Culture change will define Billy Napier’s 2023 season

A head coach experiencing a jump in Year 2 is so common in college football that even guys who end up getting fired soon after often enjoy them. From Mike Shula at Alabama to Will Muschamp at Florida to Will Muschamp at South Carolina, it’s trivially easy to think of examples of subpar head coaches who nonetheless produced second-year surges. They’re not ubiquitous for a variety of reasons, but incredibly disparate programs and individuals still see this effect happen.

Having observed the phenomenon for more than a decade-and-a-half at this point, I’m reasonably convinced that an intangible factor is the one common thread: culture. It’s a term with a million different definitions, so I’ll lay mine out and build from here. Culture is about the processes and camaraderie within not just a team but the program overall.

It’s no secret that most big time college jobs turn over because of a firing or forced resignation. Culture is often lacking in these situations. Bad culture can beget losing, and losing can beget bad culture. Both of those can be present at once, and they can create a feedback loop that can destroy a locker room and a coaching tenure in a hurry.

The second season is when a lot of things come together. Even in the pre-portal days, it was common for players who just didn’t click with a new staff to transfer elsewhere. Whether they gave it a try for a season or not, they’d be gone by Year 2.

All the processes and procedures are in place by the second go-round, everyone on the staff knows how to work with each other better, and the players better understand the expectations. Plus it’s still early enough in the tenure that, unless Year 1 was an unmitigated disaster, everyone can still believe in the promise of brighter days ahead.

I typically like to work with hard numbers, but I can’t ignore the impact of culture. When Steve Spurrier took over Florida, he was able to make everyone believe right away. But despite having way more proven bona fides when he got to Columbia, it took him six years to build a culture of winning at South Carolina. Trends do exist, but every place is its own place.

And so, tomorrow night, Billy Napier’s second season begins at UF. He’s looking to engineer his second Year 2 jump after taking Louisiana from 7-7 to 11-3 across his first two campaigns. The Gators’ schedule is tough enough that it could fall into the cliche bucket of, “the team is better but the record doesn’t show it”, but I don’t get the feeling he’s looking for anything that sniffs of moral victory no matter how much analytics might back up the cliche.

Talent was down at Florida last year compared to where it usually is. Dan Mullen’s recruiting made sure of that, and Napier did such a good job of winning over the team that the transfer-heavy portion of the roster flip didn’t happen before the ’22 season.

Even so, UF wasn’t rolling out there with a CUSA roster or anything. At the beginning of last September, the Gators were No. 12 in the Team Talent Composite. That measure isn’t bulletproof since high school ratings get less relevant with each passing year and re-rating transfers can be tricky. Yet even if the TTC overrated UF, it didn’t do so by 40 spots or something.

Florida still had decent talent, even if it wasn’t up to par, but it didn’t have good culture. Wild swings in level of play made this fact evident throughout the year. The highs of the Utah win gave way to a pair of egg-laying sessions against Kentucky and USF. Momentum building wins over Texas A&M and South Carolina were preludes to a loss to Vandy. Players began to hit the portal after the final home game, not even bothering to stick it out with their teammates for the final two road matches.

Napier is a culture guy and a people person first. He’ll never be a cutting edge schematic innovator, but his relationship building has, from all accounts, really turned the culture of the program around. It also has paid dividends on the recruiting trail, and the yield on those is about to rise if he can keep the 2024 commitment list solid.

The new Team Talent Composite for 2023 hasn’t landed yet, but I expect the Gators will be in roughly the same place as last year. It’s likely that, also similar to 2022, only two or three scheduled opponents will be ahead of them on the list.

The talent is not evenly distributed throughout the team, so the TTC rank requires context and needs caveats. Individual players also need to do their specific jobs if they’re going to help out the collective whole.

But how well everyone plays together on game day and how well everyone executes on culture through the week will define this season. Can the team fulfill to its promise, or will it struggle to make a bowl again?

Perhaps no game is a bigger test of the culture than the November 18 game at Missouri. Florida has a history of playing poorly on the road when it’s cold; see last year’s Vanderbilt game for a quick example. Depending on broadcasters’ preferences, it could end up a sleepy 11 am kick — again, like Vandy ’22 — or an even colder prime time game.

The Gators have more talent than Missouri. They should be better overall than Missouri. Will they secure the win? That’ll come down to how well the team plays and works together. Culture, in other words. It’s easy to get up for a rival or a highly ranked team, but not dropping these kinds of games is part of what separates better teams from average ones.

As I mentioned earlier, engineering an improved culture in the first two years is not so difficult that only the best can do it. It is, however, a necessary requirement for rebuilding this Florida program as quickly as everyone wants. There are bigger questions that are still pending, such as the strategic choices about defensive scheme, whether Napier needs a play-calling offensive coordinator, and how the longterm culture situation works out.

But for now, we’re about to see the depth and durability of the culture overhaul that Napier’s been working on since Day 1. There’s been a lot of happy talk about how improved its been all off season, and how everyone who stuck around has completely bought in — quite unlike the roster of a year ago.

Everything seems great until someone punches you in the mouth. That’s exactly what Utah will try to do tomorrow, and so will eight SEC opponents plus the school out west. Barring some key injuries, Florida has the talent to compete with and defeat nearly everyone on the schedule. How many wins manifest, and how much momentum there will be for the future, will depend on how well the culture improvements stick.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2