What if Arizona State promoted Billy Napier to head coach in 2017?

TEMPE — On Dec. 15, 2017, Phoenix affiliate CBS returned from commercials with the latest Arizona state news.

“More fallout tonight after ASU hires Herm Edwards as its next head football coach,” the presenter reported. “The Sun Devils offensive coordinator is moving forward. Billy Napier takes a job as head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette.

The best conversations in sports often start with two simple words: What if? It’s time travel, an imaginative (and often painful) look at what might have been. In this case: What if Arizona State had promoted Billy Napier to replace Todd Graham in the winter of 2017?

Admittedly, answering that question today is like diving over an eight-foot basketball goal or bowling with gutter guards. But it’s worth exploring for the simple reason that not too long ago Arizona State had one of the most promising young coaches in the nation on staff, to then go in a different direction. Five years later, coach Herm Edwards is under fire at the helm of a program under investigation by the NCAA for alleged recruiting violations, while Napier, after a successful run of four years in Louisiana, is about to start his first season with Florida. AthleticismIn February, Stewart Mandel ranked Florida’s rental as one of the best in college football this practice cycle.

Could it have been otherwise for the Sun Devils? According to those who worked with Napier, he held Arizona State in high regard, at least until he accepted the job in Florida last December. And it’s not like those at Arizona State didn’t recognize Napier’s potential. In 2017, the athletic department firmly believed the offensive coordinator was destined for success. At least one former staffer could see Napier becoming an NFL head coach someday.

Vice President of Athletics Ray Anderson had, of course, already thought of Edwards. In his previous career as an agent, Anderson had represented Edwards during the coach’s time in the NFL. For Anderson, Arizona State had to try something different — he was right in that regard — and Edwards, a man who hadn’t coached in nearly a decade outside of All-Star Games, was the right one. nobody. And so Napier forged his way elsewhere.

But not at first.

Graham had hired Napier in January 2017 after the two spoke for four hours in Dallas. Napier, then 37, had spent the previous four seasons with Nick Saban’s team in Alabama. He had also worked as an offensive coordinator under Dabo Swinney at Clemson. Early on, Napier made an impression at Arizona State. He wanted to learn all facets of the program, what worked and what didn’t. No detail was too small. “He’s a guy who, without giving a lot of talk, just with the way he’s operated, has earned the respect of our team,” Graham said the first month of fall practice.

Arizona State overcame a slow start to finish the 2017 regular season 7-5. Hours after the Sun Devils’ final game, school president Michael Crow emailed the Arizona Board of Regents informing them that Anderson would be firing Graham the next morning. This triggered the following sequence:

November 26: During a 30-minute press conference, Anderson made it clear that he wanted Napier and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to have the opportunity to come back and work for the next head coach at Arizona State, whose the identity was still publicly unknown.

1st December: With Edwards’ hiring not yet finalized, Napier said he was unable to decide on his future. He called the state of Arizona a “special place”
and thanked the university for treating his family so well. (Napier had lost his father to ALS that season.) “I’m excited about the opportunities I may have, whether here or elsewhere,” Napier said. “And I will continue to work hard for whoever it is, but I really appreciate that Coach Graham believes in me and gives me an opportunity here.”

December 5: Shortly after his introduction as head coach, Edwards promoted Napier to associate head coach.

December 8: After a bowl practice, a reporter asked Napier if he had any conversations about becoming Arizona State’s head coach-in-waiting. Napier dodged the question with an answer focused on the value of staying in one place for an extended period of time.

A week later, Napier accepted the position in Louisiana. Given the effort to retain both coordinators — Bennett also left, opting to retire — it was a bad look for Arizona State. Lineman Steven Miller, who recently joined Florida’s strength and conditioning team, summed it up:

It should be noted that no one at the time considered Napier a serious option for the Sun Devils. After Graham’s dismissal, the Arizona Republic released a slate of nominees that included Edwards, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, South Florida’s Charlie Strong, Memphis’ Mike Norvell, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, Washington’s defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, Michigan assistant head coach Pep Hamilton and Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. (Disclosure: The writer of this story helped compile this list.) Names that surfaced elsewhere included LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin, former coach of Arkansas Bret Bielema and Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.

Napier would have been a bold hire for any Pac-12 school in the winter of 2017. He was young. He lacked experience as a head coach. He had few ties to the West. But he had learned from Saban how to structure a program. More importantly, he knew what he didn’t know. Even after leaving Arizona State, Napier still called staff members at his old school and asked detailed questions about how they operated. That’s what Saban meant last season when he said Napier was “very calculated” in his approach. It would have worked well in Tempe. It worked well in Louisiana.

After three lost seasons, the Ragin’ Cajuns went 40-12 under Napier, winning four division titles in four years. In 2020, they finished No. 15 in the final AP poll, the highest ranking in program history. In 2021, they finished No. 16. Edwards went 25-18 on the same streak at Arizona State, making three bowl games. Last season the Sun Devils finished 8-5, but the NCAA investigation suspended the program and continues to do so. The future looks fragile, but the sport doesn’t always go as planned.

In 2028, Florida is expected to visit Sun Devil Stadium. By then, we will know for sure. How Edwards ended up at Arizona State. How Napier adapted to the SEC. And what could have been for the Sun Devils.

(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today)