New Florida football coach Billy Napier looks to rebuild the Gators into a championship contender

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Joshua Thompson walks across the street from his office inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium earlier this year, puts on a hardhat and begins a tour of the future home of Florida football. He has recently been hired as new coach Billy Napier's director of football operations, and he's impressed by the bones of the 140,000-square foot facility, even though it was designed with the previous staff in mind.

The outside is covered in warm brick, the inside spacious and modern. The weight room connecting to the indoor practice facility is a nice touch.

Whoever oversaw the project before did a good job, Thompson thinks. But now it has to be modified to fit his boss' vision of what a modern powerhouse should be, as opposed to what the once-former-power Florida has become, more than a decade and four head coaches removed from its last SEC championship.

To that aim, Napier has been busy assembling an army of support staff, building upon a blueprint he witnessed first hand as an assistant at Clemson and Alabama and then made his own as a first-time head coach at Louisiana. Granted, the budget was much leaner at the Group of 5 level, but the return on investment was clear: a 40-12 record and two Sun Belt championships in four seasons.

With more money and more resources, the possibilities at Florida are endless. Walking the halls of the new facility, Thompson is already imagining recruiting visits and the ideal workflow of staff and players. Change orders are inevitable. The weight room needs a separate warm-up area, and the recruiting department needs more space for personnel and photo shoots. If it takes cutting into fresh concrete and digging out electrical components to make it happen, then it will be worth the added expense.

Moving upstairs, Thompson eyes an area near the coaches' offices. It's big -- roughly 3,500 square feet -- but its purpose isn't obvious. An architect explains that it's unplanned space "for future expansion."

Thompson doesn't miss a beat.

"Well," he responds, "the future is now."

An afternoon practice in April offers a first glimpse at the team Napier has put together since he was hired in December. Beyond the typical 10 assistant coaches barking orders over the squeal of power tools next door, there are graduate assistants for offense, defense and special teams, plus four analysts, 10 quality control coaches, a "GameChanger Coordinator" who works with specialists, a strength coach, a speed coach, a performance coach and a team of photographers and videographers whose work fuels a vast recruiting operation.

Instead of one full-time dietician, there are three. There's an assistant athletic director for recruiting strategy, a director of player personnel, a director of college personnel, a director of research, a director of player athletic development, a director of student-athlete development, a director of recruiting development, a director of player relations and a director of player engagement and NIL.

It's ... a lot. There are three associate directors and eight assistants sprinkled throughout the team's online staff directory, which includes 64 non-coaches and is nearly twice the size of rival Florida State's.

And while that much personnel might seem excessive, it can be rationalized within the context of modern college football. When Nick Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, he kicked off an arms race by hiring a large support staff to aid coaches in game preparation, recruiting and development. Initially, there were claims of it creating an unfair advantage -- the Knight Commission recommended capping staff sizes and an NCAA cabinet proposed limiting support personnel -- but ultimately nothing substantial was done. Saban won six championships, a precedent was set and almost every top program followed suit.

Almost. When Napier, a former Saban assistant, considered leaving Louisiana late last season, he studied Florida's infrastructure and saw it needed to grow by not one or two hires. As part of negotiations, he sought guarantees for double-digit new positions and had it written into his contract that $5 million would be allocated for support staff. (A total of 21 non-coaching positions were added.)

During interviews, UF athletic director Scott Stricklin asked Napier, "What does this all look like?" So Napier handed him an org chart.

Stricklin was impressed as he listened to Napier talk through reporting responsibilities. Stricklin had expected to spend a good chunk of time discussing the new facility, but Napier didn't need the hard sell.

"It's a 10-second conversation about an $85 million facility," Stricklin recalls. "He'd obviously done his homework. He knew what our challenges have been in the past and had some ideas of how to address them."

Stricklin declines to say exactly what those challenges were.

"The people that compete with us know what they are," he adds.

Beefing up an undersized support staff was only part of the solution, as was the facility that's late to the party with every SEC program other than Vanderbilt having finished major construction projects in recent years (not including remodels).

There was only so much former coach Dan Mullen could have done to make up for those systemic deficiencies, but he contributed to his own demise when he allowed the wheels to come off last season with a sub-.500 record and the team's lowest-ever finish in the SEC East (sixth).

Further highlighting the program's shortcomings was the ascent of division rival Georgia, which recruited laps around Florida and handed the Gators an embarrassing 27-point loss last season on the way to its first national championship under head coach and former Saban assistant Kirby Smart.

Stricklin decided a $12 million buyout was worth it and fired Mullen on a Sunday in November. By Tuesday night, he was sitting in Napier's living room talking about infrastructure. A few hours later, he told Napier to expect a formal offer soon.

Stricklin and his team made roughly 30 calls in the course of their due diligence, including a conversation with Napier's high school academic counselor. But there's one piece of feedback that stuck with Stricklin, invoking the top two programs of the College Football Playoff era and reinforcing his belief that Napier was capable of bringing Florida up to their level: He's got the Alabama football structure with the Clemson culture.

Vernell Brown was a cornerback and team captain who helped establish Florida as a championship-caliber program under Urban Meyer in the 2000s. He returned as director of student-athlete development in 2018 and was promoted to senior director of player development and alumni relations by Napier in January.

"[Napier's] program is a lot of discipline and a lot of structure," Brown says. "Not knocking the previous regime, but he does run it differently. From where we were as a program ... radical changes were needed."


"I mean, it's different," Brown says. "It's absolutely different."'

The buzz of electric saws picks back up the following morning. The earthy smell of wet drywall compound screams progress, which has been a long time coming.

Members of Napier's staff say they were surprised by how outdated the setup was once they got to campus and saw the old offices inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Picture overly rich wood tones and cinder blocks. Cramped meeting rooms and a lack of modern amenities made coaches feel like a return to the early 2000s.

They weren't supposed to be the ones to inherit the new facility, but they'll gladly take it.

Fourteen months ago, it was Mullen who wore a hardhat and stood in front of a group of reporters as the final steel beam was laid in place. A week earlier, he'd signed a three-year contract extension making him the fifth-highest-paid coach in college football.

Those two events told the story of a bright future. Florida had won the East, and quarterback Kyle Trask had been a Heisman Trophy finalist. A decadelong streak without an offensive skill player being selected in the first round of the NFL draft ended when Kyle Pitts became the highest-drafted tight end in history. Mullen's record at the time: 29-9.

But issues beneath the surface told a different story. While three consecutive top-10 recruiting classes looked good on paper, they did little to obscure the fact that each year Florida had finished behind its top competition in the SEC of Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M.

What's more, administrators were irked by Mullen's behavior during the 2020 season -- how he said the crowd was a "major factor" in an October loss at Texas A&M and then called on UF to "pack the Swamp" despite COVID-19 restrictions; how he got into a shouting match with Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz during a game on Halloween and wore a Darth Vader costume to the postgame news conference; how dismissive he was of a 35-point loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, using opt outs and injuries as an excuse.

Stricklin knew all about Mullen's abrasive tendencies. He worked with him for eight years at Mississippi State and brought him to Florida. But if Stricklin expected Mullen to grow into a more high-profile job -- to become more diplomatic and take recruiting more seriously -- then he was disappointed before the reckoning of last season began.

Last summer, Mullen stood by defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, despite fans calling for his replacement, and he built up Emory Jones -- the first quarterback he'd signed at Florida -- as Trask's successor, going so far as to compare him to Lamar Jackson.

But the defense offered more of the same mistakes and Jones wasn't able to meet expectations. Despite Jones throwing four interceptions in his first two games and despite the emergence of freshman QB Anthony Richardson, who scored four touchdowns in limited action during that time, Mullen balked at the suggestion that he ought to make a change. Instead, he got testy with reporters, saying, "Why don't you ask who the starting running back is?"

A Week 5 loss at Kentucky in which the offense managed only one touchdown was the first sign of trouble, and three straight losses to LSU, Georgia and South Carolina confirmed it. Sources say accountability was lacking and that as soon as the losses piled up, players checked out. Two weeks later, after an overtime loss at Missouri that dropped the Gators to 5-6, Mullen was shown the door. A source described the players as "scarred" by the turbulent season -- and eager for a change.

When Napier was hired in December, he took meetings with players as they prepared for the Gasparilla Bowl under interim coach Greg Knox. He listened as they vented about an underwhelming nutrition program, a lack of parking and how they had to walk to and from practice in the thick Florida heat.

Hiring a team of dietitians would solve the first of those problems. And while Napier could have easily pointed to the new facility as the eventual solution for the last two, he instead spoke to campus administrators about freeing up parking spots and buses for practice.

Once they arrived at the practice fields, it would be all business, however. The tone and urgency of workouts this spring has been noticeably different compared to Mullen -- faster paced, more organized and more demanding. All those extra coaches Napier hired means more reps for players and more sets of eyes ready to catch mistakes.

The biggest change, according to sixth-year senior linebacker Ventrell Miller, is the focus on discipline. Last season they beat themselves too often, Miller says, and it "lit a flame under everybody."

"We got the feeling of losing now," he adds, "and we don't ever want to go back there."

Napier has liked the buy-in from players so far, but he knows there's still a long way to go.

"One of the reasons we've caught traction with the players is we've really focused on making sure that they have the absolute best in terms of their opportunity to develop as a person, as a student, as a football player and the efficiency with their time," Napier says. "We have the infrastructure to do that -- to provide them with a level of detail and support with the number of relationships, the connections. I think it all adds up."

Napier sits behind his desk and rubs the stubble on his chin. People give him a hard time about all the gray hair he had before his 42nd birthday, he says. They assume it's because he's stressed, but he insists that's not true.

"Coming here is the least stressful job I've had," he says. "Because I can fix everything that I think needs to be addressed."

It's not about having total control, he explains. It's about the feeling of total creative freedom that Florida offers.

"If you want to do something," he says, "do it."

He attributes his salt-and-pepper beard to raising three young children. While the job has its challenges -- the roster lacks quality depth at several key positions -- the feeling of building a program from the ground up is something he has craved for a while.

One could argue he has been planning this for more than a decade, going all the way back to when Dabo Swinney fired him as Clemson's offensive coordinator following the 2010 season and he got a call from Saban about a job on his support staff. He was an analyst at Alabama for one season, left for one season to coach quarterbacks at Colorado State and returned to Tuscaloosa where he coached receivers for four more seasons.

Going behind the curtain and studying what Saban built taught him three valuable lessons about a large and well-structured staff, he says: the "compound effect of well-defined roles" and how it leads to efficiency in all areas of the organization; how that efficiency and ability to delegate tasks to lower-level staff frees up coaches to have a better work-life balance, which improves performance; and how a large staff helps manage attrition among assistant coaches by either providing a pool of internal candidates or by supporting outside hires as they get up to speed.

At Louisiana, Napier created what he called "Bama on a budget" by hiring a similar number of support staff positions but at a heavily discounted rate -- and sometimes with no pay at all, relying on volunteers. After a 7-7 debut season, the Ragin' Cajuns won 10 games or more each year.

When COVID-19 forced coaches and players into isolation in early 2020, Napier dug even deeper into infrastructure, studying other football programs for hints at how to maximize efficiency.

"What does that org chart look like relative to creative media, nutrition, athletic training, sports science, personnel, on-campus recruiting?" he says. "What is the private plane charter access? What does the competition have for recruiting and professional development?"

He compared salary pools and contractual obligations, which put him in position, he says, to have "a thorough understanding of what's required to be competitive."

So by the time he sat down with Stricklin, he didn't have many questions.

"We knew what we wanted," Napier says.

And now that he has it? Now that he has graduated from Saban's coaching clinic, finished his on-the-job training at Louisiana and been given all the resources he could dream of at Florida? His reward is competing in the cutthroat SEC and trying to catch up with Georgia in the East.

Assistant athletic director of recruiting strategy Katie Turner first met Napier as a student assistant at Alabama and helped spearhead recruiting for him at Louisiana before leaving for Georgia following the 2019 season. She spent the past two years helping the Bulldogs stockpile 31 ESPN 300 recruits. Florida had 16 during that span.

"We can definitely do it here, too," Turner says before adding, "it will take some time."

But time isn't a luxury in Gainesville.

Never mind that the offensive line is woefully thin, they're in desperate need of difference-makers at receiver and the defense cannot possibly be fixed overnight. Napier and his army of coaches are supposed to solve all that yesterday. Richardson steps in at quarterback with exactly one career start under his belt and already he has a spot in the first round of Mel Kiper's latest mock draft.

The promise of the recruiting trail has offered mixed results so far. Getting commitments from eight ESPN 300 prospects, including No. 1-ranked center Knijeah Harris and No. 7-ranked running back Treyaun Webb, is a solid start. But losing in-state targets quarterback Jaden Rashada to Miami and guard Roderick Kearney to Florida State on the same day last month was a brutal body blow.

Over Napier's right shoulder, on a table directly behind his office, sits a cluster of Bowl Championship Series trophies -- a manifestation of Florida's expectations and how long it has been since they were realized.

"It's good," Napier says, glancing at the hardware. "It's a reminder that it's been done before and you can do it again. I mean, it's one of the reasons why we're here. I don't want to coach anywhere where they don't have expectations to win. I think everybody wants to use the word pressure, but to me, I see opportunity."

He says it's all about staying focused on each step and being "less consumed with the destination."

Then he pauses.

"I know we got a lot of work to do," he says. "A lot of work."

Thompson pockets his phone, but the smartwatch on his wrist almost never fades to black during a roughly hourlong conversation. As Napier's right-hand man, he helps to oversee the staff, so the email and text notifications are constant.

There will be a scrimmage later, and Thompson is triple-checking the details.

"The fortune is in the follow-up," he says.

Welcome to the new era of Florida football, which aims to operate and produce results worthy of a Fortune 500 company. Hires aren't simply welcomed. They go through what Thompson calls an "onboarding" process in which Napier spells out specific job responsibilities. And everything, from the spring practice schedule to recruiting events, goes through a rigorous quality control process in which the head coach and department heads elicit feedback about what works and what doesn't.

Thompson says Napier didn't flood the zone with new staff at random, though. Take the nutrition program, which Thompson claims is now the largest in college football. Having three full-time dietitians allows for separate dietitians in charge of offensive and defensive personnel, and frees up lead director of sports nutrition Kelsee Gomes to oversee everything, plus specialists and players with high-priority needs.

The buffet line is no longer a free-for-all, Thompson says, with players sneaking an extra piece of bacon because they think no one's looking.

"All of that translates to the weight room and all of that translates to the playing field," he says. "If the gasoline isn't premium going into that vehicle, it's not going to run the way it needs to run."

Speaking of running, what's the deal with hiring a speed coach?

"Well," Thompson says, "we have two speed coaches."

Tiger Jones has the fancy title of director of speed improvement and skill development, but Edward Thompson, one of three strength and conditioning assistants, is a certified speed specialist by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.

Specialization is the name of the game with training sessions grouped by players' body type and skill set.

"We have someone specifically for the DBs, which is separate from the wide receivers, because one is going forward all the time and the other is going backwards all the time," Thompson says. "Both running, but a receiver doesn't have to flip his hips."

In addition to teaching proper lifting technique, director of player athletic development Joe Danos oversees modified lifts for players recovering from injury. He's currently conducting a teamwide sleep study because, in the words of Thompson, "If you're not sleeping, you're not recovering."

Thompson doesn't want to give away what director of research Andrew Burkett is cooking up -- "He's his own [Pro Football Focus] of high school football," he says -- but the fact that there's someone devoted entirely to research speaks to the level of intentionality Napier brought to Florida.

And this is where the Clemson culture comparison comes into focus. Because Napier isn't some detached CEO, Thompson says. He's the son of a longtime high school football coach. He's intentional and hands-on and, compared to Saban, much more personable. A former Alabama assistant said it was clear that Napier "pulled from everywhere he's been."

It might seem like a small thing, but there's a reason student assistants wear name tags at practice.

Thompson says Napier made a point of knowing everyone's name at Louisiana, and if he doesn't know everyone at Florida yet, "He's turning to his right. 'Who's that, Josh?'"

"[Napier] said it and I agree with him: It's like if your kid was working a job and the CEO comes through and says, 'Hey, kid, can you take care of A, B and C?'" Thompson says. "No, that kid has a name. That's someone's child. So let's know who they are."

The way Napier embraces structure with intimacy sets him apart among coaches, Stricklin says, and it's why he believes Napier's ceiling is "incredibly high."

Stricklin has noticed a good reaction from fans thus far.

"Now, he's yet to call a third-down play," Stricklin says. "At the end of the day, fans are going to focus on the results."

The wind howls through Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during the second scrimmage of the spring, but Napier's voice easily cuts through the noise. His placid demeanor has vanished as he lights into his team about undisciplined penalties. Mental mistakes can't happen here, he shouts, ordering extra sprints.

A few minutes later, players head for the locker room and a handful of recruits come onto the field to chat with coaches.

Offensive line coach Rob Sale steps away and sits down on the home team's sideline. He says Napier understands that recruiting is the lifeblood of a football program. And when it comes to the ability to listen and connect with prospects, Sale said, "That guy's got it. He's special."

Sale first crossed paths with Napier when he was an assistant strength coach at Alabama and went to work for him as O-line coach at Louisiana for three years before spending last season in the NFL with the New York Giants.

While he's not thrilled with the way the scrimmage went, either, he's not panicked. He says it's not dissimilar to the learning curve they experienced at Louisiana.

Getting an operation of this size off the ground is difficult.

"We're all in this spiderweb," Sale says.

Right now, they're still working out the connections. Every position coach has either a quality control coach or graduate assistant working for them. Then there are the analysts studying upcoming opponents and the personnel department evaluating potential recruits and organizing visits.

Coaches have to learn to delegate. Players have to learn a new system. When both sides get in a routine, Sale says, "The process is nothing but better and better and better."

"He wasn't about to take a job where he knew he wouldn't be successful," Sale says of Napier. "He's seen it done at Alabama, so he knows what it takes. You just got to give him resources and he'll get it done."

Stricklin and UF have done that. The team will move in to the facility on Saturday and can finally stop living in the past.

With a rich tradition and recruiting footprint, there are no more excuses.

"Florida is a very capable place," Napier says. "It's done it before. There's potential here, right? We've got to get that potential to perform."