Napier ready for the challenge
Published 10:23 pm Thursday, January 16, 2020
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
For Matt Napier, it’s not easy to say good-bye to a place that means so much to him, but he’s ready to take the leap.
For the past 15 football seasons, Napier was the offensive coordinator at Callaway High School, and he helped that program become one of the best in the state.
Beyond what happened on the football field, Napier forged lasting friendships at a school that will always be special to him.
Despite his fond feelings for Callaway, and that won’t change now that he’s leaving, Napier is eager for his next challenge.
Napier accepted a position as LaGrange High’s new football coach last week, and it became official when the hiring was approved during a meeting of the Troup County Board of Education on Thursday.
Napier leaves a program that is thriving.
Under head coach Pete Wiggins and with Napier by his side running the offense, the Cavaliers have been in the state playoffs every year since 2006, and they’ve reached the state semifinals three times since 2013.
Last season, led by an offense that averaged more than 40 points per game, Callaway went 12-2 and made it to the semifinals.
“We were really committed to the process of building it up. Before we got there, we had not won a playoff game, we had not won a region championship, we had not signed a Division I football scholarship,” Napier said. “So, the pride of building it from the ground up at that place, you felt like it was your heart. You put a lot of time and effort and hours and sweat, year after year to get it to the point where it’s at. It was a struggle at times, but it was a joy most of the time. It definitely made it a place that I love, and that my family loves, and my boys love it.”
With that in mind, Napier said “it’s hard to move on from a place like that,” but he’s doing so without reservation, and he’s looking forward to working alongside principal Alton White and athletics director Mike Pauley.
“The good Lord puts opportunities and situations in front of you, and when it feels right it feels right, and this one did,” Napier said. “A big part of that is how much support’s here. Mr. White, and coach Pauley, and the community of LaGrange has been so supportive. It’s everything you could ask for to make the situation feel comfortable, and then you have the fact that your family doesn’t have to move. And then there’s the excitement of getting to come in, the challenge of where the program’s at, and building it the way I want to, and getting to work.”
Napier made the decision to leave Callaway after plenty of soul-searching, as well as discussions with his supportive family.
“It’s a commitment for my family,” Napier said. “I’m a sun up to sun down coach anyway as a coordinator. It’s not going to be that much of a change from a time standpoint, but it is a weight on your family when you make this choice, because it impacts them. You can’t make those decisions without the support of your wife and your children, and goodness gracious I’ve got some of the best in the world.”
Napier will be guiding a program that has struggled of late.
During the 2000s the Grangers were one of the state’s winningest teams, and they won state titles in 2001, 2003 and 2004.
The Grangers haven’t had a winning season since 2009, though, and they’ve won six games in the past four years.
Napier will be LaGrange’s fourth head coach since Steve Pardue left following the 2009 season after a remarkable 17-year tenure that included three state titles.
“Just like where I’m coming from, it’s going to be built brick by brick, one agility drill, one set of power cleans at a time,” Napier said. “It’ll take a positive attitude, and a buy-in from the kids and the coaching staff. It takes a lot to be good, and I’m excited about getting that journey, getting that process started. I’m looking forward to impacting these young men, and them impacting me.”
Napier added that “you don’t get in it for winning football games. You get in it for the relationships. And I’m definitely looking forward to building more relationships. I think the Lord put me here to do this, to coach football, and this was something he’s put in my path, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Napier comes from a coaching family.
Napier’s father, Bill Napier, was the head coach at Murray County from 1991 to 2006.
Matt Napier played for his father at Murray County, and he later followed in his dad’s footsteps and went into the coaching business after graduating from the University of West Georgia.
In fact, all three of Bill Napier’s sons became coaches, no doubt each inspired by their father.
Billy Napier has focused on college coaching, and he’s in the midst of a successful tenure as the head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Kurt Napier, meanwhile, coached alongside Matt Napier at Callaway before returning to Murray County.
This past season Kurt Napier was the defensive coordinator at Murray County.
“He’s a big reason I’m here right now. He was my hero,” Matt Napier said of his father, who died of ALS in 2017. “He was everything to me and my brothers. He was what we wanted to be. He’s why I wanted to be a head football coach. I remember running around as a water boy when he was coach, and it was something special.”
Football, Napier points out, was always a part of the family landscape.
“Growing up, he would draw up plays on a napkin in the kitchen, or we’d be watching a football game and he’d be breaking it down with diagrams, or coaches would be sitting in our living room and they’d be talking ball,” Napier said. “It was a special experience growing up, and there’s no doubt about it that he’s the reason why I am where I am. I took everything he taught me and I tried to do it, obviously not as good as him, but the good Lord knows I’ve tried.”
Napier added that “there’s no doubt he’s smiling down, and that he’s so proud. He never missed an opportunity to tell me how proud he was. I hope I’m half the dad he is.”
After high school, Napier headed to Carrollton to attend West Georgia, and he was a walk-on member of the football team.
Following graduation Napier spent one season at Eastside High in Covington before joining Wiggins’ new-look staff at Callaway in 2005, beginning a fruitful partnership.
Remarkably, for 15 seasons Callaway has had the same head coach, the same offensive coordinator, and the same defensive coordinator in Dusty Hubbard.
“My entire coaching career, so far, has been at Callaway High School. There aren’t a lot of people like that,” Napier said. “My dad was fortunate to stay around Murray County for a super-long time. The longevity is coaching is not a norm. It doesn’t happen a lot. I was fortunate to do that. A big part of that is the way the place is set up, and Pete Wiggins is a big part of that. He makes everyone feel very comfortable, and it’s a family atmosphere. It’s hard to leave. Even if you may have an opportunity, it’s not easy to walk away from a place like that.”
Despite having limited coaching experience, Napier was entrusted with running the offense at Callaway, and that decision paid massive dividends for the program.
The Cavaliers have had high-scoring offenses throughout Napier’s time with the program, and the 2019 team averaged more than 40 points per game.
“As an offensive coach and a defensive coach, I think you’ve got to adapt,” Napier said. “You have to adapt to your players, especially at the high-school level. You’ve got to find the best fit for you that specific year, and I think the way the game is now, my dad was always learning, and always seeking to grow as a coach from a philosophy of a scheme standpoint, and that’s something I learned from him. And I tried to do that. I’ve made sure it’s a priority that we ran something that fit our players, and that I progressed as the game progresses.”
The basics of what made Callaway’s offenses so successful never wavered, though.
“Any good coach is looking for ways to get better, but the principles don’t change,” Napier said. “You’ve got be physical, you’ve got to be able to run the ball, and then you can do things off that depending on the talent. That’s kind of the philosophy. We’re going to be really good at four or five plays and play off of that when we get really good. We’re not going to do too much until we get really good at those four or five plays.”
One of the keys to success, Napier believes, is “repetition.”
“We’re creatures of habit,” he added. “If we do it the right way over and over again, we’ll get really good at it. If you have an idea of what you want to do and you can teach that and prepare them for the moment, you do it over and over again for several years in a row, I think that’s how you have success.”
For Napier, one of the joys of his time at Callaway was the opportunity to work alongside a head coach that he has such admiration for.
“We’re best of friends. He means a lot to me,” Napier said of Wiggins. “That’s a big deal and that makes leaving so hard, because our relationship is so strong, and he’s been as good a friend as anybody I’ve ever had, and supportive as a head coach. We work so well together, and part of that is because our friendship was so strong, and it’s been a special deal. That’s a big reason why I stuck around for a long time because I have a lot of respect for him, and I’ve enjoyed working for him and being his friend.”
Wiggins, who was a part of Bill Napier’s staff at Murray County, is grateful for the time he was able to spend with Napier, and he wishes him well.
“Coach Napier always put everything he had into our program, and I know that his life-long dream was to be a head football coach, and this is a great opportunity, and I’m proud for him,” Wiggins said. “I know that his dad would look down and grin right now for this opportunity. So I wish him and his family the best. I know he’s going to do an incredible job.”
Wiggins added that “I walked in Bill Napier’s footsteps for three years, and I sure wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for him, so obviously not only Matt, but coach (Bill) Napier, and Kurt, and Billy, all those guys are very special to me.”
Napier is ready to hit the ground running at LaGrange, and try to help the program rediscover its winning days.
“Over the next four months it’ll be critical to build the football team, in the weight room, doing speed and agilities, and meeting in the mornings, throwing with the quarterbacks, those types of things. You really build your team in the offseason,” Napier said. “A lot of people come to a game (at Callaway) and we have looked very athletic and very good, but what they don’t know is that kid had 97 workouts from January to August. He worked out and showed up to make his body look the way it does, and for him to get in shape the way he is.”
Napier will ask for a high level of commitment from the players, and he’s hopeful that willingness to work will yield results.
“I think most of them want a coach that’s going to push you really hard, but love you, too. I think that’s what all kids want,” Napier said. “They want to be a part of something, and I hope that I’m able to put together something that’s really special, and I think it’s going to be, and I hope it’s a thing that these kids can’t miss out on.”