Billy Napier hired by Florida, ending thrilling era of Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns football

Billy Napier's four-season run as football coach of the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns is done.

Napier, 42, was hired by Florida on Sunday. The Gators fired Dan Mullen on Nov. 21.

“I’m extremely grateful to everyone associated with the University of Louisiana," Napier said in a statement released by UL.

"We set out to build a program that would make this University, Acadiana and Louisiana proud. There are so many people and players who have been a part of our (journey) over the last four years, and the success we achieved is a direct reflection of them. Their belief, commitment, and hard work made this possible. … This is a special place, and I’m so fortunate to have been the Head Football Coach at Louisiana – my time here truly made me better in every way."

The Cajuns were 39-12 in four seasons under Napier and never had a losing season. UL became bowl-eligible four straight times, won four straight Sun Belt West Division titles and qualified for four straight Sun Belt championship games — including Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, ESPN) against Appalachian State at Cajun Field.

Napier will coach the Cajuns in the game, a team spokesman said.

No. 21 UL (11-1, 8-0 Sun Belt) has won 11 straight games since a season-opening loss at Texas.

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Napier, whose .765 winning percentage was the best in modern program history, becomes the first coach to leave UL for another FBS head coaching job, and he will be the first coach to lead another FBS program any time after leaving UL.

“I could not be happier for and more proud of Billy Napier as he begins his next chapter of coaching at the University of Florida," UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said in a statement released by the school.

"I want to personally thank him, our student-athletes, and staff for the unprecedented body of work they accomplished these past four years. I know I speak for all of Cajun Nation in wishing Billy, (wife) Ali, and the kids great success moving forward. Our efforts will soon turn to identifying the next head coach for our nationally-ranked football program.”

Head Coach Billy Napier as the Ragin Cajuns take on the University of Texas at Austin for thier season opener Saturday, September 4, 2021.
Head Coach Billy Napier as the Ragin Cajuns take on the University of Texas at Austin for thier season opener Saturday, September 4, 2021.

Napier brings a strong resume to the SEC after serving as Dabo Swinney's offensive coordinator at Clemson and Nick Saban's wide receivers coach at Alabama. He also was the offensive coordinator at Arizona State before being hired to coach the Ragin' Cajuns when Mark Hudspeth was fired after the 2017 season.

"I've followed and studied Billy Napier's career with interest, and he became the primary target immediately after this position came open," Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said in a school release. "We felt confident he would be an excellent leader for the Gators, which is why he was the only candidate I met with about the job.

"Billy's ability to bring highly-talented people together — players, coaches, and staff — along with his vision for having a strong, relationship-based culture is what made him such an attractive choice. Add in how detailed his plan is for player development, staffing and recruiting, along with a sustained desire to improve, and it's easy to see why he's been successful."

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Napier, a former Furman quarterback whose late father, Bill Napier, was a longtime Georgia high school football coach, had other chances to leave UL. He turned down an offer from Mississippi State after the 2019 season and also had opportunities at South Carolina and Auburn after the 2020 season.

Napier's contract with UL ran through December 2025 and contained a $3 million buyout for leaving before December 2021. The buyout would have dropped to $2 million had he left in 2022 or 2023.

Napier decided to stay at UL in 2021 because UL returned all but two starters in 2021 and because of the synergy he had with UL athletics director Bryan Maggard and university president Joseph Savoie. Napier had a generous spending budget for program resources, including $3.77 million for assistant coaches and staffers, and UL raised his salary from about $1 million to about $2 million in 2021.

Taking time to smoke a postgame victory cigar and celebrate, Napier took more than 45 minutes to speak with media members following UL's 21-16 regular season-ending win over UL Monroe on Saturday night at Cajun Field.

The 11-game streak is the longest in school history. The 11 wins tie the school record UL set when it went 11-3 in 2019. And the 8-0 conference record marks the first time the Cajuns have gone undefeated in Sun Belt play.

What awaits as Napier departs is UL’s third Sun Belt title game meeting with App State in four years. The Cajuns lost the first two, in 2018 and 2019, both in Boone, North Carolina. They were to have faced host Coastal Carolina in the 2020 championship, but it was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Chanticleers’ program.

UL built its 2021 season around one more shot to win it all, knowing several key pieces – Napier chief among them – could, or will, be gone in 2022.

Starting quarterback Levi Lewis, a super senior, was among 19 Cajuns who took part in pregame senior day festivities, indicating they don't plan to return. But before they go their separate ways, work remains for Napier's final UL team.

"It hasn't been difficult," safety Kam Pedescleaux said of dealing with reports about Napier. "I feel like as a team we don't really focus on those outside things.

"We hear things about it. But as a team we stay together. We know that this group is special, and we just want to go bring those seniors out with a win, and a championship to Lafayette. That's all we want to do: Bring a championship to Lafayette."

This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Florida football hires Billy Napier, ending Ragin' Cajuns tenure