It’s a common occurrence in college football for head coaches to experience a surge in their second year, so much so that even those who end up being let go shortly after often witness such improvements. From instances like Mike Shula at Alabama to Will Muschamp at Florida and later at South Carolina, numerous examples of subpar head coaches producing significant second-year progressions can be readily cited. While this phenomenon isn’t universal due to various factors, it’s noteworthy that disparate programs and individuals still encounter this trend.
Having closely observed this trend for over fifteen years, I am reasonably convinced that an intangible factor consistently ties these cases together: culture. Although the term “culture” encompasses myriad definitions, I’ll present my interpretation and build upon it. Culture pertains to the processes and camaraderie not only within a team but throughout the entire program.
It’s no secret that many high-profile college coaching positions experience turnover due to terminations or forced resignations. Such situations frequently lack a strong culture. A negative culture can foster loss, which in turn can perpetuate further negativity. This cycle, marked by both poor performance and culture, can swiftly dismantle both team unity and a coach’s tenure.
The second season is often a turning point. Even before the era of the transfer portal, players who didn’t gel with a new coaching staff would frequently transfer after the first year, if not before Year 2.
By the second year, all the processes and routines are in place. The staff has developed better working dynamics, and the players have a clearer grasp of the expectations. Moreover, this phase of the coaching tenure is still early enough that, unless the first year was an utter catastrophe, there remains a shared optimism for a more promising future.
While I generally prefer working with concrete data, I cannot discount the profound influence of culture. For example, Steve Spurrier was able to instill immediate belief in Florida, but despite his extensive credentials upon arriving in South Carolina, it took him six years to establish a winning culture. While trends do exist, each program possesses its unique dynamics.
Consequently, tomorrow marks the beginning of Billy Napier’s second season at UF. He aims to replicate his Year 2 success after elevating Louisiana’s performance from 7-7 to 11-3 during his initial two campaigns. Although the Gators face a challenging schedule that might lead to the clichéd scenario of an improved team not fully reflected in the record, I sense that Napier isn’t seeking anything resembling moral victories, no matter how much analytics might support the cliché.
Florida faced a talent deficit last year compared to its usual standards, largely due to Dan Mullen’s recruiting choices. Nonetheless, Napier’s adeptness at connecting with the team prevented a substantial exodus of transfers before the 2022 season.
Even then, UF wasn’t fielding a roster of minimal quality. At the start of September, the Gators ranked 12th in the Team Talent Composite. While this metric has its limitations, as high school ratings lose relevance over time and evaluating transfer players can be complex, even if the Composite overestimated UF’s talent, it certainly wasn’t off by a significant margin.
Despite possessing decent talent, the absence of a strong culture was evident in the team’s inconsistent performances throughout the year. Notable victories against Utah were followed by disappointing losses to Kentucky and USF. Momentum-building triumphs over Texas A&M and South Carolina preceded a defeat against Vandy. After the final home game, players swiftly entered the transfer portal, displaying a lack of commitment to their teammates for the remaining road matches.
Napier is primarily focused on fostering a positive culture and building relationships. While he may not be an innovative strategist, his emphasis on relationship-building has significantly transformed the program’s culture, benefiting recruiting efforts, and is likely to yield more positive results with the 2024 commitment list.
Although the new Team Talent Composite for 2023 isn’t available yet, I anticipate that the Gators will likely maintain a similar ranking as the previous year. It’s probable that similar to 2022, only a few opponents on their schedule will rank higher.
However, talent distribution across the team isn’t uniform, and the Composite ranking necessitates context. Individual players must also fulfill their roles effectively to contribute to the team’s collective success.
Ultimately, the team’s cohesion on game day and its adherence to the established culture throughout the week will determine this season’s outcome. Can the team fulfill its potential, or will it struggle to secure a bowl appearance?
Perhaps no game will test the team’s culture more than the November 18 match against Missouri. Florida has a history of underperforming in cold road games, exemplified by the previous year’s Vanderbilt match. Depending on the broadcast schedule, the game could be an early 11 am kickoff or an even colder evening match.
While the Gators boast superior talent compared to Missouri, their success hinges on how well they work together as a team. This season’s results will largely be defined by the culture improvements implemented since Day 1. Despite a positive off-season and increased buy-in from the team members who stayed, real challenges lie ahead. As the saying goes, everything seems fine until adversity strikes. Utah and eight SEC opponents, along with a Western school, will certainly provide such challenges. Barring significant injuries, Florida possesses the potential to compete against and triumph over most of their opponents. The team’s number of wins and the momentum they carry into the future will be contingent on the extent to which the cultural improvements endure.
In conclusion, while engineering culture improvements within the first two years isn’t an insurmountable task, it’s an essential component of rapidly rebuilding the Florida program. Several important questions remain, including strategic decisions about defensive schemes, the necessity of a play-calling offensive coordinator for Napier, and the long-term cultural evolution.
For now, the effectiveness and resilience of Napier’s culture overhaul, initiated from the outset, will be put to the test. The offseason has seen significant positive talk about these improvements, and the team’s alignment is markedly different from a year ago.
Nonetheless, true challenges emerge when faced with adversity. Utah will present such a test tomorrow, and so will eight SEC opponents, in addition to the Western school. Florida’s capacity to shine amidst such challenges rests upon the team’s ability to maintain and execute its cultural enhancements. While rallying against rivals and top-ranked teams is simpler, avoiding slip-ups in games like these is a hallmark of superior teams.
In sum, the second-year surge phenomenon in college football isn’t an exclusive privilege of the elite coaches. However, it’s a critical prerequisite for accelerating the reconstruction of Florida’s program, and the season’s outcomes will significantly hinge on the success of these culture-focused improvements.