The Logic of the Faithful

The nadir of my life as a Navy football fan– and probably the same for many of you– was the 2001 Georgia Tech game. My ship was the visit ship on the Yard that weekend, and I was excited to show off the Navy football experience to my division. They were a really great bunch, and we had spent a lot of time together on cruise sitting in the EM shop and talking college football. I bought them all tickets to the game, and after tailgating with my sponsor we claimed a spot on the hill to watch. It was a great day… Up until kickoff, anyway. Three hours or so later, as Damarius Bilbo ran a bootleg in from the 6 yard line to give the Yellow Jackets a 70-7 lead with 32 seconds left in the game, EM1 Shaw (now Chief Warrant Officer Shaw) turned to me with a smile and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. James. They had to put the game out of reach!”

I was absolutely miserable, and I wasn’t alone. The consensus at the postgame tailgate was that with a new athletic director in charge, we were watching Charlie Weatherbie’s last season in Annapolis. It was depressing; not just because of the losses, but because I liked Charlie Weatherbie. It isn’t like I knew him or anything. It’s just that he was the coach when I was a mid, and most of the best times I had at USNA involved the football, basketball, and lacrosse teams. I had nothing but fond memories of weird pep rallies and the Aloha Bowl when it came to Weatherbie. As the team languished through an 0-10 season, I had a hard time understanding how so much could go so wrong so quickly.

“So Much, So Wrong, So Quickly” would be a good name for a book on the history of Navy football for the two decades between 1981-2001. George Welsh’s last season in Annapolis was a fun one, with wins over Syracuse, Georgia Tech, and Air Force, and a comeback that fell just short in the Liberty Bowl against Ohio State. West Virginia offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill, who had coached Navy’s quarterbacks and receivers under Welsh from 1973-76, was hired to replace Welsh after he left to take the Virginia job in 1982. In the first game of the ’82 season, Tranquill beat his old boss, 30-16, in Annapolis.

It was all downhill from there.

Four different coaches tried to replicate Welsh’s success at Navy over the next 20 years. None of them succeeded. In 1996, however, there was a glimmer of hope. Navy went 9-3, including an Aloha Bowl win over California. When Charlie Weatherbie was unable to generate any kind of momentum from that season, Chet Gladchuk turned to someone else from that team to try to capture lightning in a bottle again: Paul Johnson. Johnson had gone on to win two national championships at Georgia Southern since leaving Navy after the ’96 season, and seemed like obvious choice… If he’d take the job. Chet wouldn’t take no for an answer. Paul didn’t like hearing that he couldn’t win at Navy. It was a match made in heaven. On December 9, 2001, Paul Johnson was named as the 36th head football coach at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Six years later, I’m finalizing plans for my trip to San Diego to see Navy’s 5th-straight bowl game. The superintendent of USNA at the time, VADM John Ryan, said of Johnson’s hiring, “I believe years from now people will point to December 9, 2001, as the day the Naval Academy turned around its football program.” How right he was. Five bowl games, five CIC Trophies, a 10-win season, a top 25 ranking, and a victory over Notre Dame later, and I’d say things have turned around. When you consider that it was fairly common for people to say that Navy should drop to I-AA, our success has been borderline miraculous.

Unfortunately, I can’t help but wonder if December 7, 2007, is what people will look back to as the day the Naval Academy’s football program went straight back into the toilet.

That’s pretty damn pessimistic, I know. But it’s a pessimism born from the respect I have for Paul Johnson. Navy is one of the hardest coaching jobs in all of college football, if not the hardest. The academic restrictions, military commitment, lack of redshirting, and school administration that can change on a dime would make most coaches want to schedule Navy, but never coach there. But as we already know, Paul Johnson isn’t most coaches. It was a special feeling to truly believe that Navy– Navy— had the best college football coach in America. And not just because of partisan chest-thumping, either. I felt that way because of what I saw with my own eyes. Unfortunately, it’s knowing that it took the best coach in football to even get to this point that makes me nervous about Ken Niumatalolo’s ability to maintain what we have. If anyone can, it’s Niumat; but it takes a special coach to win at Navy. Continuing at the level we’ve grown accustomed to is no guarantee. Paul Johnson leaving isn’t the end of the world… But it’s a distinct possibility.

I’ve written a lot about Johnson’s offense. It’s his trademark, and the first thing that comes to mind when his name is mentioned. Yet when you hear his players and other people associated with the program talk about him, they talk about so much more than just Xs and Os. They talk about his attitude. His demand for perfection. His one-liners. His recruiting. And then, oh by the way, he’s an offensive genius. Paul Johnson is a complete coach if there ever was one.

I know the temptation to be bitter is there, but if you didn’t see this coming then you haven’t been paying attention. Back in July, Johnson told CSTV that, “it’s intriguing to think that you’d have a chance sometime maybe to win a championship where it might be a little easier.” And that certainly wasn’t the first time he said something along those lines. So why the shock?

It comes down to something that I like to call the “logic of the faithful.” It’s a form of denial. When the rumor of a job opportunity comes up, fans start listing all the reasons why they think their job is better than school X.

“Duke is a coach’s graveyard! He won’t go there”

“Georgia Tech? They’re only the second-best team in their own state! They can’t get recruits away from Georgia!”

“SMU? That isn’t a step up from Navy! Nobody wins there!”

“Navy is special! He has it good here! Why would he throw that away?”

What people either fail or refuse to realize is that no matter what you say about these other schools, the same (or worse) was said about Navy when Johnson became the coach here. None of the options that he had in front of him were worse than the Navy job he took over. Coaching graveyard? Impossible recruiting? An 0-10 team that didn’t seem like a step up from a I-AA powerhouse? Check, check, check. But Coach Johnson didn’t see that. Instead, he saw what was possible and how to achieve it. And when people told him that he couldn’t do it, it made him mad enough to try. The same attitude that brought him to Navy is what is taking him to Georgia Tech. Johnson wants to win championships, and he wants to prove that his offense can do it. He sees that potential in Georgia Tech.

We’ve all made hard career decisions. It’s no different for Paul. I am extremely thankful for everything he did at Navy. No matter how bitter you might feel, all Paul Johnson did was make the Naval Academy a better place, and the Navy job more desirable on the college football landscape. He inherited a program doomed for failure, and has left it as a program expecting to win. If someone told you in 2001, after having gone 1-20 over the last two seasons, that a new coach would take us to 5 bowl games and 5 CIC Trophies before leaving 6 years later… Would you have taken it? You know you would. You know that the program needed a miracle in 2002. We got our miracle. His name is Paul Johnson. And now, as he tosses the keys to Ken Niumatalolo and goes on to pursue his dream, we owe him nothing but thanks.

I hope he reaches his goal of winning championships. And do any of you really doubt that he will?

45 thoughts on “The Logic of the Faithful

  1. yes paul johnson was a god send for all of us at NAVY but he has moved on so should we it is so funny how we have made this guy a God just a year ago it was his STUPID call to run speed option in the bowl game when all he had to do is run a lil dive to the fullback punt it let the D finish Guys he did not coach at NAVY ALONE for the last 6 years we have talent coming back on both sides of the ball and Giving the JOB TO KN KEEPS MOST OF THE STAFF TOGETHER i would of liked for GREEN to get it but i understand y KN got it now as a crazy NAVY FOOTBALL FAN I could care less about PAUL JOHNSON TAKE CARE SO LONG GOODBYE .. we need to get behind the new guys and support this team .. PJ IS NOT LOOKING BACK SAYING OH I MISS NAVY did u read his statement . he is already moved past RIKETS HALL .. MARK THIS DOWN WE WILL NEVER FALL BACK INTO THE BASEMENT OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL. With a tv package second only to Notre Dame we have become Americas team WE WILL SURVIVE SO LONG PJ

  2. thebirddog

    I don’t know how long you’ve been a Navy football fan, but I’m guessing it’s 5 years or less. Any longer and you’d be a little more receptive to where I’m coming from.

  3. Navy86

    It’s interesting that PJ is the first Navy coach since Welsh to leave Navy for another school without being fired. Is it any wonder we don’t know how to deal with that?

    I like to think that KN can continue what has been started. I hear that he can be somewhat hot-headed, which is a good thing. The players that are there now are also accustomed to a higher level of acceptable performance. Hopefully the combination will keep us on the winning track.

  4. Gary

    A bunch of us from NY were also at that GATech game (one of the hottest games I ever went to) and as you said-nothing could have signaled rock bottom more than that disaster (plus it ended up being 9/11 w/e).
    Those days even with PJ gone will never come back for this program.
    I like the fact that many say-it was the head coach but there were other coaches involved and we should have a good returning crew for next year and I fully expect that we should be able to win 9-10 games next year!
    I got skewered for saying that in the spring -10 wins and really if we had beat Delaware and Ball State…twas done.
    So like you BDG I too usually stride to the side of pessimism but in this situation I just dont feel that happening and am very curious to see how we come out against Utah.
    But even if we should lose that game-it would not signal the beginning of the end to me…I am optimistic that we have too many good players returning and that the coaches are in place and that the D problems will be resolved.
    BTW I have been a huge Navy fan for 47 years and I see exactly where you are coming from and its all perfectly clear and makes complete sense.
    But I am also very confident that Chet will continue to negotiate more better Bowl games for us and that we have a great record from the PJ years that we will still get the better recruits than AF and Army for many years to come.
    I just hope that the supe and admin toss their complete support behind the program and Coach N.
    That they do not intimidate him in any way and allow the Brigade to travel and keep that “post ND glow” going for every Navy football game.

  5. wtdoor

    I am afraid that I am not optimistic, though I wish I could be. I worry that CKN, in spite of his extensive knowledge of this offense we enjoy watching, will be hamstrung by the departure of a number of the assistant coaches. I’m also afraid that I wasn’t too impressed with his press conference either — I know that it’s been a quick couple of days and he’s been hit with quite a few things, but I didn’t see much enthusiasm. If I were Coach Calhoun or Coach Brock, first thing I’d do is show that press conference to my potential recruits …

  6. thebirddog

    I wouldn’t worry about enthusiasm when it comes to Niumat. I agree that the presser was awkward, but I think that had to be expected. It was the end of a crazy and emotional couple of days, and my guess is that everyone was just plain tired.

  7. jholla

    Hey birddog i will tell u how long i have been a Navy fan when I was 10 I went to the meadowlands to see them play in the gardenstate bowl I am not sure where u were but I was sitting in the cold seats .. COME ON MAN .. LIFE GOES ON . I spoke to a friend of mine on the staff who is staying and he said to me WE R GONNA BE GOOD FOR A WHILE I think the coaches r looking forward to the challenge dont think for one second they r not sick of PJ getting all the credit . And I also learned that PJ ASKED BG TO COME WITH HIM BUT HE WANTED TO STAY a true Navy guy I respect him even more now Birddog we will be fine now stop cryin over PJ lets get behind these guys and go kick the UTES ASS

  8. football dad dan

    BZ to Coach Niumatalolo!!! … and I will be rooting for great success during his tenure as the Navy head coach. Obviously his (and CG) challenge will be finding the right blend of Asst Coaching talent to replace the void of those who are departing to follow PJ. Likewise, … the immediate success of “sustaining the program” will also depend upon how many of the applicable underclassmen (and NAPS) football players “abandon ship” now that PJ chose to terminate his contract early & depart —> No doubt many believed he would be there for their entire 4 years when recruited.
    tbd —> I went to Navy at the beginning of George Welsh’s career, … and am a proud member of the last class (before 2006) NEVER to have personally felt a loss to Army. I most certainly recognize & appreciate’s Paul Johnson’s immense impact on Navy football (playing for him is the reason my son chose Navy over much more “aggressive” recruiting by USAFA/other schools), … but he has chosen to leave this current team in a lurch, … so let’s move on.
    Focus now is the P-Bowl …. GO NAVY … BEAT UTAH!!!


  9. thebirddog

    It isn’t crying over PJ, jholla. It’s showing a little gratitude. The “don’t let the door hit you in the ass” attitude that a lot of people seem to have is incredibly ridiculous.

  10. Non Illegitimus Carborundum

    I appreciate all the great contributions and effort that PJ contributed to turn the Navy Football program around, and he deserves the credit he gets. However, I think that what has occurred is in the best interests of both Navy Football and PJ, for a new coaching staff to move in, one that emphasizes TEAM FIRST and what this team represents in terms of the institution they play for and amateur football and amateur athletics overall.

    I am impressed with the coaching staff that has elected to stay and the new head coach. It says a lot about their motivations and commitment to Navy Football and the Naval Academy. I am confident that they will take the program to greater success by continuing to win games and beating the other academies. Regardless, they will be competitive and worth following, as it appears that the collective team and their leadership will grow stronger in their commitment to the TEAM and what Navy football represents. GO NAVY! BEAT EVERYONE!

  11. thebirddog

    Now don’t start placing these guys on a pedestal too. You don’t know their motivations, and it’s unfair to assume that it’s all because they’re in love with Navy. It’s just going to result in more bitterness when they decide to move on themselves.

  12. Gary

    I was disappointed in one way because I really felt I was watching the best ever Navy coach in terms of wins and Bowl games.
    While he was a great coach in the way he brought this program back from the dead- he still remains no George Welsh and maybe Ederlatz too- so basically he is the 3rd best coach we ever had.
    However it may be 4th as I think that Wayne Hardin still has a special spot in Navy history for that 63 season.
    I hold nothing against PJ- It was just his time and the right team came calling- he loved the academy but we can only offer him so much in terms of that top level major program.
    I think he will be great for GT and cant wait to see him elevate them to the top ranks while still beating the hell out of Army.
    As for the new coaches I will wait and see what the middle of next year looks like before making any judgements.

    Question to those of you fortunate to know about the academy first hand but if you were recruited to the academy to play football- why would you even consider leaving just because PJ has left?
    They arent going to go to Ga Tech with PJ and I would thinmk once you are in Annapolis-you are there because of what it offers-not Army of AF.
    So can we really expect that many players to jump ship?
    Seems to me they will be upset and buckle their chinstraps toghter to show PJ their respect of what he did for them and then go onto their Naval careers.

  13. dirtbag 01

    My big concern is confidence. For Navy to keep on rolling, I think one of two things need to happen. Beat Utah or reach a bowl game next year. That should give KN the confidence to be a great coach. When Weatherbie was aggressive Navy was good, when he went conservative it was ten loss seasons. PJ knew that Navy wasn’t going to fire him for going for it on 4th down on his own 20. I just hope KN has the confidence to take chances. On sides kicks to start the game, going for it on 4th down, fake punts, I will support KN. Ultimately the players just want to be put in a position to make a play to win the game. At Navy you have to play to win, you can’t play not to lose.

  14. USNA84

    I think you hit the nail on the head for me. Having lived through Welsh’s leaving, that feeling of being betrayed by a grad, no less, and the beginning of the 20-year joke that was Navy football, I was hoping that PJ would stay, but realistic enough to understand that this was probably not his final coaching assignment.

    As much as I hated FDB at USAFA, and the unbridled arrogance of the AF program, I have to admire the guy for sticking with them for 20-odd years.

    I’m not ready to turn in my season tickets, or declare that the sky is falling. Neither am I ready to annoint Ken Niumatalolo as PJ, Jr., nor am I ready to make the leap of faith that things will continue the they have for the past 5 good years.

    I don’t think we will really know what kind of a coach KN is until we see how he does recruiting for the next two years. Using the Welsh analogy, Navy was 8-4 in 1980, 7-4-1 in ’81 (Welsh’s last season), and 6-5 and 3-8 in ’82 and ’83 as the effects of Welsh’s loss began to tell.

    If KN is successful, and I hope and pray that he is, we’ll know by the quality of recruits he signs as well as his W-L record in year three. I don’t know if I can wait another 20 years for the next renaissance of Navy Football.

  15. wtdoor

    I feel I should recant some of the harsh words I used before. I watched the press conference again, and while CKN wasn’t a ball of excitement, I think my initial judgement was an order of magnitude too harsh and clouded by my then black mood. I’ll withhold my judgement for the most part until I see how we do over the next couple of years.

    I’d perhaps feel a little better had a a full-scale search occurred and then CKN was selected (and maybe a partial search did occur, CG doesn’t have to tell me), but it is what it is, and I’ll support CKN as much as I supported CPJ … as if anyone cares :). I’ve just seen so many years of poor-to-mediocre Navy football that it’s painful even just to think of what may be waiting around the corner. Before CPJ came along, I was thinking a DIvision-II Navy team didn’t sound too bad.

    As for CPJ — good on him. He helped us out when we needed him and got the program back on track. Friends of mine argue he’s no George Welsh, but he seems to have been the right man at the right time. Now he’s gone, and we’ll move on — and I don’t think that’s bitterness. I don’t sit around the office talking about how much we miss that one productive guy who just left … we get the new guy up to speed and hope we’re not paying him too much :)

  16. football dad dan

    The brillance of Paul Johnson was his playcalling, … especially his uncanny ability to quickly counter a defensive scheme “real time” during games. In that 2005 Pointsettia Bowl, it was amazing how he seemed to always be “a step ahead” of the opposing defensive coordinator on just about every play.
    His players felt that they were never out of any game, … as long as PJ was on the sidelines —> That’s what Navy will really miss the next couple of seasons.

    BEAT UTAH!!!

  17. Guys did u see the head phones on PJ’s head during games did u think he was listening to the alman brothers lol.. He was listening to the coaches who were scouting the other team i think we can say that coaching wise we will be fine . if jasper stays which is what I am hearing that is a big plus he was the guy PJ bounced alot of stuff off of so lil by lil things r working out The way we all hoped . Please guys let it go PJ IS GONE he is not a coaching god Just another Great coach and in big time college football there r plenty I THINK THE STAFF HAS A COUPLE AS WELL GO NAVY

  18. jgish92

    I agree with the Bird Dog. Grateful for what PJ accomplished and what he has left behind, and terrified of what is to come. One thing that has not been mentioned is that the PLAYERS who are sophomores and juniors this season are really going to have to step up and be leaders and not let any complacency move in. They need to be the ones to hold up the bar of expectations that has been set. I think the coaches and players that are here will ensure we don’t fall off the football map for the next couple of seasons, but recruinting ability will show up in 3 -5 years. We’ll see. If forced to predict, I would say that I think we’ll stay over .500 for the next few season, but without PJ, are we going to get the bowl deals prior to the season starting? 5 bowls in 5 years at Navy is a freakin’ miracle. Not fair to expect the same for the next 5 years.

  19. thebirddog

    PJ may or may not be a “coaching god,” but he’s the only coach in two decades who was able to turn Navy into a winner. We’ve had a great run for the last 5 years and some of us are going to reflect on it because we know better than to take it for granted. There are absolutely not “plenty” of great coaches who could win at Navy. Don’t tell us to “let it go.” The guy’s only been gone for three days.

  20. 85er

    As of Sunday night, Bill Wager has received “unconfirmed reports” from “very, very reliable sources ” that KN has secured Green and Jasper. If true, this is huge. Green would be Asst. Hd Coach/D Coordinator; Jasper would be O Coordinator and call the plays.
    MSNBC had reported that PJ planned to be in Annapolis over the weekend to recruit the staff. Wager says that PJ got Monken and Bohannon — that may be the extent of the damage.
    In my opinion, priorities are (1) locking up key coaches; (2) prep for Poinsetta; and (3) recruiting. This last item should include (a) spending time with key plebes and youngsters (let’s not lose another Jeromy Miles); (b) visiting NAPs; and (c) checking in with prospects.
    So far, so good.

  21. j holla

    Guys I told u this on sat That Green and Jasper r staying I Talked to my buddy on the staff on friday afternoon BIRDDOG I am gonna be on u all year Cause we r not gonna miss a beat then what does that do to ur PJ IS GOD Posting’s lol.. these guys r great coaches !! I agree with 85er we need to make sure all of our top recruits stay Make sure Kids from Naps get down here and dont get scared away now From what I hear this is the best naps class ever filled with some talent on D . I travel alot cause of my job and took in a couple of naps games when I was up in the New England area and saw both games at Navy JV Kids That popped out to me db #6 Kenny Munson was flying around the games I saw making big hits ( knocked out a wr coming over the middle vs Nassua)
    also Caleb king # 8 at Lb all over the field in the 4 games Max blue i think thats how u spell his name another big time player sorry i forgot the number he had on we gotta make sure these guys make it down here !! The O all the games I was at struggled a lil bit seamed like they needed more reps at running th option which i am sure they will get once they r here LOOKING FORWARD TO THE FUTURE

  22. football dad dan

    85er & j holla,
    I think you both hit the nail right on the head —> Absolutely vital for coach “N” to secure the incumbent Plebe/Youngster and NAPS players at Navy. If true, … a big BZ to CG for holding on to BG and IJ … probably the other two asst coaches with the biggest potential impact. GO NAVY … BEAT UTAH!!!

    Good luck to coach PJ down in Atlanta —> I’ll be following Yellowjacket football for sure come next September (as an interested “observer”), … but Ga Tech & PJ are “cleared” from my football thoughts/focus until then.

  23. thebirddog

    There are pretty strict rules about that, 85er. I think the one time Navy ever got into NCAA trouble was when we invited some local Texas recruits to the ’64 Cotton Bowl.

  24. thebirddog

    j holla, I never said that we were destined to fail under Niumat. I said that winning at Navy is pretty damn hard, and you have to respect that.

  25. Non Illegitimus Carborundum

    You have to give Chet credit for moving as quickly as he did to secure a new leadership team and keeping the program moving forward. Don’t underestimate the role that Chet has played as an enabler and for turning the Navy program around. He had the original vision, and has changed the whole mindset of the academy and what it would take to make Navy a winner again. I think he continues to show that Navy is serious about football now and will keep this train moving. There are a lot of good coaches that can succeed under this sponsorship. I think PJ has to be hoping that he can achieve the same type of rapport and support from the AD and program at GT….

  26. 85er

    I’m no expert on the recruiting rules; antitrust and tax law are simple by comparison. I guess I assumed that the NAPSters are different b/c they are active duty Navy enlistees. (At least they were 25 years ago.) In one sense, these guys are already in the program.
    Chet G. is a pro — good decisons made in a decisive manner. The past three days have gone as well as we could have hoped for. A win in San Diego would be huge.

  27. jgish92

    Given all that has transpired, I think it is asking an awful lot for the team to win in SD. They could come out and be crazy fired up with a big chip on their shoulder, but they could just as easily be flat. Add to that the fact that IJ and KN will be under more pressure and doing things they haven’t had to do all season, and I think we will struggle.

  28. thebirddog

    I agree. I think that if there was a drawn out coaching search, that maybe it could deflate the team. But now I think the team is confident in their future and looking to impress their new coach. I have no idea how IJ will call the plays, but I think the team will be ready.

  29. j holla

    Yo birddog any clue on the schedule i heard PJ say we would be playing GT maybe 2010 did u hear any whispers about that being true now more then ever I WOULD TO PLAY THEM AND BEAT THEM

  30. thebirddog

    I saw the same thing you did, but was told that it wasn’t true. I think PJ told it to the Atlanta TD club, strangely enough. But he was mistaken.

  31. j holla

    Anything new with schedule 2010 2011 i see some openings on the schedule what have u heard !!


  32. j holla


    Any word on the schedules for 2010 2011

  33. Kerr

    Navy ’72 grad, Just discovered your website. Enjoy it immensely. Espcecially your article ‘Reading is fundamental’. Must say that your write-up on 2001 GT-Navy game brought back painful memories. Navy was bad, but O’Leary was a jerk for running up score. Don’t mind saying that I wasn’t crying when the resume mess got him sacked from ND.

  34. GT fan

    Agree with Kerr that this is an fantastic website. I’ve always liked Navy. This website has made me even more of a fan. The Birddog does an outstanding job! Very much hope Coach N. keeps the program humming like a well-oiled machine. I believe he will after learning more about him.

    FWIW, most GT fans are probably embarrassed by George O’Leary’s actions in that 2001 game. He had a reputation for being a bit of a jerk.


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