Dec 11, 2022
The Ken Niumatalolo era at Navy is over.
The academy announced Sunday that Niumatalolo would not return as head coach, one day after an overtime loss to Army. Niumatalolo was the winningest coach in school history, with a 109-83 record since the end of the 2007 season. But Navy finished the season with four or fewer wins four times in the past five years and three seasons in a row.
The Midshipmen are also 2-5 in the last seven matchups with Army and 2-5 against Air Force in the same span. A year ago, after an early loss to Air Force, athletic director Chet Gladchuk fired offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, long expected to be Niumatalolo’s replacement. Niumatalolo eventually talked Gladchuk into letting Jasper stay on staff as quarterbacks coach. This year’s Navy team improved, with a win against UCF and a near comeback against Notre Dame, but Gladchuk has clearly not been happy with the general direction of the program.
“Our sincerest gratitude to Coach Ken for what has been a distinguished and impactful legacy at the Naval Academy,” Gladchuk said in a release. “Navy football flourished for many years under his leadership. He will forever be remembered for the influence he has had on the lives of those who played for him. We all have great respect and appreciation for his 25 years of service to the Academy. … The Naval Academy will now move forward with continued high ambitions and embrace a new era of reaffirmed expectations for Navy football and our midshipmen.”
Service academy jobs do not open often. Navy has had two head coaches since 2002, and Charlie Weatherbie was the last Navy head coach fired, in 2001. Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun has been in charge since 2007, and Army’s Jeff Monken took over before the 2014 season.
So how good is the Navy job? What names could get in the mix? Here are the factors to keep in mind.
Navy has had three consecutive seasons of four wins or fewer. (Danny Wild / USA Today)
You can win at Navy and at the service academies
The success of Navy, Army and Air Force over the past two decades is one of the most remarkable situations in all of sports. They’re the only programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision whose players don’t arrive with plans to reach the NFL. The athletes are there for future military service and for the education. While the rosters and coaching staffs are larger than allowed elsewhere, the academies are not signing players over Power 5 schools. They always rank at the bottom of the country in recruiting rankings.
And yet, Navy won at least eight games 13 times in 14 seasons from 2003 to ’16. Army won at least eight games five times in six years from 2016 to ’21, and Air Force has won at least eight games nine times under Calhoun, including 19 wins over the past two seasons.
It is typically difficult for all three service academies to win at the same time, as they recruit the same pool of players. It’s not a coincidence that Navy’s decline has coincided with Army’s rise. This year’s Navy team was one of its youngest ever and went .500 in American Athletic Conference play.
That’s something to build on, but the next coach has to make more recruiting gains against Army and Air Force.
There are more and more modern limitations at service academies
The transfer portal is essentially a one-way street here. With relaxed NCAA transfer rules, players can leave Navy without having to sit out a year.
But in the reverse, Navy and service academies generally do not add transfers, due to the service requirements. There is no graduate school to add veteran players. Additionally, athletes cannot receive name, image and likeness deals. It’s technically illegal, as service academy players are considered government employees. Niumatalolo pointed to those concerns in the ever-changing world of college football.
“Now people can build their teams through the portal and do well. We can’t,” Niumatalolo told The Athletic in the summer. “We have to build a team. We have to build together. … That’s probably the one detriment to us. The league’s gotten better. I’m always in communication with our athletic director and our administration to make sure we’re competitive. We’re never going to be able to go in the transfer portal. We can’t use NIL. Those are the discussions I have to have as head coach.”
The academies also cannot redshirt players, though Navy coaches, fans and officials often derided Army and Air Force for finding loopholes with “turnbacks,” which can save eligibility. Navy has not used those, putting it at an experience disadvantage.
Will Navy stick with the triple-option background?
Service academies play this style of offense because it’s the great equalizer. When teams are smaller on the offensive and defensive lines, they have to find different ways to move the ball.
The triple-option offense is unique for opponents to prepare for, it shortens the games with fewer possessions and it can take away an opponent’s advantage in open space.
But the NCAA continues to make more rules limiting cut blocks, to the detriment of triple-option teams. It’s getting harder and harder to move the ball legally. Georgia Southern, a longtime triple-option team, moved away from that history in hiring Clay Helton last year, but the Eagles have a higher ceiling for recruiting.
Navy football has changed since joining a conference
The Midshipmen joined the AAC in 2015 after more than a century of independence. They played in the 2016 AAC title game, but the program has declined since. Has the rest of the conference picked up on what Navy does, limiting its uniqueness? That’s what some people around the league think.
Navy has one winning conference record in the past six years. Army, meanwhile, remains an independent and plays two FCS games each year. But Air Force has been in a conference since 1980 and hasn’t fallen off.
The AAC will also reshape in 2023. UCF, Cincinnati and Houston are gone, while Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA will join the conference. Including Navy, seven of the 14 teams in the conference will have a new head coach.
So what names could get in the mix?
Kennesaw State head coach Brian Bohannon coached at Navy alongside Niumatalolo from 2002 to ’07, before following Paul Johnson to Georgia Tech. Bohannon became Kennesaw State’s first head coach and has a 68-24 record in eight seasons, with five consecutive FCS top-15 finishes from 2017 to ’21. He has a deep background with the triple-option offense, and he has experience at Navy. But Kennesaw State is moving up to FBS and Conference USA in 2024. Would he want to leave for what could be a tougher job?
Army offensive coordinator Brent Davis has played an integral role in the Black Knights’ rise. Army had reached one bowl in seven years before Davis and Monken arrived, and the program has reached five bowls in the past seven years. Davis has a long history with the triple-option offense from his time at Army and Georgia Southern before that.
Air Force offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen has played and coached at Air Force for his entire career, on the staff since 2007. The Falcons are 33-11 over the past four seasons, leading the nation in rushing yards per game over the past three. Opponents have lauded Air Force’s ability to mix up its offense, using option tendencies but also throwing in typical running game plays to surprise a defense. Thiessen was in the mix for the Georgia Southern job last year and has impressed many people in the industry.
Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry will serve as interim head coach but could also be an internal option. Navy’s defense made massive strides when Newberry arrived in 2019, improving from the bottom of the country to the top 40 in many key statistics. This year’s defense again took a step forward. Navy held Notre Dame to 16 total yards in the second half as the Midshipmen nearly made a miraculous comeback. The Midshipmen also held Army to 153 total yards through regulation and two overtimes. Before Navy, Newberry worked as Kennesaw State’s defensive coordinator under Bohannon. Navy offensive line coach Ashley Ingram has been with the program for 15 years, playing a key role in the highs under Niumatalolo. Ingram is also in the mix for the head coaching job at The Citadel. The temporary firing of QBs coach Ivin Jasper last year would seem to make his candidacy unlikely.
Army defensive coordinator Nate Woody has been with the Black Knights since 2020, when his defense finished 17th nationally in yards per play allowed. He would bring experience from outside the service academies, having coached at Michigan, Georgia Tech, Appalachian State and Wofford.
Chris Vannini covers the Group of 5 conferences, college football coaching and national college football for The Athletic. He previously was managing editor of CoachingSearch.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisVannini