What emotional coach Billy Napier said about Louisiana football Sun Belt championship win

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

His voice cracked a time or two. Or more. He did his darndest not tear up, but didn’t deny shedding a few as the players celebrated.

Billy Napier clearly was emotional Saturday after his final game as coach of the No. 21 Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns. Napier is leaving to become coach of Florida.

“I think we built something that can be sustained here,” Napier said after UL beat Appalachian State 24-16 in the Sun Belt Conference championship game at Cajun Field. “That’s what I’m hopeful for.

“It ain’t about me, you know? … You’re happy for the kids, right, because they did what you asked them to do. So you get the result you wanted for them. That’s the gratification in coaching.”

Yet so much Saturday was about a time of transition.

With the title game complete, the Cajuns (12-1) start a new chapter.

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The search for a new Cajuns coach began even before Florida made official its hiring of Napier on Nov. 28, and a bowl bid awaits.

But a hiring wasn’t announced before the Cajuns claimed their first outright Sun Belt title since the league started sponsoring football in 2001, and their first outright league championship of any sort since they won the Gulf States Conference in 1970.

“I feel like we’ve been chasing this thing down for a long time, you know, if that makes sense,” Napier said.

An emotional Billy Napier walks off Cajun Field for the final time as coach of the Ragin' Cajuns.

Accomplishing what it did meant beating an App State team that beat UL in the 2018 and 2019 Sun Belt championship games, both played in the Mountaineers’ home stadium in Boone, North Carolina.

The Cajuns put a lot of pressure on themselves this season to walk away title-game winner this year, yet afterward quarterback Levi Lewis suggested game prep was much like any other.

For that he largely credited Napier.

“We know that, our team knows that, before we step on the field, the game is already won,” Lewis said.

It did, however, take a total team effort with as much input from the Cajun defense as its offense.

That’s also what made Saturday so special.

“This one right here, it’s different,” Lewis said. “I might go home and just go cry.”

Lewis won Most Valuable Player honors after going 15-of-30 for 210 yards including a first-quarter touchdown pass to Michael Jefferson. Lewis also had a 56-yard touchdown run that helped make it 14-0 in the second quarter.

The second-half play of running back Emani Bailey made a big difference too. He had just one carry for 11 yards in the first half, but finished with 14 rushes for 118 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown with just more than 12 minutes to go.

UL’s defense had one of its best outing of the seasons, getting key stops from Andre Jones and Chauncey Manac. Jones had his when App State (10-3) attempted a two-point conversion following its final touchdown. Manac’s late sack and fumble recovery sealed the win.

The Cajuns held App State to 290 yards of total offense, including just 24 in the first quarter. UL also forced the Mountaineers to punt on four of their five first-half drives.

But details mattered little to Cajun players working with Napier for the final time.

“To me, just personally speaking, he’s changed my life, from a mental standpoint, and from the game,” Lewis said. “Even outside of a football, he talked to us about life, talked to us it being ‘bigger than football.’ ”

“He understood me as a human being, other than a football player,” added defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill, who had two sacks. “I’ll say that’s the biggest thing. I wouldn’t trade him for the world.”