Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns football coach candidates: 19 options to replace Billy Napier
Editor's note: This list has been updated since it was originally published, as Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry has named coach at Virginia Tech and amid reports UL Monroe offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez will be named coach at Jacksonville State.
Napier's success with the Ragin' Cajuns was an outlier in the program's history. His teams qualified for a bowl in each of his four seasons and also made four straight Sun Belt Conference championship games.
Napier's .765 win percentage was the best in modern UL history, creating a challenge for athletics director Bryan Maggard to find a successor who can keep the program humming.
CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT:Why the Cajuns didn't try move from Sun Belt to AAC
Here are some potential candidates to watch as the search for Napier's replacement begins:
Current job: Alabama defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach
Upside: The last coach UL hired who spent time at Alabama worked out well. Golding is young (37), accomplished (Alabama won last season's national championship) and on the rise. He was promoted after the 2018 season after serving as Alabama co-defensive coordinator. Golding also is off the respected Ron Roberts coaching tree. He was Roberts' defensive coordinator in 2012-13 when the current Baylor and former UL defensive coordinator was at Southeastern Louisiana. A Hammond native, Golding has strong state ties and defensive coordinator experience at Texas-San Antonio and Delta State, where he played safety.
Flipside: He may not ready for a high-profile Power Five gig, so a primo Group of Five program could be perfect for Golding’s first top job. And while some Alabama fans might be happy if he was gone, it could take a lot to get him to leave Alabama and his reported $1.5 million salary for a Sun Belt job. But UL, which paid Napier about $2 million in 2021, has shown a willingness to spend.
Current job: Michigan State offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach
Upside: Johnson has a decent thing going at Michigan State after following Mel Tucker there from Colorado. He’s experienced but not too old (52). And Johnson has strong UL ties, having served as Hudspeth’s offensive coordinator from 2011-15 – a run that started with four straight New Orleans Bowl wins. His UL two-minute offenses were among college football’s best.
Flipside: Johnson is calm and classy man with an understated personality, not a boastful salesman like some in the business. He has also been an offensive coordinator at Southern Miss and Minnesota. Johnson’s last season as UL’s offensive coordinator ended at 4-8, but he landed a Power 5 job with the Golden Gophers anyway.
Current job: UL defensive coordinator/outside linebackers coach
Upside: Toney, who has coached Texas-San Antonio and Southeastern Louisiana safeties and Sam Houston State defensive backs, may be the top in-house candidate. He obsessively prepares and makes strong halftime adjustments. Napier, who called Toney “one of the bright up-and-comers in our profession,” promoted him from safeties coach to defensive coordinator when Roberts left for Baylor in 2020. His first UL defense ranked 31st nationally in scoring defense and 33rd in total defense. Cajun players love playing for him. Toney also had special teams coordinator experience at Southeastern Louisiana.
Flipside: Toney is very young. He was 30 during his first season as a defensive coordinator. The California native is in demand and could leave for a Power Five coordinator job if another Group of Five program doesn’t snatch him up as head coach first.
Current job: South Alabama offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach
Upside: If Applewhite, 43, seeks a return to head coaching, UL could be a fit. The former Texas quarterback is a Baton Rouge native and a product of Catholic High there, so he knows Louisiana well. The former Houston coach has ample offensive coordinator experience, including in 2007 under Saban at Alabama and then at Texas. After Houston fired him, Applewhite returned to Alabama as an offensive analyst for two seasons and soaked up more from Saban.
Flipside: Applewhite went 0-3 in bowl games at Houston, including a loss to San Diego State in the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl – his first game as Cougars coach after being promoted from offensive coordinator. Applewhite’s two seasons at Houston were winning ones, but with a 15-11 overall record he was fired after the Cougars lost 70-14 to Army in the 2018 Armed Services Bowl.
Current job: Michigan offensive coordinator/receivers coach
Upside: Gattis, 37, has been in his current position since 2019. He has experience working under Saban at Alabama. He played in the NFL for the Chicago Bears, and he has been a receivers coach at Western Carolina, Vanderbilt and Penn State.
Flipside: Gattis’ time at Alabama was limited to one season, when he was co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach. But the Crimson Tide offense finished third nationally that season. His NFL experience is limited to a handful of games in 2007, and oddly enough for someone who has as much offensive college coaching as he does the Wake Forest product was a defensive back.
Current job: Southern Cal offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach
Pros: Harrell would bring more coordinator experience than Napier had. He has been USC’s offensive coordinator since 2019 and was North Texas’ offensive coordinator from 2016-18. The former Texas Tech quarterback has NFL experience as a Green Bay Packers reserve quarterback, and at age 36 Harrell might be ready for his first head coaching job.
Flipside: Harrell has less than a decade’s worth of college coaching experience because of the time he spent in the CFL and NFL. His offensive influence is Air Raid master Mike Leach, his college coach and the man who gave him his first full-time college assistant’s job as Washington State’s outside receivers coach. Harrell interviewed with his alma mater earlier this year, but Texas Tech hired Joey McGuire for the job.
Current job: Ole Miss offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach
Upside: Prior to his current job, which he has held since 2020, Lebby was offensive coordinator at Central Florida. He is young (37) and on the rise. Lebby never has worked at Alabama, but he does currently work under Lane Kiffin, a Saban disciple, and he has interest in the job.
Flipside: A Texas native, Lebby signed out of high school with Oklahoma – but an injury ended his playing career and set him on a coaching path. He also worked multiple seasons as an assistant at Baylor. A son-in-law of Art Briles, Lebby was connected with the sexual assault scandal — failing to act on reports of assault — in the Baylor football program.
Current job: Oklahoma defensive coordinator/safeties coach
Upside: Grinch was defensive coordinator at Washington State when his name surfaced in UL’s last coaching search, and he became co-defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Ohio State after Napier was hired. In his first season at Oklahoma, the Sooners led the Big 12 in total defense during conference play. Grinch, 41, also coached safeties at Missouri from 2012-14, when Maggard was executive associate athletics director.
Flipside: He could be a tough get. Grinch stayed at Ohio State under interim coach Ryan Day after Meyer exited and the Buckeyes went 13-1, but he left for Oklahoma shortly after Day had the interim tag removed. He also reportedly planned to interview with Texas Tech before the Red Raiders made their hire in November 2020.
Current job: Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach
Upside: A reserve quarterback for the New Orleans Saints from 1994-97 and the Indianapolis Colts in 1998, Nussmeier is all about offense. The father of LSU quarterback Garrett Nussmeier was offensive coordinator at Fresno State, Washington, Alabama, Michigan and Florida. In 2012, he coached quarterback A.J. McCarron during Alabama’s 2012 national-championship season.
Flipside: Nussmeier has lived the NFL life since 2018, first as Cowboys tight ends coach under Jason Garrett before Mike McCarthy made him quarterbacks coach. He has SEC experience, but the Portland native and former Idaho QB’s Louisiana ties outside of his Saints playing days are limited to his son playing for the Tigers. Nussmeier hasn't had to think about recruiting for a few years, though he did try to get the UL job when Napier was hired, after Florida fired him as offensive coordinator.
Current job: New York Giants offensive line coach
Upside: Sale was UL’s offensive coordinator for Napier’s first three seasons with the Cajuns. Personable and upbeat, he was widely popular with players and hailed for developing UL offensive linemen, including Miami’s Robert Hunt and Pittsburgh’s Kevin Dotson, who are now NFL starters. State ties are extensive for the former LSU starting offensive lineman. He’s a Louisiana native from Monroe who also has coached offensive lines at McNeese State, Georgia, Louisiana-Monroe and Arizona State, and he spent time as an Alabama offensive analyst under Saban.
Flipside: Sale’s first taste of NFL coaching has come with its share of losses. He held the offensive coordinator title at UL, but Napier handled play-calling and Sale has no other FBS coordinator experience. He was co-offensive coordinator in 2014 at McNeese under current Cajuns receivers coach Tim Leger.
Current job: SMU offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach
Upside: Riley is a younger brother of Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. He got his first coordinator job at SMU in 2020. The Mustangs are having a solid 2021 season. Garrett Riley has Sun Belt Conference experience as running backs coach at Appalachian State in 2019 and is another in the crop of up-and-coming coordinators destined to be a head coach.
Flipside: At 32, Riley is young. His college playing experience was limited, having transferred to Stephen F. Austin from Texas Tech. He spent two seasons as an offensive assistant coach at Kansas but didn’t get his first FBS assistant’s job until working as East Carolina outside receivers coach in 2015.
Current job: Minnesota Vikings defensive backs coach
Upside: Scott, a strong recruiter, is another defensive assistant off the Roberts and Saban trees. He was Napier’s first hire as UL defensive coordinator in December 2017 but left the next month to rejoin Golding – they worked together under Roberts at Southeastern Louisiana – at Alabama from 2018-19. Scott also has state ties as Louisiana Tech’s safeties coach under Skip Holtz and was Texas Tech’s secondary coach from 2016-17. He is in his first year as an NFL assistant.
Flipside: Scott coached all Alabama defensive backs in 2018, but that was scaled back to just cornerbacks in 2019. He has only one season of coordinator experience, at Southeastern Louisiana in 2014. The Houston native wasn’t at UL long enough to learn his way around Lafayette, but maybe the second time is a charm.
Current job: Baylor defensive coordinator
Upside:Roberts has a respected defensive mind and plenty of heading coaching experience, at Southeastern Louisiana from 2012-17 and Delta State for five seasons prior to that. He spent two years under Napier as UL’s defensive coordinator, then left in 2020 for his post at Baylor. He has had multiple former assistants coach at the FBS level, including Golding, Toney and Scott.
Flipside: All of Roberts’ head coaching experience is at the FCS, NCAA Division II and California high school levels. Napier hired him only after Scott quickly left for Alabama. But he’s a proven winner with eight winning seasons and six playoff appearances in 11 combined seasons at Southeastern Louisiana and Delta State.
Last job: LSU coach
Upside:Orgeron is Cajun personified. He’d be in his element coaching the Ragin’ Cajuns. The Larose native’s 2019 national championship season at LSU was the highlight of his career. He’d crush recruiting. In addition to LSU since 2016, he has head coaching experience at Ole Miss and on an interim basis on USC. At least at UL he wouldn’t have to worry about a mass exodus of underclassmen fleeing for the NFL like at LSU.
Flipside: Things were a mess at LSU, mostly on the field but off it, too, when Orgeron was fired but told he could finish coaching in 2021. Title IX litigation issues hang overhead for not reporting alleged rape. How motivated would the 60-year-old be after parting ways with a settlement from LSU worth $17 million-plus? Is Orgeron, a defensive line coach much of his career, the right fit for a program trying to establish itself as a bona fide Group of Five power?
Current job: James Madison coach
Upside:Cignetti has had winning seasons in each of his 11 years as a head coach, including time at NCAA Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania and FCS Elon. He has had no more than two losses in each of his three seasons at FCS James Madison. The Pittsburgh native has coached quarterbacks at Rice, Temple, Pitt and NC State, and his last assistant’s job was as receivers coach from 2007-11 under Saban at Alabama, where he also was recruiting coordinator.
Flipside: Cignetti is 60 years old with 38 years of coaching experience. He’s only halfway through a six-year contract that reportedly started with a $425,000 base salary. Coming to UL would mean leaving a program that is moving up to FBS play and has accepted an invitation to join the Sun Belt. Would a lucrative offer lure him away?
Current job: Nicholls coach
Upside: Rebowe has extensive UL ties, serving as a defensive assistant from 2004-14 under both Bustle and Hudspeth. He’s a strong recruiter, especially in the Bayou, and he turned a team that went 3-8 in his first season in 2015 into one that made three straight FCS playoff appearances from 2017-19.
Flipside: Rebowe’s statewide ties are strong, having started as a head coach at his old New Orleans-area high school, Destrehan, and having served as an assistant at Nicholls and UL Monroe prior to his stay at UL. He’s proven as an FCS coach, but the 58-year-old Norco native has no FBS coordinator experience and he has never coached outside of Louisiana.
Current job: Marshall offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach
Upside: Cramsey has plenty of prior offensive coordinator experience, including stops at FIU, Montana State, Nevada and Sam Houston State. He currently works under Marshall coach Charles Huff, a Saban disciple who was a Crimson Tide assistant from 2019-20.
Flipside: The former New Hampshire quarterback spent six seasons in various offensive assistant coach capacities at his alma mater. A Pennsylvania native, Cramsey got his start as a high school assistant in his home state. At 46, he’s a bit older than several other candidates.
Last job: TCU coach
Upside:Patterson spent two-plus decades at TCU, turning the former Conference USA and Mountain West member into a Big 12 power. He’s a two-time Walter Camp Coach of the Year whose teams were invited to bowl games for all but three seasons. They won nine, including the 2011 Rose Bowl, and he already has his own statue at TCU.
Flipside: Defense-minded Patterson could be in demand – if he’s even interested. But TCU was 3-5 when he and the program parted ways, and Patterson declined to finish the season after being informed he wouldn’t be retained. The Horned Frogs have had three losing seasons since 2016. At 61, there are questions of whether the game – on the field and off – have passed him by.
Last job: Grambling coach
Upside: Yes, Fobbs recently was fired by Grambling. But he was loyal until the end and did a lot with very little resources, going 54-32 in eight seasons, including back-to-back Celebration Bowl appearances with an HBCU national championship win in 2016. The former Grambling running back from Monroe has statewide ties, working as co-offensive coordinator at Northwestern State and McNeese after a stint from 2000-02 as a UL graduate assistant coach.
Flipside: Fobbs also coached Southern Miss receivers in 2012, but he has no FBS coordinator experience. After six straight winning seasons, Grambling went 0-4 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season and 3-7 this season before he was let go. Fobbs likely will land somewhere, but he could be an awfully tough sell to UL after the firing.