Navy football accomplished a lot in 2015. The team won 11 games, beat Army, won the Military Bowl, and finished ranked in the top 20. Keenan Reynolds was named both the American Athletic Conference and ECAC Offensive Player of the Year, finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting, and was co-recipient of the AAU Sullivan Award given to the nation’s outstanding amateur athlete. Four other players earned All-Conference recognition, and eight Mids were named to the All-East team. Coach Niumatalolo was co-Coach of the Year in the American, and was a finalist for two national coaching awards.
Games were won and records were broken, but of all the accolades the team received, the one I value most is the Lambert Trophy, awarded to the best team in the East.
I might be alone in that. Admittedly, the award is an anachronism, a throwback to the days of when college football in the Northeast was viewed the way football in the Southeast is viewed today.
The game was born in the East, and there was a time when its greatest contests were played in front of tens of thousands in venues like Franklin Field, the Polo Grounds, and the Yale Bowl. College football has always been a regional affair, and by the time the first Lambert Trophy was awarded in 1936, the major schools in other regions had formed their own leagues. There was the Southern Conference and the SEC, the Southwest Conference, the Big Ten in the Midwest, and the Pacific Coast Conference. Schools in the East, though, remained independent, with the exception of the 1954 formation of the Ivy League. The Lambert Trophy, voted on by a panel of New York sports writers, was the de facto conference championship for those schools and a major program goal for Navy football.
Today, the award doesn’t carry the weight that it once did, in large part because Eastern college football isn’t the entity that it once was. The Ivies no longer play major college football. Penn State, for years the flagship of the East, shifted their focus westward. Syracuse, Boston College, and Pittsburgh all joined a league based in the South. The Big East evolved into the American Athletic Conference, and in the process lost its regional identity and became more of an intersectional potpourri. Only one independent remains: Army, and even they had a cup of coffee with Conference-USA. Eastern teams don’t really compete against each other the way they used to now that they have their own conferences to worry about. As such, the Lambert Trophy isn’t anyone’s top priority.
It is, however, still important. Navy might not be able to play Penn State, Boston College, or Syracuse anymore, but the Lambert Trophy still gives the Mids a chance to measure up to their old rivals. It also gives us a way to evaluate how the 2015 squad compares to great Navy teams across different eras.
Only five other Navy teams have ever won the Lambert Trophy:
- The 1943 team with Don Whitmire and Dick Duden that finished ranked #4 in the country;
- The 1954 Sugar Bowl champion “Team Named Desire”;
- The 1957 Cotton Bowl champions with Tom Forrestal, Harry Hurst, and the “jitterbug” defense;
- The 1960 Orange Bowl team led by Joe Bellino;
- The 1963 team with Roger Staubach that played for a national championship.
That the 2015 team can be counted among these luminaries is a good indicator of where they rank in Navy football history. They were, without question, one of the best.
After Navy defeated Pitt in the Military Bowl, being awarded the Lambert Trophy became more or less a given. Nevertheless, when it was officially announced at the end of January that the award would indeed be returning to Annapolis, I was giddy. Even in the darkest days of the program, I knew that Navy would beat Army, make it to a bowl game, and one day upset Notre Dame. As I read Jack Clary’s books and articles about the program’s glory days, though, I thought that the Lambert Trophy might be the one thing mentioned there that I would never see. I knew it was possible for Navy to field a good team, but to be the best in the East in the BCS era? That was too much to hope for… until it happened.
It is reasonable to expect to win. It is not reasonable to expect this kind of a season every year. I think most Navy fans understand that, based on the number of swooning, “can you believe this is happening?” tweets that I read all season. I wrote a few of those myself, admittedly, but I stopped fairly quickly. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that yes, I could believe that it was happening.
This was a season to remember, but I’d stop short of calling it a miracle. To say so doesn’t seem fair. This is a program that, having already been successful for several years, saw the right set of circumstances finally come together all at once. None of these elements– a senior-laden roster, a unique talent at quarterback, a strong defensive line, etc.– are that unusual on their own. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that the stars might align to bring them all together again. Other Navy teams have certainly had one or two of them at a time. There was one other vital element, however, that no other Navy team ever had: membership in the American Athletic Conference.
The season went from good to great after Navy beat #13 Memphis, but if Navy hadn’t joined the American, that game would never have been scheduled. Navy also benefited from the reputation that the league had earned thanks to other members’ strong performances. The best part of 2015 was the fact that Navy was a contender for a major bowl game deep into November. Under the rules of the College Football Playoff, that wouldn’t have even been possible without conference membership. The 2015 season would not have been what it was if Navy was still independent.
Consider how exciting 2015 was thanks to the American. Now, think about how many people thought joining the conference was a mistake.
“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.”
At Navy’s media day, 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.”
There was no shortage of criticism for the Naval Academy’s decision to join the American. Coach Niumatalolo was referring to his interactions with the media, but there were plenty of Navy fans saying the same thing. The American would be too challenging, they said. Navy won’t be able to compete week in and week out. Fortunately, the powers that be disagreed, and as a result we had more fun than we’ve had in decades.
Of course, that’s been the case for a long time. For many, many years, there have been people advocating for courses of action that, if followed, would have killed any chance at some of our most joyous moments as Navy fans.
What have you enjoyed the most about Navy football over the last 20 years? Was it all the bowl games? The winning streak over Army? The wins over Pitt, Missouri, West Virginia, Georgia Tech, or Stanford? None of these things would have happened if Navy had dropped to I-AA, a move that many were calling for.
If you’re like me, then the happiest you’ve ever been while watching Navy football is when Navy finally ended the losing streak against Notre Dame. The wins in 2009 and 2010 were almost as uplifting. Yet had Navy stopped playing Notre Dame– another common request through the years– then we’d never have known that feeling of triumph.
Every program has its peaks and valleys. We are fans because the peaks make the valleys worth enduring. For some, though, the valleys had become too much to bear. That’s what I find myself thinking about when I consider the Lambert Trophy and all the other great Navy football moments in my lifetime. If certain people were a little more influential, none of it would have happened.
I’m not saying this to rub it in anyone’s face. These people weren’t being mean-spirited about it for the most part. Like I said, many who genuinely cared about Navy football felt this way. The tone was more like friends and family at an intervention. “Can’t you see what you’re doing to yourself, Navy? We just want you to be happy!”
They meant well, but they were still wrong.
Knowing when to quit is an underrated quality. It feels good to say things like, “follow your dreams no matter what,” but it isn’t always the best advice. Sometimes it makes sense to pursue other opportunities. Before you do, though, you had better make sure that you gave those dreams your best shot. For a long time, Navy wasn’t. Facilities were out-of-date. The stadium was bordering on dilapidated. Schedules that included as many as four I-AA programs in the same year sent a message that the program wasn’t serious about playing at the highest level. Instead of telling Navy to give up, people should have been giving the Naval Academy the kick in the pants that it needed by calling on them to start acting like a major college program. Now that they do, we’re seeing major results.
There’s a scene at the end of Anchors Aweigh for Honor and Glory in which Charlie Weatherbie, talking to his victorious team in the locker room after the Aloha Bowl, tells them to remember what it took to get there. Hopefully, nobody forgets what it took to make the 2015 season possible. It’s always going to be more difficult to win at a service academy, and it should be. Without proper support, it becomes impossible. Treat the program like it belongs at the highest levels by giving it the resources necessary to compete, and great things can happen.
Even the Lambert Trophy.