The Big Lesson from Georgia’s rise while Florida stagnated

The biggest story of the past dozen years in the SEC East has been the rise of Georgia and the stagnation at Florida.

It looked like the Gators had risen back to where they were in the Spurrier days under Urban Meyer, but the success proved fleeting due to Meyer’s burnout and poor program culture management. Florida has since gone through a series of coaches who weren’t big enough for the job in their own various ways.

Georgia ended its own minor slide around the time Meyer left Gainesville before the 2011 season. The Bulldogs won at least ten games in four of the next five years, had two top ten finishes, and came five yards away from winning the SEC and playing for the national title in 2012. Nonetheless, UGA fired Mark Richt in favor of Kirby Smart after the 2015 regular season. You know the story from there.

Former Florida walk on offensive lineman Andy Staples wrote the story on how UF slid into the mire for the Athletic this week. He zeroed in on three main culprits: the program being perpetually behind in facilities, a decline in recruiting, and NIL troubles. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing here — you should go read it, because it’s very good — but there are some things to add.

As part of the recruiting section, Staples compares Billy Napier’s first full recruiting class in 2023 to Nick Saban’s first full recruiting class at Alabama in 2008. That ’08 haul was among the best ever and helped catapalt the Tide into the stratosphere where it’s been ever since.

He made the comparison because “a veteran SEC assistant” told Scott Stricklin that Napier hews the closest to Saban’s famous Process of any former lieutenant. And the juxtaposition it is instructive to the extent of calibrating Napier’s timeline for success against Saban’s.

It’s also not a fair comparison for Napier’s recruiting ability. Saban was a household name from winning a national title at LSU by the time he got to Tuscaloosa. Of course he hit it big on the trail immediately, just like Meyer did at Ohio State. Napier’s biggest resume bullet point was being the head coach at Louisiana, a program that no one watches even when it’s a top 25 team as Napier made it in his final two seasons there.

Napier also wasn’t ever a coordinator under Saban, and he took over a rough situation from what Mullen left behind. That’s in sharp contrast to Smart, who Gary Danielson made a household name with glowing praise every one of the numerous times Alabama appeared on CBS in the years leading up to 2016. And while Richt lacked the killer instinct to win a championship, Georgia averaged exactly ten wins a year in the five seasons prior to Smart’s hire (UF: 7.8 wins per year across 2017-21). Richt was a good recruiter too, so there was no extensive rebuilding of the UGA brand with high school coaches that needed to be done.

Napier seems to have gotten recruiting back to a high level in the 2024 cycle, as the Gators are one of three programs along with Bama and UGA to have an average commit rating above 94 right now in the 247 Sports Composite. It’s seven months until the early signing day though, so it’s still a provisional check mark in Napier’s favor.

Anyway, three things enabled Georgia’s quick rise under Smart. The first is something I just mentioned, which is that Richt left the place in great shape for a guy who’d just got fired. The second is that Smart is a terrific CEO of a college football program. The third is that UGA’s administration really stepped up its spending for Smart.

In the pre-Kirby days, Georgia fans used to constantly complain about the athletic department being cheap compared to the other SEC powers. That was with nice-guy Richt as head coach and Jeremy Foley’s former No. 2 Greg McGarity as AD.

Then McGarity finally took enough heat that he fired Richt and hired Smart, who wouldn’t have taken the job if the level of investment was going to stay the same as what it was under his predecessor. It took the prospective head coach making demands to get the AD to spend freely, but the same guy who was killed for being stingy suddenly opened up the checkbook and became a big spender.

I think the lesson is that ADs in general like to keep a close eye on the books and won’t spend money just to spend money. If it’s working, then keep doing that — see in the Staples piece how Spurrier was publicly gleeful about beating teams that invested more, or how UF didn’t make grand facilities plans until two head coaches after Meyer because Meyer won despite the relative shortcomings. Maybe something bigger than the new “front door” that Meyer got built in short order would’ve come much sooner had he stayed longer, but we’ll never know.

Stricklin has talked to this effect before. His answer for why he didn’t spend more during the Mullen era was that Mullen never made a compelling case for it.

Napier had extensive plans made up for his vision for the program. Not coincidentally, Stricklin started spending much more on staffing and recruiting for him than he did for Mullen.

The arrow of causation goes from the head coach to the administration, not the other way around. It’s not the athletic director’s job to hire and oversee an army of analysts, or expend more time and effort on the recruiting trail, or fix whatever other problem there is. It’s the head coach’s job to identify the issues and make plans to rectify them. It’s the AD’s job to make sure the plans make sense and then provide resources to execute on them.

Napier had the plans to build a modern winner in the mold of Alabama or Georgia, and as a result, Florida is now spending like it wants to build such a winner. But because of mismanagement by past head coaches and Napier’s relative lack of star power, it was always going to take more time to build a juggernaut even if the plan and its execution were perfect — and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would say both have been perfect so far. Napier himself doesn’t think so, as evidenced by him talking in the spring about adjustments he’s made following 2022.

I don’t know if Napier is the guy who will get Florida back to the promised land. If he isn’t, he’s at least going to leave behind a program in far better shape than Muschamp, McElwain, or Mullen did.

I hope UF brass has learned the important lesson here: hiring a good ball coach is valuable, but more than that is finding someone with an expansive vision that will try to use Florida’s advantages to their fullest. Even if it doesn’t work out, it’ll keep more momentum going for the next guy than will hiring someone who can win some games despite not investing like the perennial powers.

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