Emmitt Smith, Steve Spurrier, UF president Ben Sasse, NAACP not helping embattled coach Billy Napier | Commentary

As if Billy Napier doesn’t have enough to worry about.

Not only does the embattled Florida Gators football coach have to deal with pitchfork-wielding fans who want him fired …

Not only does he have to figure out a way to complete an Everest-like climb to elevate his struggling program to a point where it can somehow compete with colossus SEC rival Georgia …

Not only does he have to try to navigate the toughest schedule in the country in 2024 …

But in recent weeks, he’s had to grapple with UF icon Steve Spurrier questioning the direction of his program, fellow Gators icon Emmitt Smith excoriating UF’s diversity policies, and the NAACP advising Black student-athletes to think twice about signing with programs in Florida.

Let’s start with Spurrier, UF’s most legendary sports figure, recently calling out Napier’s organizational acumen in an interview with Florida Times-Union columnist Gene Frenette.

“There’s a feeling around the Gators of ‘What the heck are we doing?’ ” Spurrier said. “ … There’s a lot of questions that I don’t have the answers to about organization. … Just because you hire the most people doesn’t mean you’re going to win. All these extra people, I question how much that really helps.

“Billy is a good guy who works his tail off,” Spurrier added. “I like Billy, good family man. But we do wish the organization was a little bit more tidy.”

Nobody should be surprised that the tell-it-like-it-is Head Ball Coach gave an honest opinion when asked about Napier’s bloated support staff, but it’s certainly not the type of criticism Napier needs at this point. Besides, bloated support staffs are all the rage now in college football, where multi-million-dollar head coaches have been given a blank check to hire an army of assistants, analysts and quality-control personnel. Coming soon: Napier gets the green light to hire a cleat-cleaning specialist, a high-five consultant, a coffee-making coordinator and a director of cream-and-sugar dispersal.

However, Spurrier’s comments were tame and relatively harmless compared to a much more harsh criticism leveled by Smith and the NAACP, which all but told Black athletes to steer clear of the Gators (and all other state public universities).

The reason I put “and all other state public universities” in parentheses is because UF has seemingly become the sole flag bearer for a new state law championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that forced state universities to shut down their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs. The legislation is part of DeSantis’ agenda aimed at eliminating “woke” policies in education, including critical race theory and DEI.

No matter where you sit politically on this issue, there’s no question it’s a prickly issue athletically considering the majority of college football and basketball players are Black. The problem for the Gators is the narrative that UF president Ben Sasse, a former Republican senator from Nebraska and a DeSantis ally, gleefully eliminated UF’s DEI program while other state schools like UCF and FSU have done so discreetly.

UF announced in a recent memo that the school had eliminated its chief diversity officer position and terminated 13 staff jobs and 15 administrative appointments. Shortly after UF’s decision was made public, DeSantis bragged on Twitter: “Florida is where DEI goes to die …”

In the aftermath, Smith — UF’s legendary running back, Pro Football Hall of Famer and the NFL’s all-time leading rusher — released a lengthy and emphatic rebuke of his alma mater.

“I’m utterly disgusted by UF’s decision,” Smith wrote. “… Instead of showing courage and leadership, we continue to fail based on systemic issues. With this decision, UF has conformed to the political pressures of today’s time. … To the MANY minority athletes at UF, please be aware and vocal about this decision by the University who is now closing the doors on other minorities without any oversight. And to those who think it’s not your problem and stay on the sidelines and say nothing, you are complicit in supporting systemic issues.”

The NAACP followed up by sending a letter to NCAA president Charlie Baker urging Black student-athletes to reconsider attending public universities in Florida. In addition, NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson released a statement in which he said, “Florida’s rampant anti-Black policies are a direct threat to the advancement of our young people and their ability to compete in a global economy. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are paramount [to] ensuring equitable and effective educational outcomes. The value Black and other college athletes bring to large universities is unmatched. If these institutions are unable to completely invest in those athletes, it’s time they take their talents elsewhere.”

It seems far-fetched to think the elimination of university DEI offices will lessen the commitment that state universities have to Black athletes but, still, the strongly worded NAACP letter and Smith’s denunciation of UF certainly could impact Napier’s ability to successfully recruit.

Question: Are Sasse and UF more concerned about showing political support for DeSantis than athletic support for Napier?

In contrast, FSU and UCF have handled this politically and racially charged issue much more subtly.

For instance, FSU confirmed to the Tallahassee Democrat earlier this week that it, too, had shut down its DEI program, but said no program administrators or employees lost their jobs. According to the Democrat, FSU disbanded its DEI department “mainly by changing title names and reclassifying positions of employees who were already working in DEI to give them different roles.”

UCF, too, has quietly gone about abiding by the new state law without anybody really even knowing about it. When contacted earlier this week UCF acknowledged that “programs and expenditures not permitted under the law have been discontinued, and for example, we no longer have a Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. A refocused unit, Access and Community Engagement, provides programming while also continuing our efforts to support non-traditional student populations such as first-generation college students, military and veteran students, students with disabilities and varied abilities, and students with limited resources.”

Translation: UCF football coach Gus Malzahn and FSU football coach Mike Norvell aren’t having to deal with the sea of criticism aimed at UF.

As this storm of political and racial scrutiny brews around the Gators, it sure seems like the challenges facing their football program extend far beyond the playing field.

As if Billy Napier doesn’t have enough to worry about.

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