Billy Napier admits to being a little torn when he thinks about this year’s Allstate Sugar Bowl.
It’s understandable, because Louisiana-Lafayette’s new head football coach sits in a unique position among the nation’s 130 FBS head coaches. When Napier was hired by the Ragin’ Cajuns in mid-December, he became the only man in that group to have worked for both Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney as a full-time assistant.
When those two coaches and those two teams meet in the Jan. 1 College Football Playoff semifinals at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Napier will be more than a casual observer.
In fact, he said that no matter what his frantic schedule of rebuilding the UL-Lafayette program is, he’ll be watching.
“I’m excited to watch them play right here in our back yard,” Napier said. “I might have to find a way to get to that game.”
If he does, he’ll see a lot of familiar faces, because it’s not like either Clemson or Alabama was a quick stop on his résumé. In fact, he spent a combined 12 years in the two programs … a significant period for a 38-year-old coach who now is among the country’s youngest head coaches.
Those stretches gave him a “playbook,” a high-level model to follow, and one he’s already incorporating into the Cajuns program.
“Certainly, we’re all a product of the experiences we’ve had, and the people we’ve been exposed to,” Napier said. “I’ve been blessed that those men and others — Tommy Bowden, Jim McElwain, Todd Graham, Buddy Pugh — have been good to me.
“All of them are different, all have strengths, all have weaknesses truth be known. There’s things I will take from each one of those experiences to put together my approach and how we’ll run our program.”
The term “osmosis” is defined as “the process of gradual assimilation of ideas and knowledge.” Since 12 of his 15 years of coaching have been spent in the same buildings with Saban and Swinney, much of Napier’s approach likely comes from that close contact.
Napier took a graduate assistant position at Clemson immediately after graduating and finishing his standout playing career as a quarterback at Furman, joining the Tigers in 2003. That was the same year Swinney returned to coaching after two years in real estate and took over as Clemson’s wide receivers coach. Napier was a GA for two years, and after one year at South Carolina State he returned to the Tigers as tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator.
When the interim tag was lifted from Swinney and he became Clemson’s head coach just before the Gator Bowl at the end of 2008, he made Napier the nation’s youngest offensive coordinator and the youngest in Clemson history at age 29.
That two-year run ended when the Tigers went 6-7 in 2010 and Napier became an offensive analyst at Alabama under Saban and was part of the Crimson Tide’s BCS national championship season. After Napier spent one year as assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach at Colorado State, Saban brought Napier back to Alabama as wide receivers coach, a position he held for four seasons before becoming offensive coordinator at Arizona State last January.
Napier said that, public personas aside, there are few differences in the way Saban and Swinney have set up the nation’s two most successful collegiate programs this decade.
“The commonality is, they run their program with a set of principles and values,” he said. “They’re very process-oriented. Every player knows that while you’re in the program, we’re going to invest in you, we’re going to have a plan for you as a player, as a student, as a person. And you’re going to benefit from your time here.
“There’s something to be said for that. When a young man sees that level of commitment while in the program, I think they play harder for you. I think they realize what you’re trying to accomplish for them and they realize that there’s a big picture planned for them as people. You get a better product at the end.”
“Better product” is an understatement. Since 2011, Swinney has led Clemson to an 82-14 record including last January’s national title. In that same time, Saban’s Alabama squad is 87-9 with three national titles, and the Tide was one second away from a fourth crown before Deshaun Watson’s final-play touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow gave Clemson a 35-31 win over Alabama in last year’s title game in Tampa, Florida.
It was only a couple of weeks after that game that Napier left Alabama for Arizona State, having filled notebooks and files with a “how to” guide to successful programs.
“They’ve both put their organizations together with great infrastructure,” Napier said. “They’ve got an army of people with well defined roles, crystal-clear expectations, and they’ve hired talented coaches that understand the value of recruiting. They’ve got a process to go and compete in recruiting, and I’ll tell you, all the plays that I can draw up, they’re all a lot better when the players are bigger, faster and smarter.”
Although Napier said the coaching lessons he learned from both Saban and Swinney are ones he treasures, given that he and Swinney are much closer in age (Swinney just turned 48, Saban was 66 on his last Halloween birthday), it’s only human nature he may see Saban more in an educator role.
“Coach Saban, in my opinion, is a tremendous teacher,” Napier said. “Oftentimes, the biggest thing you can do with a player is the work that you do once they arrive. You have to sort of make them forget, tell them, 'Yeah, you’re a talented guy, but forget about that. It’s not about the ability any more. It’s going to be your focus, your self-discipline, your work ethic, what type of competitor you are, how you respond to adversity, the resiliency you show through the ups and downs of your career.'
“You can get talented individuals, but it’s all about maximizing each one of those 85 and those 40 walk-ons, getting them to play better than they’re capable of playing because of what you have going on inside that building. That’s what those two can do.”
Given that Napier is the son of a long-time high school football coach, he points at similar backgrounds as part of the reason for their success.
“Their leadership styles are different, obviously,” he said. “They’re totally different in some regards. But they understand the value of people. They understand that this profession is all about impacting people. You look at coach Saban’s life. His dad made a tremendous impact in the community he grew up in through football. There’s men in Dabo’s life that just poured into him that were football coaches. They went that direction as a direct result of what the game did for them as young people.
“Both are relentless competitors, both go out and recruit with the best of them, both have a great year-round plan for development, both understand principles and values and the intangibles that you want your team to play with. That’s why they’re consistently on top.”