Long before the teams lined up for Sunday's Army-Navy men's basketball game, it had already been a very good day on the Yard, as the Naval Academy campus is called.
The Navy women's team had routed Army, 70-44. That was nice, especially for the 700 midshipmen who responded to various incentives offered by the administration and showed up at Alumni Hall for the 11 a.m. start.
But the women's score paled in importance next to the news that began circulating in the building shortly after tip-off: Football Coach Ken Niumatalolo was staying put. He had turned down a chance to make a lot more money at Arizona, a Power Five school in a place where Sunday's temperature was about 50 degrees warmer than it was in Annapolis.
"We're 2-0 already," Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said with a huge smile shortly before the men tipped off. "In the end, I think Ken understood that this is where he belongs."
Gladchuk and Niumatalolo spent about an hour Saturday night talking in Niumatalolo's office. This was the second time that Niumatalolo had seriously considered leaving Navy, where he not only is the winningest coach in school history but an icon.
Two years ago, it was Brigham Young. Niumatalolo flew to Provo, Utah, on the Monday after his eighth straight victory in the Army-Navy game, almost certain that he was going to take the job. A devout Mormon, Niumatalolo thought BYU was the place he was meant to be.
But when the BYU administrators interviewing him began trying to dictate who would be on his staff, Niumatalolo became less sure. After talking to his wife, Barbara, he decided to stay.
Arizona was different. Money might have been a factor — Niumatalolo probably would have been able to command north of $3 million a year, considerably more than the $2 million Navy is reportedly paying him. Beyond that, though, was the sense that there wasn't much left to accomplish at Navy. Under Niumatalolo, Navy has won the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy five times, has gone to nine bowls in 10 seasons and, even after heartbreaking losses the past two seasons, is 8-2 against Army.
When Niumatalolo dropped off the radar Thursday and Friday and word came out of Arizona that he had been offered the job there, many at Navy believed this was the time he was going to pull the trigger and leave.
Gladchuk didn't know what to believe. That's why he went to see his coach late Saturday after Niumatalolo had returned to campus and met with his staff to discuss the recruits on campus for the weekend.
"We talked for about an hour," Gladchuk said. "I was happy he didn't simply announce to me he was leaving. We talked about how much he loved this place, how right he was for this place. Then I brought something else up — the Hall of Fame. I honestly believe, if Kenny stays here until the end of [his] career, he's going to be in the Hall of Fame. You look at his record, at who he is and the person he is, I think it will happen — should happen. If he goes to Arizona, he'd win because he's a great coach. But let's face it: Winning there isn't as special as winning here."
Whether Gladchuk's talk swung Niumatalolo or the coach simply needed confirmation that he was making the right decision is hard to know, but Gladchuk got the call he wanted Sunday morning. By noon, word had spread that Niumatalolo — or "Coach Ken," as he is known on the Yard — was staying put.
"I was in the locker room when I saw it on my phone," said Shawn Anderson, Navy's best player, who finished the men's 64-62 loss to Army with 24 points and eight rebounds even though he took nine stitches on the bridge of his nose after catching an elbow late in the first half. "When we saw it, we were all really happy. I know a lot of the football players, and they all speak very highly of Coach Ken."
Even Jimmy Allen, Army's men's basketball coach — who was once a Navy assistant — was aware of the drama playing out.
"We were all talking about it on the bus coming down here," Allen said. "I've been part of the Army-Navy rivalry on both sides, and I know what Ken means to this place. I'm glad he stayed. He's an important part of Navy."
A year ago, Army came from 25 points down with 13 minutes to go to beat Navy, a devastating loss for the Mids. This time was different: Army scored the first basket of the game and never trailed. The Black Knights led by as many as 15 in the first half before a late Navy rally gave the sold-out crowd of 5,710 hope.
A three-pointer by Cam Davis with two seconds left trimmed the margin to 64-62, but Army managed to get the ball inbounds to leading scorer Jordan Fox, who was fouled with somewhere between a half-second and a second left — except the officials decided the game was over and headed for the door without checking the clock while both coaches, Allen and Navy's Ed DeChellis, stood in front of their benches, palms in the air, convinced there was time on the clock.
"There was time left," Fox said. "Actually, I wanted to shoot the free throws because I'd just missed two. But I'm not complaining. We got the win."
Fox is the kind of player who makes this rivalry special, regardless of the sport. He comes from Jackson City, Ky., a tiny town of about 2,000 people, and says if he hadn't been recruited to play basketball at Army, he would have enlisted.
"I just want to serve," he said. "Not a lot of people from my town go to college, so when basketball gave me this chance, I jumped at it. I love every aspect of being a cadet." He grinned. "And I love being part of this rivalry. I didn't know anything about it until I got recruited. I watched the football game as a kid, but I thought it was the real Army against the real Navy."
Fox is a junior, and now he's 3-0 in Alumni Hall.
So the day wasn't perfect for Navy. But the most important outcome turned out the way everyone had hoped. Army and Navy will meet in Philadelphia on Dec. 8. Coach Ken will be on the sideline.
That's a good thing. For everyone — on both sides.