As a seventh-grader at Bagley Middle School in Chatsworth, Billy Napier was preparing to play the game he loved, the game he grew up watching his father obsess over as a long-time high school football coach.
Jeremy Floyd — a friend of Billy Napier from childhood through their days spent on the Murray County High School football team — still remembers the day the Bagley seventh-graders were given their football uniforms prior to the first game.
Napier, Floyd and the team received their uniforms the day before the first game. Once Napier got his uniform on, Floyd said, he didn't want to take it off.
"He slept in it," Floyd said. "Gloves, towel and all. That just comes from that family eating, drinking and sleeping football."
That seventh-grader grew up in Chatsworth, starred on his high school team under his father, coach Bill Napier, played college football and rose through the ranks of collegiate coaching. On Sunday, Billy was named the head football coach at the University of Florida, a top tier Southeastern Conference program that has won three national titles since 1996.
"Zero. Zero surprises," Floyd said of his childhood friend's new job. "This is exactly where I expected he would be. He's a competitor, and he wants to be the best he can be. So I kind of felt like he could go wherever he wanted to go. None of this is surprising in the least."
The Napier name
The college football world knows the 42-year-old Billy Napier as the up-and-coming coach getting his shot at a SEC school after turning the University of Louisiana into a bit of a group of five power in the last few years.
To Kurt Napier, he's an older brother and a role model — and a former personal quarterback coach.
Kurt is the third of Bill and Pam Napier's four children. Billy is the eldest, with brother Matt younger by about a year and Kurt six years Billy's junior. Whitney, the only Napier daughter, is six years younger than Kurt.
"I grew up looking up to him and learning a lot from his example," Kurt said. "They were both my big brothers that I wanted to be like."
The three brothers would all get their shot playing under their father at Murray County High School.
After Bill Napier played football at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, Tennessee, — where Billy was born — he landed a job at Murray County High in Chatsworth when Billy was about 3 years old. The eldest Napier would coach at Murray for 25 years, the last 16 as head coach. He held a few more assistant jobs, including at Southeast Whitfield and Dalton High, before his death in 2017.
"He was the most important male influence outside of my dad and grandfather, and I think a lot of people in the area can say that," said Floyd. He was a wide receiver on the Murray County teams that Billy quarterbacked and Bill coached.
"He was a great teacher that demanded that his players be able to do things over and over again in the exact same way." Floyd said. "There are still quarterback and receiver drills, and I'm 42-years-old, that I can still do because coach Napier was so exact all those years."
Their father was his Billy's exposure to coaching, and Kurt said that he could see the same coaching personality in his brother early on.
"I can still see dad sitting at the dining room table at our house growing up just drawing up plays," Kurt said. "His handwriting was very neat, and he had an incredible memory for things like that. I can remember him talking to his former players, and he'd remember the exact situation — what quarter, what down, how many yards were needed for a first down. Billy definitely learned from a great example in dad. They certainly have their similarities."
As Billy was starring as a high school quarterback, he was helping Kurt learn the position, too. The youngest Napier son would also go on to quarterback for his father.
"He would put me through workouts. He'd be showing me dropbacks and footwork when I was a little kid," Kurt said. "He taught me a lot, and I see that come to fruition in some of the guys I see him coach."
Billy had a scholarship offer from Duke in high school, but chose to attend Furman University in South Carolina, then a NCAA Division I-AA school.
Billy saw some starting action as a sophomore, then caught on as the full-time starter as a junior. He led the Paladins to a berth in the national championship game as a junior, then was named a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given to the most outstanding player in Division I-AA, as a senior.
On Saturdays, the Napier family would follow wherever Furman took Billy.
"Dad and I would always hop in the car on Saturdays and drive all over the country to watch him play," Kurt said.
Floyd recalls making similar trips with Billy and his father in the years prior to watch former Murray County players in college.
Even as Billy began later rising through the college coaching ranks, he leaned on his father for advice, Kurt said.
Kurt said he and his siblings took a yearly summer vacation with their parents, usually to one beach or another.
"The SEC Network is on TV, and we're just talking football. We're talking about all the details and how we'd build and run a program," Kurt said. "There was a time early in Billy's career that dad said he thought he would have the opportunity to have his own team."
Bill passed away in 2017 after a battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). Billy took his first collegiate head coaching job at Louisiana later that year.
"He knew that if Billy continued to work and put in the effort and attention to detail, and obviously got the opportunity to learn from guys like (Clemson head coach) Dabo Swinney and (Alabama head coach) Nick Saban, that he would make it where he wanted to go," Kurt said.
Watch and learn
Billy's coaching rise might never have happened without his success at Furman, Kurt said.
"Because of that, and Furman only being about 30 minutes down the road from Clemson, that's how he got started," Kurt said. "There was the local player that had apply to a GA (graduate assistant) position, and I guess he had made a good impression on his college coaches."
Billy caught on as a grad assistant under then-Clemson coach Tommy Bowden in 2003.
"I knew he would put in the work there," Floyd said. "He showed that throughout high school."
After a stint as the quarterbacks coach at South Carolina State in 2005, Billy was back at Clemson as a tight ends coach. After Swinney was elevated to Clemson's head coach when Bowden was let go, Billy was named offensive coordinator in 2009, becoming the youngest coordinator in the country.
The Tigers set offensive records under Billy in year one, but after his second season didn't match that level of success, he was let go in 2010.
According to Kurt, Billy, ever the optimist, chalked up the firing as a learning experience. He took a job that would help him keep learning. He interviewed for the job of wide receivers coach at Alabama, but instead was brought on as an offensive analyst by Saban.
"He was there around the clock just learning like crazy," Kurt said.
In the job at Alabama, Billy was working on the team he grew up supporting.
Pam Napier is originally from Huntsville, Alabama.
"She would make Billy, Matt and myself wear Bama gear growing up," Kurt said. "During our time growing up, we would claim to be Alabama fans."
"Once Billy started coaching, we became fans of wherever he would be at the time," he said.
After a year spent studying Saban's program, Billy spent a one-year stint as a position coach at Colorado State, then took a job at Florida State to be a tight ends coach before Saban offered Billy the wide receivers coaching job.
Billy spent four seasons in that job in Tuscaloosa, helping coach the Crimson Tide to two national championships.
After that time spent at the school of Saban, Billy moved on to be the offensive coordinator at Arizona State.
“There’s nothing bad I can say bad about Billy Napier and what the did here,” Saban said Thursday when he was asked about his former assistant during a videoconference with reporters.
“He was a very good coach; he was a good recruiter; he had great relationships with the players; he was a great teacher on the field,” Saban said. “Hard worker, great character, great personality, very, very good family.”
After two seasons at Arizona State, Billy finally got his shot as the head coach of a team at Louisiana.
He quickly turned the Ragin' Cajuns around, finishing 7-7 in year one then stringing together three straight 10-win seasons. He had the program ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1943. This season, Louisiana is 11-1, ranked No. 20 in the AP poll and plays Appalachian State today at 3:30 p.m. in the Sun Belt Championship game. It will be the final game Billy coaches for Louisiana.
During a Louisiana game in September against Ohio, a clip of a halftime interview with Napier went viral on social media. With just a few seconds left before halftime and his team on the 1-yard line, Napier elected to push for the touchdown rather than kick a field goal. After the Cajuns scored the touchdown to go up 21-7, Napier was asked about the decision by an ESPN sideline reporter.
"Scared money don't make money," Napier quipped. That quote has become a rallying cry for Gator fans after Napier's hire at Florida.
Seeing the clip triggered a memory for Floyd.
"When we beat Dalton in '95, the next day he had T-shirts printed up and was selling them at the school," Floyd said. "It had the score on it, 18-14, and they were stacked kind of like a math problem. It said '18-14 4 real.' It's a little corny saying, but Billy coined that. I still have the shirt in my closet. When I saw that, I immediately thought of the shirts. Just corny, but total Billy."
After Billy's hiring at Florida was announced Sunday, the halls at Murray County High School were abuzz Monday about one of the school's most visible alumni.
"We have a bunch of players that were talking about in school," said Chad Brewer, the current head coach of the Indians. "We have a few guys that are actually Gator fans and they were really fired up about it."
Brewer said Billy provides an easy example for any of his players about what's possible from someone that was once in their very same position.
"Hard work always pays off, and he's worked very hard to get to where he's at," Brewer said. "It just goes to show that a small-town kid can do something big."
Hard work helped the small-town kid rise from his time in Chatsworth to making a national name for himself in college football.
"He never believed talent was a fixed entity," Floyd said. "He wasn't a starter early, but he sure wanted to be. He was always working as hard as anybody."
"I saw that from him in middle school and high school," Floyd said. "He was my quarterback throwing me passes, but, before he was the starter, he was willing to do anything to get on the field."
Billy is known for his meticulous attention to detail, and Kurt and Floyd both say they saw examples of that early on.
As Billy's began to field a offers to be the head coach at a power programs in the last few years (Auburn and South Carolina were rumored to be interested in hiring him this past offseason), Napier applied that same process in his decision-making.
"He had some opportunities to possibly go other places, but I think he wanted to honor his family and his children and make a decision that made sense for everyone," Kurt said. "I think Florida just felt like the right place to go, and it's a special program."
Floyd has seen the small-town kid he grew up with rise to national prominence.
He wasn't surprised to see it happen, and he says he wouldn't be surprised to see Billy work hard enough to find success at Florida.
"I guarantee it that everyone involved will name it some of their best years, whether the players or anyone on his staff," Floyd said. "I know they're going to do it the right way and with integrity. They're going to be competitive, and I fully expect them to have great success."