When the UL Ragin' Cajuns announced Billy Napier as their new coach a week before Christmas 2017, there was a tall pile of selling points and plenty of question marks.
As Napier is set to begin practice for his second season Friday, the Chatsworth, Georgia, native was pleased with the results from year one.
On the field, Napier was billed as a disciplinarian who had worked under Nick Saban with a history of producing in the game’s clutch moments. In his first season with the Cajuns, UL finished in the top five in the Sun Belt Conference in red-zone offense, third-down conversions, turnover margin and penalties.
Throughout the offseason, there wasn’t any position UL football coach Billy Napier seemed more up in the air about than defensive line.
Meanwhile, the one credential Napier lacked was head coaching experience at any level. With a year under his belt, Napier understands more than ever the significance of his new position.
“Some of the things you think you understand that you don’t really understand,” said Napier, who acknowledged he’s doing a better job of managing his time and teaching in his second year as a head coach. “You really start to value people that can do a great job — people who can take ownership and you can cut loose and allow them to really work. I think you start to realize the magnitude of the number of people who affect and impact.
“I would equate it to when you’re an assistant or a coordinator, you’re sitting around waiting on direction. Once you get direction, you go to work on it. When you’re the head coach, you’re sitting around thinking, ‘Alright, what direction am I going to give?’ … so it’s a much more big-picture approach.”
Every time the subject of UL’s quarterback position for the 2019 season comes up, I hesitate.
On the flip side, Napier had recruited Louisiana before, but had never lived anywhere near Cajun Country and had previously worked at Power Five conference programs such as Alabama, Clemson and Arizona State.
After going 7-7 in his first season, Napier said he’s more convinced than ever that he made the right choice to leave the desert for the bayou.
“I’ve got more conviction than I’ve ever had,” said Napier, who will begin August drills a week after turning 40. “I’m having more fun right now coaching than I’ve ever had in my career. A lot of that has to do with the people here, the quality of life here for my family, the staff I work with every day, and I like our group of players. I like the rookies we’ve signed. And we were able to keep the majority of our staff here, so I’m excited about what we’ve got going.
Growing up as a son of a legendary high school coach in Georgia, Napier is certainly in his element.
Football programs have carried the heaviest burden for athletic departments for decades.
“This is what I dreamed of doing growing up,” Napier said. “I never thought it would be in college. I thought it would be like my dad doing high school, but I’m having a blast. We’ve got really good people.”
And Napier's certainly made a good impression in his first season. A one-year contract extension is already being discussed because — according to the terms of his initial contract — UL athletic director Dr. Bryan Maggard determined Napier "met all annual performance targets after an annual evaluation."
Part of that initial success for Napier and his staff was defining terms.
“They know we’re going to be consistent and fair in our accountability,” Napier said. “I think that’s the most important thing we can do as coaches. You’ve got to be consistent and fair, define expectations and then then hold them accountable. I think we’ve done that, even if we’ve had a little attrition here or there. That’s part of building a culture.
“You want them to become comfortable in how we do things. There’s no gray area in terms of what it expected of them. In year two, that’s probably where we’re at, and I think the coaches are included in that. I think they have to know that you’re going to hold them accountable.”
As the 2018 football season unfolded, UL fans learned a great deal about the offensive play-calling side of new coach Billy Napier.
For running back Ashton Johnson, getting a good read on Napier’s character was almost immediate.
“For me, it didn’t very long at all,” Johnson said. “Once I find out someone is genuine and they actually care about you as a person outside of football, I’d bought in. I told coach Napier in my first interview with him, ‘I can tell you’re a real genuine guy. I’m the same way. I’m going to give you all I’ve got.’ ”
Junior quarterback Levi Lewis said he appreciates Napier’s strong motivational approach.
“Coach Nape gives you nothing,” Lewis said. “It’s never easy. It’s always a competitive environment. He drives the best out of you every day, so just imagine how that is.”
Assistant coach Lamar Morgan has certainly been impressed with his new boss in his first season on the staff.
Being excited about an upcoming football season is nothing new for any college athlete, especially two who are expected to be team leaders in …
“I try to learn something every day,” Morgan said. “Coach Napier is brilliant. He can tell you every position on offense and defense.”
Still, while the Cajuns showed positive strides down the stretch, Napier understands building a program requires many baby steps.
“It’s not an overnight transition when you start putting together a football program,” Napier said. “It takes time. There is no quick fix, no magic potion, no magic pill. You can’t put a football team in a microwave and heat them up. You’ve got to do the work and make a commitment even when you don’t necessary see the immediate returns. Consistency is the key.”
But while Napier, his boss and many of his fans were encouraged by his first season, the dreams of the former Furman quarterback are much bigger than a break-even season and ranking outside the top three in the league in home attendance.
“One of the reasons why I took this job, while I was recruiting the state (in previous assistant coach jobs), I always kept up with the Cajuns,” Napier said. “When you’ve got your own contingency, your own little fan base, that’s what can make this place special. My goal is develop a consistent championship contender, a team that does things with class.
“We want to fill this place up and make some noise in this state. I think we’re very capable of doing that. We can do that … one day at a time, one person at a time. Really working hard to improve to relationships and prove we mean business.”