As he walked to the locker room Saturday evening after his team’s stunning 46-40 upset of sixth-ranked Houston, Navy football Coach Ken Niumatalolo realized he had a problem.
“I was completely on Cloud Nine,” he said. “I’ve coached at Navy a long time and we’ve had some great moments. But nothing quite like this. Nothing where the brigade of midshipmen rushes the field like that. I was completely euphoric. And I thought, ‘If I’m feeling this way, I can only imagine how the kids feel.’ And we had five days before we had to turn around and play again.”
As it turned out, several hours after Niumatalolo and his staff had made their plans to prepare for a game Thursday at East Carolina, the game was postponed because of post-Hurricane Matthew flooding. (It will be played Nov. 19.) Niumatalolo found that news sobering — “kind of puts the whole football thing in perspective, doesn’t it?” he said — but he also knew that one challenge removed simply meant different challenges lay ahead.
Which is why he was glad that Dick Vermeil had been one of the people waiting to congratulate him as he walked to the locker room. Vermeil was at the game with a friend who is a Navy graduate. As soon as he saw Vermeil, Niumatalolo had an idea. “Coach, would you mind saying a few words to the team?” he said. “You know first-hand about handling moments like this.”
Vermeil, who both won and lost in the Super Bowl, said he would be happy to talk to the players.
“I never said anything about what I hoped he’d say,” Niumatalolo said. “And then he said everything I wanted him to say. He reminded the guys that the reason we’ve sustained success the last few years is their work ethic — that they know every single week is a challenge and they can’t get too high after a win like this or too low after a loss. Funny thing was, we’d experienced both those things in a week.”
Seven days earlier, in Colorado Springs, Niumatalolo had stood in front of his players after a discouraging 28-14 loss to Air Force, a thorough whipping that put their retaining of the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy in serious jeopardy.
Niumatalolo can get very emotional when talking to his team, but he went for the “never get too low” approach in the locker room behind the end zone in Falcon Stadium.
“Fellas, there are some days when the other guy plays better,” he told his players. “This was one of those days. It’s painful, but we can’t dwell on it because if we do, we’re going to get embarrassed next week. We have to move forward from this. Starting now.”
The message got through. Navy forced Heisman Trophy candidate Greg Ward Jr. into three turnovers, while Will Worth ran the offense to near-perfection.
“Amazing,” Niumatalolo said of Worth’s performance. “When the season started, his job was to hold on kicks. Now, he does this.”
A little less than 1,400 miles away from Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, retired Marine Corps Col. Andrew Thompson watched the game on his computer and was thrilled, but not amazed, by Worth’s performance. Thompson has a unique perspective on how far the football program has come. He was Navy’s defensive captain in 1995, the first year in which Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper were on the coaching staff, and worked with the team under Niumatalolo for three years as an assistant coach-military rep.
“I was there when we recruited Will,” Thompson said. “His whole family defines toughness. His grandfather was brigade commander years ago. His older brother [Joe] graduated in 2015 and is a Marine now. When Tago [Smith] went down in the Fordham game, I knew it would take time for the offense to adjust to Will. But I had no doubt they’d figure it out. Every year, Kenny and those kids figure it out.”
Thompson vividly remembers his senior season, when Charlie Weatherbie was hired as coach and brought in a remarkable staff that included Niumatalolo and Jasper along with Paul Johnson as offensive coordinator; Gary Patterson as defensive backs coach; Dick Bumpas, Patterson’s defensive coordinator during TCU’s rise; and Phil Emery, who went on to be the general manager of the Chicago Bears.
“Everything changed when those guys showed up,” Thompson said.
Navy hadn’t had a winning season since 1982 when Weatherbie and his staff arrived. In 1996, the Midshipmen went 9-3 and won the Aloha Bowl. Then the quality assistants left and Weatherbie was fired in 2001 in the midst of an 0-10 season. Johnson returned as head coach — his first move was to bring Niumatalolo back after three years at UNLV — and the rest is happy history: 10 Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy wins; 12 bowl trips, a 14-game winning streak against Army, a No. 18 final ranking a year ago after going 11-2.
And Saturday, what Niumatalolo, now in his ninth season since succeeding Johnson, calls the biggest win since his arrival on the Yard. All of that after Smith, groomed as Keenan Reynolds’s successor, went down in the second quarter of the opener and Daniel Gonzales, the defensive captain and emotional leader, also went down for the season in the second quarter of the Air Force game.
“We’re pretty banged up right now,” Niumatalolo said Monday morning. “We’ve always had mature kids; you have to be mature to survive here outside of football. But it’s been tested a lot this fall. Honestly, when Daniel went down, I caught myself thinking, ‘Well, it’s just one of those years. We haven’t had one for a long time.’ Fortunately, the kids haven’t thought that way.”
Now, instead of playing at East Carolina on Thursday, the Mids get a breather before playing a good Memphis team a week from Saturday. That game will begin a six-week gantlet that will include five conference games and a neutral-site game against Notre Dame in Jacksonville, Fla. And, if Navy wins the American Athletic Conference West (it is 3-0 in league play), it will play in the conference title game Dec. 3, meaning the Army game would be its eighth in a row.
The Mids could really be banged up by then. For now, though, that’s nothing more than a nice problem to have way out on the horizon.
“They’ll figure something out when the time comes,” Thompson said, laughing. “They always do.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.