The best time to write about football games from 60 years ago probably isn’t just before the start of a new season. While I was off talking about how Irving Rumblesnot was running the single wing at Ursinus in nineteen dickety-two, the rest of the world was talking about more timely subjects like “practice” and “media day” in the “here” and “now.” It’s about time that I joined them, although at this point I doubt I have any original thoughts to offer. Tough luck, you’re going to get them anyway.
Not surprisingly, the biggest story entering the 2015 season has been Navy joining the American Athletic Conference. It was a hot topic of conversation at the league’s media days, with the most pointed comments coming from Ken Niumatalolo himself. Coach Niumat is usually a pretty cool customer when it comes to the media, but he was clearly fired up when asked to talk about his program joining the American:
“People talk about us coming into the conference and we have great respect for the programs and the head coaches, but we didn’t come from NAIA football,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve been playing decent opponents.”
Later, back in Annapolis, he explained what he meant:
“In some of my dealings with the media I kept being asked what it’s like to come into a conference,” Niumatalolo said of his two days at the American Athletic Conference 2015 Summer Kickoff event. “I felt like saying ‘Have you not been watching who we’ve been playing.’ I just wanted people to know that we’ve been in Division I. It was just something brewing inside me and just spilled out.”
I’m glad it did, because it does get annoying reading some of the common talking points that get tossed around regarding how Navy will adjust to their new conference. People use phrases like “stepping up” when talking about Navy’s conference schedules, but that’s not accurate. Not that there aren’t good programs in the American, because clearly there are. It’s just that Navy has already been playing them for years. It’s a point we’ve discussed at length on this blog, and it was good to see Coach Niumatalolo driving it home.
The underlying theme being pushed is that independence was easy, but being in a conference is hard. Nobody who follows Navy regularly (and knew what life was like as an independent) would make that argument, but it’s the national media perception. Sure you’ve played all these teams already, but what how much harder will it be when it’s a conference game? How will your game preparation change now that you’re in a conference? How much more of a grind will your season be with a conference schedule? Someone needs to borrow Norman Dale’s tape measure or something just to make sure that we’re still playing the same game. Sure, there’s one more trophy to play for, but football is still football even when the other team wears the same patch on the front of their uniforms.
That drumbeat gets especially loud when it comes to Navy’s offense. Conventional wisdom has always been that Navy has benefited from playing an independent schedule, and that once the Mids are playing the same group of teams every year, their offense won’t be as successful. Bill Wagner asked Coach Niumatalolo what he thought of that idea, and Coach does a good job of stating what should be obvious to everyone but for some reason is not:
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has heard the naysayers who have claimed the advantage of running the option will be negated over time as American Athletic Conference opponents get accustomed to seeing it. Niumatalolo, who learned the offense from the ground up as a quarterback and graduate assistant at Hawaii when Johnson was offensive coordinator, has no such concerns.
“I think Paul has shown at Georgia Tech that you can have success running the option against opponents you play every year. We were in a conference in Hawaii and it didn’t matter,” Niumatalolo said. “Sure, they may get more familiar with what you do, but you also get more familiar with what they do to defend it. Over the years, teams may get plans for us, but we’ll get plans for them. It works both ways.”
Wags’ article is a good one, and you should read it if you haven’t already. In case you can’t tell, the subject is a pet peeve of mine. When people make the argument that Navy’s offense won’t withstand playing in a conference, what they’re really doing is rephrasing the same old trope that Navy’s offense isn’t a “real” offense. It’s a “gimmick” offense, and eventually everyone’s going to solve the gimmick. Think about it; do you ever hear this argument being made about any other offense? Is there anyone questioning whether Ohio State’s offense will last in the Big Ten? Anyone counting down the days until the Pac 12 “solves” Oregon? Of course not.
As Coach Niumatalolo points out, it’s not as if the spread option hasn’t been run by a team in a conference before. He mentioned Hawaii and Georgia Tech, but how about Georgia Southern? They joined the Southern Conference in 1992 and proceeded to win 8 league titles in 13 years running the spread option under Tim Stowers, Paul Johnson, and Mike Sewak. I know, I-AA doesn’t count, right? That’s the kind of commentary we get from the same “experts” who told us that spread offenses would never work in the SEC. Besides, Navy might have been independent but it isn’t like every team they played was brand new every season. The majority of Navy’s schedules were made up of multi-game contracts.
Even if you actually believe that familiarity means doom for Navy’s offense, don’t underestimate just how much turnover there is in college football. “Teams” don’t play against this offense; coaches and players do, and those are constantly changing. Every team’s roster is completely different every four years. Head coaches are too if they don’t win. If a coach wins enough to last at a school, chances are that his assistants will be hired away by other programs looking to steal that winning formula. Navy might play Memphis every year, but the Memphis team that they play in 2020 could look very different from the one they face in 2015.
Don’t get me wrong; joining a conference is a big deal. But it’s for reasons other than what happens between the sidelines.