UL's Napier wants Cajuns to play like late father's teams
Another Friday night of high school football in northwest Georgia is in the books.
The sun’s coming up — brightening the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Chatsworth, Georgia — and it is time to swap film of last evening’s game with the coach of the next opponent.
A meeting place is agreed upon, and the trade is made.
Billy Napier, now three games into his first season as UL’s head coach, remembers those treasured days with his dad well.
“We’d get up on Saturday morning," Napier said, "and get in the ol’ truck, and head out.”
This Saturday morning, Napier’s Ragin’ Cajuns will be on the field of Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, playing the No. 1 team in the land, 4-0 Alabama.
Napier’s father, a longtime Georgia high school football coach, won’t be on hand to watch.
But it’s not because he’s off exchanging film somewhere, getting ready for another game.
Rather, William “Bill” Napier died one year ago today — ending a long battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, an affliction of the nervous system that weakens the body’s muscles.
Napier, the first line of his obituary on the website of Jones Funeral Homes reads, “took his place on the coaching staff of Heaven’s team September 26th 2017 at the age of 60.”
So the trip to Alabama and the test of all tests, one against the Crimson Tide, isn’t exactly the only thing on Bill and Pam Napier’s eldest son’s mind this week.
Nor has his father’s passing been far from it ever since Billy Napier — Arizona State’s offensive coordinator last season, and Alabama’s receivers coach under Nick Saban for four seasons prior to that — was picked last December to coach the Cajuns.
His first head coaching job, before the age of 40. Two games against SEC opponent, including a loss to Mississippi State that ended with a 56-10 loss, in the first month of his full season at UL. A shot at knocking off No. 1.
Has the son thought about what the father would think of all that, if only he could?
Billy Napier was asked just that earlier this month.
And, yes, he has.
It’s the primary reason Napier has worked so hard these last nine-plus months to coach the Cajuns in the mold of his father’s former teams.
“Certainly, when you get a chance to have your own team, you know, you do what maybe he was able to do for a long time,” Napier said.
“And, really, what you want,” he added, “is you want your team to play a certain way relative to the intangibles that maybe his teams were known for.”
BILL LOVED OTHERS
Bill Napier played football at Tennessee Tech, where he met his wife.
He started coaching at a grade school, then moved to Chatsworth in 1982 — the beginning of a 25-year coaching career at Murray County High, which he left as its all-time leader in victories.
That’s where Billy — who has two younger brothers who also became coaches, and a sister as well — played before becoming a college quarterback at Furman.
After a couple other stops — first as an assistant at Southeast Whitfield High in nearby Dalton, then at Adairsville (Georgia) High — Bill spent his final seven years on the staff at Dalton High, coaching as long as he could, as long as his voice held out even as his body started to succumb.
For a while, he used a golf cart to get around. Later he coached out of a wheelchair, where he was offensive coordinator and QBs coach. He let go three days after an Arizona State win at Oregon, before Billy could get back home for one last visit during an upcoming off week.
“I think that maybe we can overachieve a little bit and play with effort, play with toughness, have a disciplined outfit,” Napier said of his Cajuns. “Those were things that were important to him.”
Bill Napier was diagnosed with ALS in 2013.
“Soon after,” according to his obituary, “he began texting Bible verses and inspirational Christian messages each day to over 400 people until the day he passed away.
“He loved coaching and mentoring the youth in our community, not just because he loved the game of football, but because he loved the people.
“Jesus said you will know my people by their love for others, and Bill loved others,” his obit continued. “He was a Christian role model for all, and a witness of God’s unfailing love, especially as his health deteriorated.”
'AN OPTION GUY'
Two years after he was diagnosed, Bill Napier was feted by friends, family and former players who shared testimony to his impact during a fundraising banquet.
Coaches and others from around the country offered words of praise and encouragement, too, as now memorialized in a YouTube video.
Nick Saban. Dabo Swinney. Watson Brown. Mac Brown. Vince Dooley.
Peyton Manning. Todd Gurley.
The list goes on and on.
“He’s really an inspiration to all of us in how he’s competed against this disease,” Saban said on the video.
“Just wanted to take a minute, first of all, to just tell you I’ve always had great respect for you, and your family, and how you’ve always done things,” Swinney added. “I just want to thank you for what you represent and the impact you have made on so many young people, and also coaches.”
Swinney was head coach at Clemson when Billy Napier got his first shot at being an offensive coordinator.
Saban took him in as analyst when he lost that job.
And now Billy Napier is running his own show.
It comes at a time so far removed from those days when he used to tag along with dad on the Georgia roads, just under the Tennessee state line and 45 miles or so from Chattanooga.
“I think I was fortunate to see the evolution of the film,” Billy Napier said, remembering the reels of game tape his father used to carry.
“Heck, I can’t even remember what they call ’em … the film that you hung on the wall, you know, the projector, and then transition to the VHS, then DVD, and now it’s a digital world, man — huddles, right there at your fingertips.”
Yet, for all the film the two shared, the offense Billy Napier calls at UL doesn’t exactly resemble the one Bill Napier ran at Murray County.
“He was an option guy, man,” the Cajun coach said.
“He was pro I, pro slot, inside/outside veer trap, midline, ran a little bit of power, a little bit of toss, split end iso — you know, just the old Tom Osborne/Nebraska/Scott Frost days.”
Ask Napier what it meant to play for his dad — if he treasured being the coach’s son, or just wanted to be treated like one of the guys — and he hesitates a bit.
“Nah, heck,” he said.
“Just to play, I think, is a special experience. Just playing the game. Having opportunities to compete with your teammates, I think, is a special experience.”
His voice cracking, the truth eventually emerges, even if he does undersell it a tad.
“Playing for him,” Billy Napier said, “was a good experience, for sure.”
Now back to the film.