Navy football deserves salute for success under Ken Niumatalolo, Paul Johnson

David Richard/Associated Press - Ken Niumatalolo has a 47-30 record at Navy since taking over for Paul Johnson.

There probably weren’t a lot of people paying attention in the wee hours of Saturday morning when Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds scored his seventh touchdown of the game to give Navy a wild, 58-52 triple-overtime victory over San Jose State.

Those numbers — seven touchdowns and 58 points — sound more like an Xbox game than actual football, but they’re real. So are the Midshipmen, who are 7-4 and en route to a bowl game for the 10th time in 11 seasons. Those numbers — 10 bowls in 11 seasons — are among the most stunning and underappreciated in the country. Navy has made getting to the postseason look easy since 2003, which is the main reason it is difficult for most to comprehend the feat.

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Consider this: During the streak, Navy has never sneaked into a bowl with a 6-6 record. In fact, if the Mids beat Army for a 12th straight time Dec. 14 or win the Armed Forces Bowl, they will have won at least eight games in all 10 of their bowl seasons. In addition to the 11-game winning streak against Army, the Midshipmen are 9-2 against Air Force since 2003.

Every time Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo is asked about his team’s accomplishments he says the exact same thing: “It’s all about these kids. It’s about how hard they work and their belief in one another. I’m so proud of them. I can’t give them enough credit.”

The one person Niumatalolo never credits is Niumatalolo. Whenever Navy loses, the first words out of his mouth are directed at himself and at the opponent. “I didn’t have us ready to play today.” Or, “We got outcoached, and that’s why we got outplayed.”

But the truth is, as much as the players deserve credit for all of Navy’s accomplishments, there are two men who made this happen: Paul Johnson and Niumatalolo. Bringing Johnson back to Navy after the disastrous end to the Charlie Weatherbie era — the Mids were 0-10 in 2001 — was one of the two smartest decisions that Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk has made since he arrived in Annapolis that fall.

And while it is generally thought that hiring Johnson was a no-brainer, it wasn’t as easy as it looked. (Nothing at Navy ever is.) Johnson had been Weatherbie’s offensive coordinator for two seasons and, in 1996, had played a key role in the Mids’ first winning season since 1982. That team went 9-3 and won the Aloha Bowl. Johnson then left to become the head coach at Georgia Southern, where he won two national championships in what was then known as Division I-AA while Navy was spiraling.

Johnson knew how difficult the Navy job was and how far the program had fallen when Gladchuk and Vice Admiral John R. Ryan, the academy’s superintendent at the time, came to interview him for the opening.

“What it’s going to take, Coach?” Ryan asked when negotiations stalled. “What do I have to pay you to get you to coach my football team.”

Johnson told him. Ryan was stunned. “Young man,” he said. “I’m a three-star admiral in the United States Navy and I don’t make anywhere close to that kind of money.”

“Well, Admiral,” Johnson replied, “I guess you got into the wrong business.”

Ryan paid him the money, and Johnson was worth every penny and much more. The Mids were 2-10 his first season — beating Army, 58-12, in the finale — and went to bowl games for the next five seasons while winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, which Navy hadn’t won since 1981, each of those falls. The climax to the Johnson years came in 2007 when Navy finally ended the longest losing streak in college football history, beating Notre Dame in triple overtime after 43 straight losses to the Irish.

After that, the question wasn’t whether Johnson would leave for a top-tier Bowl Championship Series program but which one it would be. It was Georgia Tech, and within 24 hours of Johnson’s departure, Gladchuk made his other smartest decision: promoting Niumatalolo.

Niumatalolo was only 42 at the time, but he had played for Johnson (as a quarterback at Hawaii) or coached under him for a large chunk of his adult life. He knew Johnson’s option offense as well as anyone not named Johnson, and perhaps most importantly, he had been an assistant at Navy for 11 years, so he understood the culture of the academy.

Johnson and Niumatalolo could not be more opposite in personality. Johnson has no problem making sure everyone understands he’s the smartest guy in any room he walks into — including, no doubt, the Oval Office. Niumatalolo is the boy next door, the kid you hope your daughter brings home because he will tell you what an honor it is to meet you and will have her home by 11 unless you think that’s too late.

Johnson is Eddie Haskell; Niumatalolo is the Beaver.

Except on the football field. When Niumatalolo was an assistant coach, practice would often stop because the offensive line coach wasn’t happy with his players and you could hear the screaming all the way to the Bay Bridge. He is every bit as intense now as a head coach.

Some wondered whether Niumatalolo could maintain what the uniquely gifted Johnson had built. Now they have a clear answer: Johnson was 45-29 at Navy. Niumatalolo is 47-30.

It is easy for some to point to Navy’s schedule as a reason for the team’s consistency. Being an independent has allowed the Midshipmen to schedule in a way that allows them to win — if they play well. Notre Dame (which Niumatalolo has beaten twice) is on the schedule every year, as are several BCS teams — including Pittsburgh, which came into Navy-Marine Corps Stadium and lost this season. The Mids’ losses this fall have been to teams that are a combined 31-13.

No one really wants to play them because stopping their option, especially with the supremely gifted and mature Reynolds (just a sophomore) at the controls, is almost impossible. And the Navy kids compete every single down.

It would have been easy to let Friday’s game get away after San Jose State sent it into overtime on a touchdown with no time left in regulation followed by a two-point conversion. On the road after a cross-country trip, it would have been easy to let the game get away. Instead, Parrish Gaines made an interception in the end zone in the third overtime, and Reynolds went 25 yards around the left side on the next play to seal the win.

It was a remarkable win by a remarkable team with a remarkable coach.

All are more than worthy of our attention.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

 
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