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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Familiar territory: all eyes rest on Napier, Golden

Billy Napier and Todd Golden must break away from previous patterns of failure as a new UF athletics era begins this Fall

<p>Graphic of Billy Napier and Todd Golden. Photos by Emily Felts and Joe Henry, graphic by Namari Lock.</p>

Graphic of Billy Napier and Todd Golden. Photos by Emily Felts and Joe Henry, graphic by Namari Lock.

“How are we doing, guys? We doing alright?”

Former UF football head coach Jim McElwain — donning an alligator pin on the left lapel of his black suit jacket and a big, toothy smile — began a new period of Florida Gators football history with those words at his introductory press conference Dec. 6, 2014.

McElwain, as it turned out, was soon not alright. The former Colorado State coach took over after Will Muschamp’s failed tenure and lasted less than three full seasons. His final farewell was a 42-7 drubbing at the hands of the rival Georgia Bulldogs. 

Five months and five days after McElwain’s introduction, UF welcomed yet another new face; Mike White — who sported a cleaner, even understated look — served as legendary men’s basketball coach Billy Donovan’s successor. White, to his credit, served at the helm of the men’s hoops program for seven seasons before his departure after the 2021-2022 season (although many fans likely would have wanted that run to end a season or two earlier).

The last time UF brought a new football and men’s basketball coach in the same year, neither lived up to expectations. As the Fall semester looms, Gator nation finds itself at a similar watershed. 

Billy Napier. Todd Golden. Through one door, the two coaches could return Florida to glory. Through another, the “Gator Standard” could be plunged further into question.

It is, without hyperbole, do-or-die time in Gainesville. 

The men’s basketball program saw a single Southeastern Conference championship in the past decade. Predating White, Donovan led the hoops squad to a 2014 conference title. 

The football program has been less fortunate; then-head-coach Dan Mullen’s tight loss to Alabama in the 2020 SEC Championship was the closest the Gators have come since Urban Mayer paced the sidelines of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Less than one year later, Mullen was fired on the basis of a 6-7 season

Four schools in the SEC have won more combined football and men’s hoops conference titles in the past decade than Florida. Gator nation prides itself on boasting elite programs in both sports -– UF is still the only school with national titles in both sports this century — but the report card from the past decade in the land of “It Just Means More,” might suggest otherwise. It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately atmosphere.

Florida sits firmly outside the danger of losing its competitive credibility, for now.

Both Napier and Golden appear successful, so far. Golden brought in elite transfer talent, while Napier arguably hit the recruiting trail harder in one offseason than his predecessor did in four years.

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But the duo’s accolades from lower-caliber programs at their previous stops sound eerily similar to those of the ill-fated 2015 hires. McElwain came to UF after success at CSU, where he was named the 2014 Mountain West Conference coach of the year, and White arrived after a 27-9 season at Louisiana Tech. 

Translating Napier’s success at Louisiana-Lafayette and Golden’s at San Francisco to Gainesville will determine both coaches’ legacy and test whether or not they can prevent history from repeating itself. Early returns look promising, but the proof will come in the “W” column.

Their performances will also likely determine the fate of UF athletic director Scott Stricklin, who took over for Jeremy Foley in 2016. 

After Mullen, his first big-fish hire, left the football program unceremoniously, and two other hires — former women's basketball coach Cam Newbauer and former soccer coach Tony Amato — left the university amid claims of abuse earlier this year, the ice under Stricklin is thin.

The cloudy nature of the two programs doesn’t necessarily represent all of UF athletics. The men’s and women’s track and field teams currently reign as national champions, and women’s basketball head coach Kelly Rae Finley restored that program in just one season.

Regardless, money talks. Football and men’s hoops traditionally turn the most profit for the university. A significant impact on UF’s athletic revenue would be more than enough cause for the university to part ways with Stricklin.

While one semester will be inadequate in determining the two programs’ long-term outlook, this Fall is the beginning of a crossroads that fans and historians alike will look back on. It will be the beginning of a successful decade or the beginning of a Tennessee-esque downturn, or somewhere in the middle; either way, the seasons are guaranteed to be eventful.

For now, all eyes rest upon the two venues that hug Gale Lemerand Drive.

Contact Carson Cashion at ccashion@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @CarsonCashion.

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Carson Cashion

Carson Cashion is a third-year sports journalism major at UF, and the sports editor at The Alligator for the 2022 summer semester. A native of Altamonte Springs, Carson spends his free time walking his dog, Baxter, and listening to good music. He is an avid Tennessee sports fan, and eagerly awaits watching one of his teams win a championship for the first time.


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