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

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

“More fallout tonight after ASU hired Herm Edwards as the next head football coach,” the anchor reported. “The Sun Devils’ offensive coordinator is moving on. Billy Napier is taking a job as head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette.”

The best conversations in sports often begin with two simple words: What if? It’s a trip back in time, 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 this question today is the equivalent of dunking on an eight-foot basketball goal or bowling with gutter guards. But it’s worth exploring for the simple reason Arizona State not long ago had one of the country’s rising young coaches on staff, only to go in a different direction. Five years later, coach Herm Edwards is under fire at the helm of a program being investigated by NCAA for alleged recruiting violations, while Napier, after a successful four-year run at Louisiana, is about to begin his first season with Florida. The Athletic‘s Stewart Mandel in February graded Florida’s hire as one of the best in college football this coaching cycle.

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

Vice president of athletics Ray Anderson, of course, already had Edwards in mind. In his previous career as an agent, Anderson had represented Edwards during the coach’s time in the NFL. To Anderson, Arizona State needed to try something different — he was right in this respect — and Edwards, a man who had not been coached in nearly a decade outside of all-star games, was the right fit. And so Napier forged his path elsewhere.

But not at first.

Graham had hired Napier in January of 2017 after the two had talked for four hours in Dallas. Napier, then 37, had spent the previous four seasons on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama. He also had worked as offensive coordinator under Dabo Swinney at Clemson. From the start, Napier made an impression at Arizona State. He wanted to learn every facet of the program, what worked and what didn’t. No detail was too small. “He’s a guy that without giving many speeches, just with how 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 sent an email to the Arizona Board of Regents informing them that Anderson would dismiss Graham the next morning. This set off the following sequence:

Nov 26: During a 30-minute news conference, Anderson made it clear he wanted Napier and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to have the option to return and work for Arizona State’s next head coach, whose identity was still publicly unknown.

Dec 1: With the Edwards hire not yet finalized, Napier said he was not in position to decide on his future. He called Arizona State 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 that maybe I’ll get, whether that’s here or other places,” Napier said. “And I’ll continue to work my butt off for whoever that may be, but I’m very appreciative of Coach Graham believing in me and giving me an opportunity here.”

Dec 5: Not long after his introduction as head coach, Edwards promoted Napier to associate head coach.

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

A week later, Napier accepted the Louisiana job. Given the effort to retain both coordinators — Bennett left, too, choosing to retire — this was a bad look for Arizona State. Lineman Steven Miller, who recently joined the strength and conditioning staff at Florida, summed it up:

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

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

Coming off three losing 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 over the same stretch at Arizona State, making three bowl games. Last season the Sun Devils finished 8-5 but the NCAA investigation hung over the program and continues to do so. The future appears shaky, but sports don’t always unfold as expected.

In 2028, Florida is scheduled to visit Sun Devil Stadium. By then, we’ll know for sure. How Edwards finished at Arizona State. How Napier adjusted to the SEC. And what might have been for the Sun Devils.

(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

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