Kenny Green had heard great things about Florida’s new soccer coach. He’d seen a few clips on TV and read a few stories and was eager to meet the new guy.
The first opportunity came at the Spring Lecture Tour. After about 30 minutes, Green had drawn his own conclusions.
“We’re in trouble,” he said.
Fear not, Gator fans. That was a few trainers ago. It wasn’t Billy Napier, and Green doesn’t claim to be the amazing Kreskin. But he was right about this coach, and he might be right about Florida’s latest hire.
“That’s good,” Green said of Napier. “But I think he still has a lot of work to do to get us where we need to be.”
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Audience eager to be swept up in Billy Napier’s mania
Thursday night saw the final stop of Napier’s spring speaking tour at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida buses have been on this road since gas was 39 cents a gallon, but the first one stands out. You know what they say about first impressions.
That’s especially true in Gainesville. Some locals have seen more buses come and go than they can remember. You’ve heard everything from Ray Graves talking about the Super Sophs to Dan Mullen zooming in during the pandemic.
He’s gone now, as are the crowd restrictions. This was their first spring tour in three years, and audiences were eager to get carried away by Billymania. But members of the old Gator Guard have been around long enough to know the difference between hot air and fresh air.
They liked what they experienced on Thursday evening.
“He’s not a big rah-rah guy,” Erik Olson said of Napier. “He’s just very down to earth.”
Napier had barely begun when a cell phone rang in the audience. It’s a good thing that technology didn’t exist 20 years ago. Ron Zook may have gotten the owner to do a dozen push-ups.
Napier just grinned at the interruption.
“You know what that means? You have donuts,” Napier said. “Next time the club meets, you have to bring donuts.”
He went through a PowerPoint presentation on his way to Gainesville. Almost everyone was already familiar with Napier’s resume, but there’s nothing quite like looking at family photos and hearing old stories. Like his dream of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a high school coach.
His father said to him, “Look, you have to get your master’s degree and you’re going to make $6 or $7,000 more a year,” Napier recalled. “And I didn’t get mine. I would have in a heartbeat if I did.”
Gators fans see no nonsense, but nice coach
He spoke about the challenges of modern coaching and why he proceeds so systematically. He said character development is more important than talent development. He sounded like a CEO with a blue collar sensibility.
Imagine Urban Meyer without the skeletons. Simple but nice. And folksy.
“It’s kind of the best of both worlds,” said Eric Cavanaugh. “I mean there’s an advantage, but he has a niceness.”
During the Q&A session, Napier began almost every response with, “That’s a good question.” He’d probably heard it before during the previous eight tour stops this spring, but it sounded like he still meant it.
Authenticity can be faked, but the truth eventually reveals itself. Green wasn’t the only fan to have his Malarkey meter go off on a coach who is no longer with us.
“It was all kind of a facade what he presented to the fans,” said John Seibold. “He was more to himself than to the program.”
That doesn’t mean Jim McElwain lacks coaching skills. It’s hard to see Napier concocting death threats as he melts under the strain of SEC life.
“This guy has a plan,” Green said. “He can articulate that plan and it makes you feel pretty good. I’m excited.”
I think he spoke for everyone in the room, including those who haven’t listened to coaches in 60 years. Does passing this spring rite guarantee success in the fall?
That’s not a good question.
There’s a lot more to winning than having a coach that fans believe is real. But dollars to donuts, that’s a pretty good start.
David Whitley is the sports columnist for The Gainesville Sun. Contact him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWitley