With the success of the football program from 2003-2007, Navy fans might have become just a wee bit spoiled. Taking their cue from the “Expect to Win” mantra used by NAAA as their football marketing slogan, supporters of the Blue & Gold had set their sights higher and higher before the start of each new football season. Preseason optimism– that force which makes diehards look at the upcoming schedule and figure that every game is winnable– was running rampant, as was the daydreaming about “what if” scenarios should the team do the impossible by running the table. Ah, the offseason. For all the complaining that we do once it arrives, it never fails to recharge the batteries of imagination for the hopelessly partisan. The Mids were never quite able to reach those lofty dreams of going undefeated and unleashing their fury in BCS bowls, except on my Xbox. Yet they were remarkably consistent: five straight years of 8+ wins, 5 straight bowl games, and 5 straight Commander-in-Chief’s Trophies. This standard for success was the fuel-air mixture in the internal combustion engine of fan expectations.
If the program’s prosperity was the fuel for high expectations, then Paul Johnson was the piston that drove the machine. (Smartass comments from former RX-7 owners are not necessary. You know who you are.) Johnson was a master motivator, knowing just how and when to apply pressure so that his team would respond. He was a master playcaller, knowing just the right way to wield his offense for maximum effect. He was a master recruiter, reversing two decades of losing recruiting battles to Air Force. And in the end, he was a heartbreaker, leaving Annapolis for Atlanta– and taking those daydreams of some Navy fans with him.
Enter Ken Niumatalolo, Johnson’s successor. As Johnson’s right-hand man with the offense, Niumat was the no-brainer pick to replace Johnson by just about everyone who followed the program closely. He was received well by the Navy faithful; Athletic Director Chet Gladchuck earned praise from fans and from the press (and from this blogger) for acting quickly to name Niumat as head coach rather than carry out an extended coaching search. If Johnson was ever going to leave Navy– and just about everyone expected it to happen sooner or later– then Niumat was the guy we wanted to replace him. Yet despite the almost universal agreement that the right man was hired for the job, the confidence and optimism that accompanied the Johnson years wasn’t really there to start 2008. For the most part, I don’t think it was a slight to Niumatalolo as much as it was recognition for just how hard it is to win at Navy. At least that’s what I hope it was. After all, the last winning coach to leave Annapolis was George Welsh in 1982, and that started what would become the darkest period in Navy football history. It was the only experience most Navy fans had in this situation. Adding to the uncertainty was the national media’s persistent love affair with Troy Calhoun, and their almost universal expectation for Air Force to return to the top of the service academy heap.
Well, that didn’t happen. And if you had any doubts before, you can cast them aside. The job that Ken Niumatalolo and his staff did in 2008 was as impressive as anything we saw in the Johnson years.
Consider everything that the staff had to deal with this year. The defense was coming off of a season that was terrible on historic levels. While the 2007 team compensated with an offense that managed to score on almost every drive, Ivin Jasper was forced to juggle three different starting quarterbacks in 2008, while also having to find a replacement for his most experienced tackle after he was lost for the season in the first game. Compounding the problem was having to fix all of this against a schedule that would feature eight games against bowl teams– the most in school history (even more than the gauntlet the team faced in 2002). If Navy had taken a step backwards last year, it would have been at least understandable, if not acceptable to the demanding legions of the faithful.
But the team didn’t step backwards. Instead, they flourished. A trip to the EagleBank Bowl in Washington, DC capped off another 8-win, Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy-winning season. Four of those eight wins came against bowl teams. The Mids’ 24-17 victory at then #16 Wake Forest was their first win over a team ranked in the AP top 25 since 1985 (the 17-13 win at Virginia was also the last time Navy beat a ranked team on the road). Navy’s back-to-back wins over Rutgers and Wake Forest were the program’s first consecutive victories over BCS-conference opponents since 1981. The offense, even with three different quarterbacks, led the nation in rushing for an unheard-of fourth consecutive year. The defense, much maligned to start the year, ended up as the most improved scoring unit in the country. They shut out Army for the first time in 30 years, ended the season with Navy’s first back-to-back shutouts since 1986, and forced 30 turnovers– 14 more than in 2007.
The team had its problems last year, no doubt. But once you take a step back and look at the end result, it’s hard not to think, “Wow.”
At the center of it all was the coaching staff, led by Niumatalolo. Just as the team made progress throughout the season, Niumat seemed to grow more comfortable in his role as the face of the program. It was easy to see, watching his press conferences and public appearances evolve from the slightly awkward to the confident, straight-shooting, must-see interviews they’ve become. Do you ever really feel like you don’t have a pretty good idea of what’s going on with the program? I mean, there are some details that might escape us, but for the most part you always feel like you have a handle on the big picture when it comes to the football team. That’s in large part because Coach Niumatalolo doesn’t operate under a cloak of secrecy like a lot of other college coaches. The more comfortable he gets, the more we know; just one more way that we’re spoiled, I suppose.
The coaching staff’s most important accomplishment was, of course, beating Air Force and Army to win the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy once again. With the departure of Paul Johnson, it’s no secret that recruits were being told that Navy’s run of service academy success would leave with him. This staff’s win gives them credibility. It’s kind of ridiculous to think that they need any, considering that most of them were here for the length of Navy’s CIC Trophy streak. But that’s what Air Force and Army coaches were selling to recruits. Navy’s win showed those same recruits that it’s still business as usual on the service academy football scene… for now. Ken Niumatalolo faces a much taller task than his predecessor in keeping it that way.
Changing Navy’s fortunes against Air Force was a tall mountain for Paul Johnson to climb when he was hired at the end of 2001. He had to recruit against the legend of Fisher DeBerry and the reputation of Air Force. Once he was able to crack the legend a little, though, the whole thing fell apart for the Falcons. Fisher DeBerry might have been getting by on reputation for a little too long; once he had some real competition, he didn’t have the energy to rise to the challenge. He was at the end of his career and had developed a habit of putting his foot in his mouth, while Johnson was at his first I-A job with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, looking to make a name for himself. Meanwhile, Army was floundering; first under an overwhelmed Todd Berry, then under an equally tired Bobby Ross, and finally under an outmatched and unprepared Stan Brock… All of them running more conventional, pro-style offenses. In hindsight, it’s hardly surprising that Paul Johnson was king of that mountain.
It’s a different scene for Niumat, though. DeBerry is out at Air Force, replaced by media golden boy (and far more energetic) Troy Calhoun. Meanwhile, Army has hired Rich Ellerson, who has installed a Navy-style offense and will be competing more directly for the same players that the Navy staff is going after. And to top it all off, there’s the good ol’ Alternative Service Option. Don’t think for a second that it’s dead… The Army is just waiting for the new presidential administration to cycle some new blood into the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Once that happens, you can expect to see the whole debacle play out all over again. The environment that Ken Niumatalolo must face to maintain Navy superiority is far more challenging than the one Paul Johnson had.
That isn’t a call to abondon all hope. It’s just a reminder of how delicate success can be– especially at the Naval Academy. There are a lot of good things happening in Annapolis. The team is winning, the TV contract with CBS has been extended, and there are bowl games lined up & waiting to host the Mids for years to come. It’s a golden age. Ken Niumatalolo and his staff have shown that they can keep it going. Just don’t take it for granted.