastructure, the recruiting strategy, the resources within the community and the teamwork that’s required. I think he’s got a great pulse for what’s required to be competitive. After that, all of the stories you hear about the people here, the presence, the culture, it’s true. It’s great to finally be here and be a part of that.
We’ve got what we need. That’s what you’re looking for if you’re the football coach. You’re looking for functionality, you’re looking for first impression. What I experienced is what young people and their families will experience. I’m going to put that away — my thoughts and my impressions of things we can do better — and focus right now on the positives. We’ve got a great first impression here. Certainly a lot of people went to bat and invested in the future here, and it’s evident. The administration will tell you that the stadium is the next step. Obviously, there’s some aesthetic things that we’re going to zero in and improve, but for the most part, Bryan is on top of that. He’s been here a short time, but he has a plan. In my mind, he thinks the way an athletic director ought to think. He’s got his football coach hired and he’s going to move on to the next phase.
How much did the opportunity to return to the South factor into your decision?
There’s something to that, but I’ll tell you, Arizona was a great place to live. We loved it there. I tell people all the time there’s a reason that people retire there. There’s a reason that pro athletes set up shop there for the off-season. We’ll go back and visit there. It’s that type of place. Coming here, it’s really about people and about leadership opportunity. For the same reason I went out there to be a coordinator again and take on that challenge, the same reason we’re making this move. It’s a leadership opportunity with quality people at a place I think we can have success.
You’re still assembling a full staff, and you’ve already got your offensive coordinator. But you’ve also said you’re going to be the play-caller. How is that going to work?
I will handle play-calling, and part of that is because I love to do it. I love the strategy that goes with that, and first and foremost I love the interaction with the players. Rob will be the coordinator, and we may end up with run game and pass game guys. We’ll decide that as we put the entire piece of the puzzle together. I’m going to design it, and we’re going to build it around the players that we have and the strengths we have. We did the same thing when we went to ASU. The key is not only the facilities, it’s the people that we fill this building up with — that’s dynamic coaches that are quality teachers, quality recruiters that have integrity and character, and then let’s go get us a big, fast, physical, talented productive team, football players that have great instincts and have the desire to be outstanding players.
You chose not to sign any players in the new early period. What was the thought process behind that decision?
I’d equate it to marrying a girl that you’ve never met before. I think it’s a huge level of commitment, and not only for me. I want our signees to feel comfortable about our staff, about me as a person. If I’ve got any substance at all to me, how can I allow a young man and his family to sign a piece of paper that commits basically their entire career to our staff if I’ve never met them, if I’ve never shook their hand and looked them in the eye? I just think it’s a little bit premature. If we’d had seven or 10 days to get out on the road, meet and greet, get a feel for these young men, it probably would have been different. We’re going to use the full 50 days from now until February to recruit and evaluate. We only need to sign 18 good football players in February, and we’re not going to have a problem there. We’re going to have a very specific plan in recruiting and in evaluation, and that’s going to start with a major emphasis right here in our back yard and in this state. This is a talent acquisition business, and I firmly believe our staff is going to be tireless in our efforts in this area.
How important was it to increase the pool for assistant coach salaries up to $2 million?
It changes the entire dynamic. As I researched the job, you do some digging and you find out what the salary pool is, and then you start thinking about what type of staff can you have with that amount of money, and how am I going to break that up. And then all of a sudden, the game is drastically changed. Now you open yourself up to a whole different group of people. You can get competitive. You can go get some guys that maybe can make a tremendous impact, that have quality experience, that have been exposed to some of the things that I’m going to be wanting to do as a program. It’s a big deal. We’re still going to have young, up-and-coming guys that we’ll give their first opportunity, guys that we’ve done our research on and that we believe in. There’s still going to be a niche for that, but we’re also going to be able to go get a handful of guys that have tremendous experience and that can make a tremendous impact on our team.
What’s the best way to describe your style of play and your coaching philosophy?
We’re going to start everything that we do concentrating on what we control. We’re going to be physical in our approach, we’re going to be in great condition, and we’re going to be known for how hard we play. We’re going to be disciplined in our approach, we’re going to eliminate careless play, turnovers and penalties and mental errors, and we’re going to be sound while still attacking in all three phases. We’re going to attack by scheme but we’re also going to attack with a relentless mindset. We want to be unique, we want to be fun to watch, we want you to come to that stadium and not know what you’re going to get every week. We want people thinking, what is he going to pull out of his back pocket next. We want to be a tough three-day prep for the opponent. Simply put, we want to be a team that other teams dread to play.
What is your impression of the Sun Belt Conference?
I know more than most about how it’s evolved. Some of the teams we’re going to compete against I played against as a player at Furman. Our rivals were Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, so it’s been neat for me to see the expansion, not only within this league but the other Group of 5 leagues throughout the country. It’s becoming more and more competitive. Certainly, what we’re doing here from a commitment standpoint is going to kind of set the bar. We’ll do a full summer scouting report on each team that we play. It’s critical that you get to know your opponent, that you know how they’ve had success, where they get their players, what their strategies are, so you can make the most of your preparation once you get into in-season mode.
I like that the Sun Belt’s starting a championship game this year. Having been in the SEC, the Pac-12, the ACC, and playing in some of these conference championship games, I think it’s a great opportunity for your players. It helps morale, and there’s a certain level of accomplishment that goes with winning your division and getting in that game and having an opportunity to play for a championship and getting closer and closer to that playoff format. I’m excited about the divisional approach and the championship game format, and I think our players will be excited as well.