PHILADELPHIA — Ken Niumatalolo had already been crying for several minutes — throughout the playing of the Army alma mater. He had walked across the field to hear “Blue and Gold,” sung second for the 14th straight season. He was standing behind his players, as he always does, when he saw Army Coach Jeff Monken walking in his direction.
Monken had made a point of finding several Navy players in the chaos that always breaks out at the end of an Army-Navy game, regardless of score. Now, he was looking for his old friend and colleague. When he found him, the two coaches hugged and then stood side by side, both with tears in their eyes as the last notes of Navy’s alma mater faded into the warmth of a December night more fit for baseball. Then Monken turned, saw his father and wept on his shoulder for several minutes.
Army-Navy is always the same.
It begins with the march-ons of the Corps of Cadets and the Brigade of Midshipmen and isn’t over until the alma maters have been played and the tears have been shed.
This one, though, felt different. Navy was going for its 14th straight victory over its rival, yet for only the second time since that remarkable streak started was the crowd on its feet, hearts racing, during the final minutes.
When it was finally over — after a last-second Hail Mary fell harmlessly to the ground — Navy had won, 21-17, despite an extraordinary effort by an Army team that came in at 2-9 and was a three-touchdown underdog.
There were plenty of reasons to expect a blowout. Navy entered 9-2 and, in Keenan Reynolds, has a player who should have been in New York on Saturday night as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Reynolds scored his 85th career touchdown Saturday, the most in college football history, and also threw the a game-winning 50-yard touchdown pass to become Navy’s all-time leader in touchdown throws (30).
But under Monken the past two years, Army has shown it knows how to play against the Midshipmen. Navy won a similar type game last season, 17-10, and Saturday the difference was never more than one score.
But Army’s best chance ended when Monken, who loves trick plays, tried one too many.
“We were trying to make a big play,” Monken said. “We’d had our best luck with big plays all day. We just didn’t pull it off.
There were still more than two minutes left and Army was at the Navy 39 with a second and four. Monken decided to go for it on one play. Freshman quarterback Chris Carter flipped a pitch to senior wide receiver DeAndre Bell, who lofted a pass in the direction of Tyler Campbell in the end zone. But the ball floated and Navy safety Daiquan Thomasson was able to outleap Campbell for the ball.
Although Army had the last-chance Hail Mary attempt, Thomasson’s interception essentially sealed it.
“It was a play we’ve worked on,” Monken said. “On the series before when Chris [Carter] threw the interception, [Campbell] was wide open down the middle. I thought he would be again. But their guy was back there and made the play.”
There was little to choose from between the two teams except Navy had Reynolds and it knows how to win. Army has figured out how to compete — seven of the Cadets’ losses this season were by a total of 30 points — but not how to win.
The question now for Navy is whether this was Niumatalolo’s final Army-Navy game. He will visit Brigham Young on Monday and if he is offered the job — likely — he will almost certainly take it.
Standing on the field, Niumatalolo teared up again when the subject came up: “My heart says go,” he said softly. “My head says stay. I tend to lead with my heart.”
He said much the same thing in the postgame interview room. “This is the one job that I have to think about,” he said. “I’ve had other opportunities and never been interested. This is different.”
Niumatalolo is Mormon and BYU is a Mormon school. His older son is a BYU sophomore; his younger son has committed to Boise State but would undoubtedly go to BYU in two years — if his father is coaching there — after going on a Mormon mission. Both play football.
Niumatalolo received some criticism for telling his players Thursday night that he would interview Monday at BYU — including from his boss, Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk, who didn’t like the timing.
“I’m not going to be one of those guys who says, ‘Read my lips,’ and then everyone says, ‘Where did Coach Niumat go?’ ” he said. “I’m not going to text my team to tell them I’m leaving or not even tell my coaches like some guys have done. These guys are my family. You don’t do that to your family.”
In all likelihood, offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper would replace Niumatalolo, just as Niumatalolo replaced Paul Johnson eight years ago. Niumatalolo, one of the classiest coaches around, became the winningest coach in school history and never lost to Army.
When Niumatalolo was asked what had taken place in the locker room at halftime, he shrugged. “The seniors took over,” he said. “That’s what these kids always do. It’s not about me. I’m just a fat guy who stands in the middle of the field and watches the game.”
Those may be the least true words he has ever spoken. If Saturday was his final act at Navy, Niumatalolo went out exactly as you would expect him to: winning the game; crediting everyone but himself and crying like a baby during the alma maters.
Army-Navy is always the same.