What a whirlwind couple of days. Every time I’d sit down to write something, a new piece of news would break that would make my work out of date. And trying to separate rumors from facts was enough to keep me awake at night. Here’s a tip for the future: anyone who has “sources” for “inside information” isn’t going to post what they’ve learned on a message board. At least not if they want to keep those sources. Of course, I already knew this. But I still lost sleep over the whole thing. In the end, Paul Johnson left, and in his place stepped his #1 protégé, Ken Niumatalolo.
The announcement of Johnson’s successor came so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to finish my post endorsing Niumatalolo for the job. I think every Navy fan that wasn’t fooling themselves knew that Paul Johnson’s departure was going to happen eventually. Our hope was that Ken Niumatalolo would still be here when that day finally came. And for good reason– Niumatalolo is the right man for the job.
He is the right choice for the long term. It can’t be overstated how difficult it is to win at the Naval Academy. Navy hadn’t won a Commander in Chief’s Trophy since 1981 until Paul Johnson and his staff showed up. It would be foolish to alter a winning formula. Ken played for Paul Johnson. He entered the coaching profession because of Paul Johnson. He has run the offense on his own, without Paul Johnson. And when he wasn’t coaching with Johnson, he was with John Robinson. That’s one hell of a pedigree. It would be unfair to expect him to be Paul Johnson, but it would be unwise to pick an apple from a different tree. There are no guarantees that Niumat will match Paul Johnson’s success, but he deserves the chance to try. For his sake and for ours.
Niumat is also right for the short term. By making the decision quickly, Chet Gladchuk shows confidence in his new coach; confidence that is reassuring to the mids, and to recruits waiting for I-Day. It also helps for the Poinsettia Bowl. Now the mids aren’t just playing (and practicing) to beat Utah; they’re playing to make a good impression on their new coach. Chet deserves a lot of credit for pulling the trigger on this rather than dragging everyone, especially the team, through a dog & pony show.
Hiring Niumat right away was a tremendous relief for other reasons, too. I am afraid of who we might have ended up with if we ventured out too far. Chet made it very clear in the press conference announcing Niumat’s hiring: he was going after a triple option coach one way or another.
“Fundamentally, at Navy it’s going to be the triple option. That’s all there is to it,” Mr. Gladchuk said. “That is something I felt really strongly about. It’s an offense that has been really successful for us and given us that edge. If you look at who’s out there that can run the triple option, I consider Kenny one of the masters.”
I sort of figured that, and it made me nervous. You see, I am one of those freakish people that doesn’t believe that you need to run the triple option to win at a service academy (GASP). Don’t get me wrong; I love the triple option. Anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time knows that. But there’s more than one way to win. The key to winning at a service academy, in my opinion, is to be different. When you run a different kind of offense, you can recruit a different kind of player. Anything that expands the recruiting pool is a good thing, whether it’s the triple option or some other kind of unconventional offense.
My fear, then, was that we would look for option coaches instead of good coaches. Remember, Elliot Uzelac ran the option. Bob Sutton ran the option. Charlie Weatherbie continued to run option-ish offenses after PJ and Niumat left. They all got canned. Systems aren’t what win games; coaches are. Running a particular offensive system is one thing; knowing how to adjust within that system, recruiting for that system, and organizational skills are another. To say that the cause of Paul Johnson’s success is simply his offense would be a gross oversimplification, and doesn’t give the man enough credit. Fortunately, in Ken Niumatalolo we appear to get the best of both worlds. Time will tell.
The first order of business for Coach Niumatalolo is to assemble his staff. He was asked at the press conference if he intended to call the plays on offense like his predecessor, and he gave the somewhat surprising answer that it would depend on what his staff would look like. Yesterday, we found out why; according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper is staying at Navy and will be promoted to offensive coordinator. This is huge news. When Paul Johnson was the offensive coordinator at Hawaii and Navy, he sat up in the press box to get a better view of how defenses were adjusting to his play calling. When he became head coach, he had an assistant sitting in the press box watching the defense, allowing PJ to call plays from the sideline. There are only so many assistant coaches out there who really understand this offense. If Johnson took the entire staff with him to Georgia Tech, it might have been difficult to find someone new to put upstairs and tell Niumatalolo the information he needed to call the play from the sideline. But with Jasper staying, he will presumably call plays from the press box himself.
For Jasper, it’s a smart career move. If Johnson wins at Georgia Tech– and he will– then his offense is going to be in demand. Johnson calls his own plays, which means the only coordinator available to teams who want to copy Georgia Tech would be Ivin Jasper. We still haven’t heard any official announcement about Jasper’s new role and whether or not he’d still coach the quarterbacks. But the paper says that it came straight from Niumat himself, so hopefully we’ll get that word soon. There’s more good news in Bill Wagner’s blog as it appears that Buddy Green is also staying, with possibly all of the defensive coaches sticking around with him. Keeping this many assistants around is a big deal, particularly for recruiting. Nothing is official yet, but it would seem that things are going about as well as we could have hoped in this situation.
According to Wagner, Jeff Monken (slotbacks), Brian Bohannon (wide receivers), and Todd Spencer (offensive line) are likely to follow Paul Johnson to Georgia Tech. I think that fullbacks coach Chris Culton is a possibility too, although that is pure conjecture on my part and not the result of any inside knowledge. (You may be asking yourself how Todd Spencer and Niumatalolo both coached the offensive line– Niumat coached interior linemen while Spencer coached the tackles.) In theory, offensive assistants would be more difficult to find than defensive assistants, given the unique nature of the Navy offense. That might be true at some positions (offensive line) more than others (wide receivers). The best bet for offensive line coach might be NAPS head coach Mark Williams. Williams was an All-American guard for Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, served as a graduate assistant for Tim Stowers at Rhode Island, then returned to Georgia Southern as the offensive line coach for Mike Sewak. Sewak himself could very well be joining Johnson at Georgia Tech. There are several Georgia Southern connections out there, such as Stowers himself or Brent Davis & Bob Bodine at VMI. But unlike most other Johnson assistants, Ken Niumatalolo never coached at Georgia Southern. Does he go a different route? And do we even structure our assistants the same way? It will be interesting to see who turns up in Annapolis.
It was disappointing to see Paul Johnson leave, but at the same time it’s exciting to see how Ken Niumatalolo will shape Navy football. After-practice press briefings, the bowl game, spring practice… I find myself looking forward to them even more now because I’m not completely sure of what to expect. Navy has changed coaches quite a few times over the last 25 years, and there’s always excitement and optimism associated with the event. But this time there’s a little bit of nervousness mixed in there because for once, we actually have something to lose.