First-year Florida head football coach Billy Napier won’t have to wait long to see what life in the SEC is really like, as his Gators open the 2022 season at home against No. 7 Utah on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET. They follow that up in Week 2 by hosting No. 20 Kentucky on Sept. 10.
Napier, who was hired at the end of last season following three consecutive seasons with double-digit wins at Louisiana, will have barely gotten his feet wet in Gainesville before some of the best teams in the nation roll into town. But instead of being overwhelmed by the challenge, he knows it’ll come down to a few simple yet crucial factors.
“Execution is ultimately what’s going to decide the game. Anything that doesn’t contribute to that I think can be a distraction this time of year,” he said in a press conference on Monday. “We try to map it out for [the players]. I think it takes self-discipline and focus and keeping the main thing the main thing throughout the week.”
Historically, Florida has been one of the best teams in the country in its first home game of a season. The Gators have won 32 straight home openers, the longest streak in the nation. To only intensify the pressure for Napier, no Florida coach in his first year since Charley Pell in 1979 has lost his debut.
Napier has a lot to live up to in Week 1, and he’s tasked with doing so against possibly the best team Florida has ever faced in a season opener. Utah is coming off a 10-win season, a Pac-12 championship and a three-point loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, the Gators were picked to finish fourth in the SEC’s seven-team Eastern Division.
Some would crumble under the pressure. But Napier knows his identity is not rooted ultimately in the on-field product but on who God has made him to be.
“Football is what you do, but it’s not who you are,” Napier said last October on Sports Spectrum’s “Weekly Slant.” “In general, the difficult times in your life help you recognize that your faith is kind of the anchor that keeps you from drifting.”
Napier, now 43, said he came to faith at the age of 9, thanks in large part to the influence of his mother. His father, Bill, came to faith when Billy was 16.
And just like he carries out his detail-oriented disciplines and routines before games, Napier makes sure to set aside time to spend with God each day. He said he arrives in the football offices before the rest of the coaches so he can pray, work through devotionals and read about leadership. He said on the “Weekly Slant” that he was using Sports Spectrum’s devotionals.
“It’s helped me,” he said. “I know I’m better when I follow through. Certainly, I’m not perfect by any means, but that’s a big part of really keeping perspective.”
This past February, Napier was given the opportunity to speak at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event in northwest Georgia, near where he grew up. His father coached at Murray County High School for 25 years (the final 16 as head coach) and had inspired his son to enter the coaching profession. Yet in 2013, as Billy was climbing the coaching ladder as a wide receivers coach at Alabama, Bill was diagnosed with ALS.
“That was the most difficult year in my life to that point,” Billy said, according to the Dalton Daily Citizen. “But, I’m going to tell you, it gave me a complete shift in purpose. I became very much about serving the players. I prayed for a leadership opportunity.”
Just before Billy’s dream of being a head coach — like his dad — came to fruition in 2017 at Louisiana, Bill Napier passed away. It’s a heartache in Billy’s life that God has used to strengthen Billy and keep him humble and grateful to be coaching at an SEC powerhouse like Florida.
“It’s a privilege to be a coach,” Napier said on the “Weekly Slant” as he reflected on the position he’s in. “I’m certainly living my dream … and I’m very thankful for that opportunity. I’m trying to make the best of it.”
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