Florida Gators’ Billy Napier: ‘I’m up for the challenge’

Tribune Content Agency

DESTIN, Fla. — Florida Gators coach Billy Napier is like a lot of UF fans. He marveled at Steve Spurrier’s offenses as a football-crazed teenager, then admired the powerhouse Urban Meyer built while watching from afar at Clemson.

“Now, fast-forward 15 years,” Napier said. “What do we have to show for that?”

Not much. The Gators won’t have much to show for it a year from now, either, unless they drastically exceed their tepid external expectations.

If Napier’s worried about it, he didn’t show it during a half-hour chat with a small group of UF reporters Wednesday morning at the SEC’s spring meetings.

“You talk about (how) it’s a great challenge,” Napier said over coffee at the Hilton Sandestin. “I’m up for the challenge. We’re up for the challenge.”

They didn’t show it last year. Napier took a team with six NFL draft picks, including No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson, and went 6-7. His first full recruiting class ranked No. 14 in the 247Sports composite, and the Gators’ transfer portal haul is 17th. That’s fine, but fine isn’t good enough at Florida.

“Hey, look, no excuses, right?” Napier said.

He did, however, provide some candid insight into the program’s Year 1 struggles. Namely, the transfer portal and name, image and likeness.

Every program in the country deals with them, but Napier said the new, evolving variables are a bigger challenge for first-year staffs. It’s hard enough to build a roster when you take a job a week and a half before the early signing period.

“But all those things combined, I think your time is divided …” Napier said. “We got some things established, but we didn’t do it with detail, we didn’t do it with discipline, we didn’t have the team dynamic.

“I’d just left a place that was a well-oiled machine to some degree. But it didn’t get there overnight.”

The implication: Florida won’t get there overnight, either. Maybe not in 12 games or 18 months, either.

“But reality is, first year — I’d say even two years — you’re giving away two years of your life to some degree,” Napier said. “It takes a while to get it going.”

We don’t know how long that will take to show up on the field, if it ever does. The Gators got a reminder of the value of patience this week when the men’s golf team advanced to the national final. The team hadn’t finished higher than 10th in coach JC Deacon’s previous eight seasons.

That helps explain why athletic director Scott Stricklin will look for things beyond the final record — like recruiting, buy-in and staff fits — during the second seasons for Napier and men’s basketball coach Todd Golden after their rocky debuts.

“I think it’s more about building a program that’s sustainable …” Stricklin said before flying to Arizona to watch the golf championship. “Pushing forward, are you continuing to recruit well and bringing more talented people into the program? Those are the kinds of things — you keep doing that, and you’re going to wake up and run into a trophy at some point.”

Trophies (plural) remain the standard at Florida. Napier isn’t shying away from that expectation, or the passionate fans clamoring for it.

“I think that was the probably the desirable thing about the job,” Napier said. “You’ve got a chance to get it back to where it’s been before.”

There are signs that Florida is getting closer to that point.

The Gators’ 2024 recruiting class has non-binding oral commitments from four of the nation’s top 50 recruits with an average player rating that trails only Georgia and Alabama. After the Jaden Rashada name, image and likeness debacle, the Gators seem aligned under their new entity, Florida Victorious. Napier said there was a “significant difference” in the team’s first summer workout Tuesday compared to where it was a year ago.

But until the wins start to come, Napier knows the concerns and criticisms will linger. He knows what he signed up for.

“You’ve got to do something about it,” Napier said. “In this game, you’ve got to go earn respect. That’s the fun part about it, right?”

Kicking off

Conferences and networks announced kickoff times and TV information Wednesday for the opening weeks of the season, plus a few other dates:

Aug. 31 (Thursday)

Kent State at UCF: 7 p.m., FS1

Utah at Florida: 8 p.m., ESPN

Sept. 1 (Friday)

Miami (Ohio) at Miami: 7 p.m., ACC Network

Sept. 2

USF at Western Kentucky: 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Sept. 3 (Sunday)

Florida State vs. LSU: 7:30 p.m., ABC

Sept. 9

Texas A&M at Miami: 3:30 p.m., ABC

Florida A&M at USF: 7 p.m., ESPN+

UCF at Boise State: 7 p.m., FS1

McNeese at Florida: 7:30 p.m., ESPNU

Southern Miss at Florida State: 8:30 p.m., ACC Network

Sept. 14 (Thursday)

Bethune-Cookman at Miami: 7:30 p.m., ACC Network

Sept. 16

Florida State at Boston College: Noon, ABC

Alabama at USF: 3:30 p.m., ABC

Villanova at UCF: 6:30 p.m., ESPN+

Tennessee at Florida: 7 p.m., ESPN

Sept. 23

Charlotte at Florida: 7 p.m., ESPN+/SEC Network+

Sept. 30

USF at Navy: 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Nov. 17 (Friday)

USF at Texas San Antonio: 9 p.m., ESPN2