Billy Napier has Florida prepared, confident for daunting opener


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Billy Napier says his wife was “burning me up” over the weekend with questions about Florida’s most daunting season opener in school history.

Napier, thankfully, had all the answers. His players probably would have, too.

The first-year Florida coach has mapped out every aspect of the team’s routine heading into his debut against seventh-ranked Utah. Walkthrough at the hotel? Check. Pregame meal? Check. Bus ride to the stadium? Check. Gator Walk among fans? On-field warmups? Celebratory entrance into the Swamp? Check, check, check.

The detail-oriented Napier, who makes his team wear matching white socks for every practice, has planned, plotted and perfected every minute of each day.

“I think preparation is the key to confidence,” Napier said.

If so, the Gators should be feeling like 10-point favorites by now.

It remains to be seen how much of a difference all those discussions and dress rehearsals will make when underdog Florida takes the field against the defending Pac-12 champions, who ended last season with a loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

Florida, meanwhile, finished 6-7 after firing coach Dan Mullen following an overtime loss at Missouri in November.

Athletic director Scott Stricklin hired Napier days later, tasking him with leading the Gators back to prominence after 13 years without a Southeastern Conference or national championship.

One of Napier’s first tasks, as cliché as it sounds, was to instill more discipline in a program that clearly lacked it in recent years. The Gators lost at home to reeling LSU in 2020 because cornerback Marco Wilson tossed an opponent’s shoe following a third-down stop, and they ranked 13th in the SEC and 122nd in the country last year in penalties.

“He came in and structured everything,” tight end Dante Zanders said.

Napier took the same approach for game day.

“He wants to make sure everything is prepared so that when it comes down to the game, there’s no excuses to where: `Oh, I didn’t know I needed to be here. I forgot this. I left this at home. Or, oh, I forgot that we had meetings at this time,”‘ Zanders said.

The Gators have every reason to be amped up for Utah, a 2 1/2-point favorite according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Florida has lost 10 of its last 16 games, and few outsiders would put the once-proud program in any category other than rebuilding mode; Napier’s team was picked to finish fourth in the SEC’s Eastern Division.

“We have a chip on our shoulder this year,” punter Jeremy Crawshaw said. “We want to prove ourselves. We’re coming for everything. . We knew we didn’t play up to our standard last year, but we’ve come hungry every time, every practice, every lift session, every film session. We’re hungry, and we’re talking about it.”

Florida’s opener has been talked about for months. It marks the first in a series of high-profile games Stricklin has scheduled in recent years, a list that includes North Carolina State, Cal, Colorado, Arizona State, Texas and Notre Dame.

The game is sold out, and more than 10,000 Utah fans are expected to be in Gainesville – maybe even in the Swamp – as the Utes begin defense of their conference title with their highest preseason ranking ever.

Napier, meanwhile, is trying to avoid history. Florida owns the nation’s longest active winning streak in home openers at 32.

The Gators last dropped a home opener in 1989, when Mississippi won 24-19 at Florida Field. Steve Spurrier replaced Galen Hall the following year.

And no first-year Florida coach has lost his debut since Charley Pell in 1979. Hall, Spurrier, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and Mullen won their debuts by an average score of 46-10.

Of course, none of those guys opened against a ranked team. Florida has played just two ranked teams to start seasons – No. 7 Houston in 1969 and No. 15 Miami in 1982 – and won both.

Napier welcomed the challenge and called it a “carrot” for his team. Nonetheless, he admittedly has felt better about openers before. After all, he was at Louisiana-Lafayette the last four years, and the routine there had become more engrained with every season.

Napier expects to have jitters, maybe even butterflies and goosebumps, as he jogs into the packed Swamp for his first real game. No number of mock-ups – or questions from his wife – would help him avoid those.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to be beyond that,” he said. “I think, as a competitor, football in particular, you work the entire year and you only get so many opportunities to compete.

“I think what I’ve learned over time is the important part is that how do you get to a place where you are well prepared and you have confidence.”

Georgia extends contract for AD Josh Brooks, plans two new football practice fields

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ATHENS, Ga. – On the heels of a second straight national football championship, Georgia has rewarded athletic director Josh Brooks a contract extension that ties him to the Bulldogs through at least 2029.

The athletic association board, wrapping up its annual spring meeting Friday at a resort on Lake Oconee, also announced plans for a new track and field facility that will free up space for two more football practice fields.

Brooks’ new contract will increase his salary to $1.025 million a year, with annual raises of $100,000.

The 42-year-old Brooks, who took over the athletic department in 2021 after Greg McGarity retired, called the Georgia job “a dream for me” and said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in Athens.

“I am extremely grateful,” Brooks said. “I got into this business 20-plus years ago as a student equipment manager. My first job at Louisiana-Monroe was making $20,000 a year in football operations.”

The Georgia board approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $175.2 million, a nearly 8% increase from the most recent budget of $162.2 million and the sign of a prosperous program that is flush with money after its success on the gridiron.

The school received approval to move forward with its preliminary plans for a new track and field facility, which will be built across the street from the complex hosting the soccer and and softball teams.

The current track stadium is located adjacent to the Butts-Mehre athletic facility, which hosts the practice fields and training facilities for the football program.

Georgia lost a chunk of its outdoor fields when it built a new indoor practice facility. After the new track and field stadium is completed, the current space will be converted to two full-length, grass football practice fields at the request of coach Kirby Smart.

“He wants to find efficient ways to practice, and there is a lot of truth to the issues we’ve had with our current practice fields,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of strain on our turf facilities staff to keep that field in great shape when half the day it is getting shade, so that has been a challenge as well. For our football program, it is better to practice on grass fields than (artificial) turf, so to be able to have two side-by-side grass fields is huge. It makes for a much more efficient practice.”

The new track and field complex, which will continue to be named Spec Towns Track, will also include an indoor facility, the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.

Iowa AD Gary Barta announces retirement after 17 years at Big Ten school

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa athletic director Gary Barta will retire on August 1 after 17 years at the university, the school announced Friday.

Barta, 59, is one of the longest-tenured athletic directors in a Power Five conference. He was hired by Iowa in 2006 after being the AD at Wyoming.

An interim director will be announced next week, Iowa said.

In September, Iowa hired former Ball State athletic director Beth Goetz to be deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer, putting her in position to possibly succeed Barta.

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve in this role the past 17 years,” Barta said in a statement. “This decision didn’t come suddenly, nor did it come without significant thought, discussion, and prayer.”

“That said, I’m confident this is the right time for me and for my family.”

Iowa won four NCAA national team titles and 27 Big Ten team titles during Barta’s tenure. The women’s basketball team is coming off an appearance in the national championship game and the wrestling team is coming off a second-place finish at the NCAA championships.

Barta served as the chairman of the College Football Playoff committee in 2020 and 2021.

He faced heavy criticism over more than $11 million in settlements for lawsuits in recent years alleging racial and sexual discrimination within the athletic department.

Lawsuits filed by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and associate athletics director Jane Meyer led to a $6.5 million payout.

Iowa had to pay $400,000 as part of a Title IX lawsuit brought by athletes after it cut four sports in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the agreement, Iowa reinstated the women’s swimming and diving program and add another women’s sport.

Iowa added women’s wrestling, the first among Power Five schools to compete this year.

A lawsuit brought by former football players alleging racial discrimination within the program was settled for $4.2 million last March, which prompted state auditor Rob Sand to call for Barta’s ouster.

“Gary Barta’s departure is a long time coming given the four different lawsuits for discrimination that cost Iowa more than $11 million,” Sand posted on Twitter.

The university did not allow taxpayer money to be used for the settlement with the former players.

Barta led Iowa through $380 million of facility upgrades, including renovation of Kinnick Stadium, the construction of a new football facility, a basketball practice facility and a training center for the wrestling teams.

Under Barta, Iowa has had just one head football coach (Kirk Ferentz), women’s basketball coach (Lisa Bluder) and wrestling coach (Tom Brands). All were in place when he arrived.

Barta has also come under scrutiny for allowing Ferentz to employee his son, Brian Ferentz, as offensive coordinator. To comply with the university’s nepotism policy, Brian Ferentz reports to Barta.