Ray Anderson: 'I fully encouraged' ASU's Billy Napier to accept job at Louisiana

Jeff Metcalfe
The Republic |
Billy Napier has left Arizona State after one season to become head coach at Louisiana.

Tumultuous day ends with ASU promoting Rob Likens to offensive coordinator replacing Billy Napier, who accepts head-coaching job at Louisiana.

Arizona State wasted no time searching for a new offensive coordinator.

Rob Likens was promoted to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Friday afternoon after a tumultuous day that saw Billy Napier leave as offensive coordinator to become head coach at Louisiana.

Returning ASU offensive players expressed support for Likens after practice Friday and Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson said Likens was a "legitimate candidate" before making the promotion official a few hours later.

Likens was wide receivers coach/co-offensive coordinator this season, his first at ASU, after previously serving as offensive coordinator for two seasons at Kansas. Before Kansas, Likens was assistant head coach/passing coordinator at California during the Jared Goff quarterback years.

"There was no doubt in my mind that Rob Likens was the man we needed to step up and fill this role as offensive coordinator," new head coach Herm Edwards said in a statement. "Coach Likens provides much needed consistency and stability as we continue to build our staff.  He has been heavily involved in the offensive game planning and play-calling and the improvement on offense this season with coach Likens as co-offensive coordinator speaks for itself.   I have quickly learned that Rob cares deeply for these young men.  I am excited to work with Rob as we continue to build upon this program."

Outgoing ASU head coach Todd Graham hired Likens almost exactly a year ago.

ASU's other known returning assistant under Edwards is John Simon, who will have additional unspecific responsibilities in addition to continuing as assistant head coach/running backs.

Likens' promotion leaves an opening at wide receivers coach in addition to defensive coordinator and other defensive assistant openings, yet to be announced.

Before learning of Likens' becoming offensive coordinator, ASU players were almost philosophical Friday to yet another major change in their lives. 

Returning offensive players were not shocked by the departure of Napier, who was at ASU for just one season. They’ve seen previous offensive coordinators Mike Norvell and Chip Lindsey jump to higher responsibility or paying jobs and could only put so much faith that Napier, promoted Dec. 5 to associate head coach, would remain at least for the first season under Edwards.

Arizona State offensive coordinator Billy Napier at Camp Tontozona on Wednesday, Aug. 2 , 2017 in Kohls Ranch, Ariz.

“It is what it is,” junior quarterback Manny Wilkins said. “The sun is still going to come up. I’m very proud of (Napier). This is an opportunity he’s been waiting for. I had a nice long talk with him this morning. It was emotional. Things happen in life for a reason. It’s going to be four (offensive coordinators) in four years, but I get to wake up every morning and play this game at a university that I love. I’m really excited for him and his family and the opportunity they have and wish him the best of luck.”

When Graham was fired as head coach Nov. 26, Anderson included inability to retain staff as part of the reason. Anderson also said he wanted to retain coordinators Napier and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who earlier this week said he would not return for health and other personal reasons, and that he did not want Wilkins to have to adapt to yet another offensive coordinator.

Instead, like in most head-coaching changes, there will be two new coordinators. 

Ray Anderson: 'We present aggressively fair offers'

Anderson said earlier Friday of Likens that Billy (Napier) didn’t do this by himself. He had a lot of help.”

Edwards, on the road recruiting, said in a statement: “I wish Bill nothing but the best in his coaching career. I can assure all Sun Devil fans that I am working diligently on hiring a coaching staff that will fit what we are trying to accomplish at ASU.”

Anderson said Napier was given a two-year contract with a salary “reflective of high market for an offensive coordinator” to stay at ASU as associate head coach. When Napier later told Anderson he had an opportunity to become a head coach, “I fully encouraged him to do it,” Anderson said. “I’ve been there as an agent for aspiring head coaches. It’s no one’s fault for you pursuing that opportunity and no one’s fault if you take it.

“We present aggressively fair offers. No good business manager would be put in the position of being leveraged above and beyond what you know is an aggressive salary for the position.”

Anderson said circumstances led to Napier and Bennett leaving and not ASU’s lack of desire for either to remain. 

“It’s business as usual, it happens all the time,” Anderson said. “At end of day, not one begrudges them, particularly when you have a chance to go be a head coach. This was not our plan A, but we’ll be very successful in how we execute plan B and the next phase of this. I’m not worried about it at all.”

Before his promotion, Napier had a base salary of $550,000. According to his original contract, he was set to get a $50,000 raise next month, although those terms might have changed with his promotion.

Louisiana was 5-7 this season under Mark Hudspeth, who was fired Dec. 3. Hudspeth was 51-38 in seven seasons, although 22 of those wins were vacated due to use of ineligible players from 2011-14. The Ragin' Cajuns were 9-4 for three straight seasons (2012-14) but 4-8, 6-7 and 5-7 since.

Hudspeth last season made $1.15 million.

According to reports, Napier's contract will be $1.47 million per year for five years and includes a $2 million pool for assistant coaches.

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ASU player, coach reaction

Wilkins and other offensive players were put in the unusual position of having to answer questions about Napier leaving a week after saying how important it was that he was returning.

“You’ve got to roll with the punches,” Wilkins said. “Sometimes you’re going to get hit and knocked down, but you’re going to get back up. I look at this as another challenge. I’ve got one more year in me and I’m going to give my all to this team, to this university because it means the world to me. I’m just going to put my head down and go to work every day like nothing ever happened because that’s what this team needs me to do.”

Napier spoke to the team before practice then was not on the field for the next-to-last workout before a holiday break. He will coach for ASU against No. 24 North Carolina State in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 29. An introductory news conference at Louisiana is scheduled for Monday.

"We are absolutely thrilled to identify a head football coach with the experience and success that Billy Napier brings to the University of Louisiana,” UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said in a statement. “Coach Napier is highly respected within the coaching profession and brings tremendous experience from nationally-ranked programs. He is widely considered to be one of America’s top recruiters and offensive minds.”

Napier came to ASU from Alabama, where he was wide receivers coach. He also briefly was offensive coordinator at Clemson. “My family and I are excited and humbled for the opportunity to serve Cajun Nation and our Louisiana football program,” Napier said in a statement.

ASU offensive line coach Rob Sale, who planned to return on Edwards’ staff, could be a candidate for offensive coordinator at Louisiana, located in Lafayette.

It is possible that Edwards will have seven new assistants when all is said and done with the staff turnover.

All Pac-12 first team wide receiver N’Keal Harry said he is happy for Napier. “He has a family, he has kids, he has responsibilities and a coach’s dream is to be a head coach. I’m proud of him and I wish him the best.

“We’ll be fine, regardless of whatever happens. We’re going to stick together. Players play, coaches coach.”

There is support for Likens as offensive coordinator because it would provide some of the continuity expected if Napier had stayed.

“I would love it,” Wilkins said. “He’s somebody who brings a different level of passion to this game, who comes with intensity every day at practice. Whoever they bring in, they’ve got my support 100 percent.”

Harry said Likens is “honestly the most hard-working man I’ve ever met. Regardless of what he’s feeling, he shows us the same energy every day and he sacrifices a lot for us. To see how hard he works and everything he’s put into this program already in just a year, I feel he deserves that (coordinator job).

Simon is returning under Edwards for his third season on the ASU coaching staff. 

“Coaches get in this business mostly for an opportunity to be one of 127 (Division I head coaches),” Simon said. “Him having that opportunity, we’re excited for him. The players understand that, and he made the best decision for him and his family. We celebrate him and are thankful for the opportunity we had to spend time with him and what he’s done with his time here.”

Other reaction from returning offensive players included:

  • Wide receiver Kyle Williams: “He (Napier) is making us all proud taking this next step. I respect him and hopefully we can get going the right direction with these new people coming in here. It’s a business and you play for your brothers, those people on the team, and just try to make things work. You’ve got to be tough. Like coach Likens says, boys do what they want but men do what they have to do.”
  • Running back Eno Benjamin: “These opportunities don’t really happen and he (Napier) did what he had to do for his family financially. He wants to keep working his way up so maybe one day he’ll be in the NFL so that’s a good contact to have. The way I look at it is prepare for the worst, prepare for the best. There’s a lot of crazy things happening over these past few weeks, not just here, all over the place.”
  • Wide receiver Jalen Harvey: “To be honest, I’m used to it (staff changes). It’s my fourth year. This is going to be my fourth OC, probably my third wide-out coach. I didn’t mope around. People come and go. That’s one thing I’ve learned in my life. At first it was difficult, but now I’m just adjusting. I’ve just got to learn a new playbook and get to know whoever I’ve got to know.”
  • Wilkins: “It’s Arizona State University. That’s who I play for. I play for the guys in this locker room every day. I play for the last name on my back and I play under God’s hand.”

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