Nov. 27, 2012
By Bob Socci
A few minutes after signing off the radio on Oct. 15, 2005, former Navy fullback Omar Nelson and I collectively sighed in relief. The same Midshipmen who narrowly lost the season's first two games had just prevailed for the third straight week by a similarly uncomfortable margin.
Visiting Kent State closed within 34-31 in the final 90 seconds, before Navy's Tyree Barnes recovered an on-sides kick to preserve the field-goal difference. Keep in mind, those were the Golden Flashes of a 1-10 finish to '05; far removed from their present-day 11-1 successors threatening to strike gold in the BCS.
After five games decided by 18 points, the Mids needed three more wins to qualify for the Poinsettia Bowl. Thinking selfishly as the team's radio announcers, Omar and I agreed that victory by any margin should not be taken for granted. So long as it moves us one step closer to Southern California.
"If we're in San Diego come late December," we concurred at the time, perhaps coincidentally speaking for others despite our me-first outlooks, "no one's going to worry about how close this game was."
For a change, we were right.
Two months later, while routing Colorado State at Qualcomm Stadium, Navy ended its fourth year under Paul Johnson with just the third in a string of eight straight postseason appearances. The days of three wins in three seasons were a not-so-distant memory. Simply winning, as much as reaching a bowl, was still an Annapolis novelty.
Nobody ever mentioned that close call against Kent State again. Until now. And I only bring it up because of a conversation this week with current head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
When we last saw the Mids, they defeated Texas State, 21-10, in their home finale. But lingering in the aftermath -- including, admittedly, around my half of the broadcast booth -- was less an air of excitement or even relief than a draft of disappointment.
Sure, Navy was victorious. For the sixth time in the last seven games, in fact. However, with just seven points in the opening half and seven points in the final 29:46 of the second half, the Mids didn't seem to score a whole lot of style points.
In the aftermath, Niumatalolo thought it time for some of us to catch a whiff of perspective.
"You guys are making like this is a sad part. We're 7-4, we're going to a bowl game, we're getting ready for Army ... why do you want to dwell on the negatives?," Niumatalolo asked when questioned in his post-game press conference about some of the day's offensive shortcomings. "We had some huge defensive stops, no questions asked about that. I guess that's the way the media operates."
Overall, the modus operandi of writers and broadcasters on the Navy football beat is neither cynical nor sinister. Truth is, covering the Mids is a treat. Players are very accessible and extremely engaging. There are obvious signs of both respect and admiration when stories of what they do and how they do it, as military officers in training, are written and told. Niumatalolo is a class act, sincerely a genuine pleasure to deal with. I've never heard a media regular hint otherwise.
And in the end, the line of questioning that prompted Niumatalolo's uncharacteristic -- though still relatively tame --reply, is complimentary on both macro and micro levels. It speaks to expectations raised first by the success of the last 10 years, and heightened further by the highlights of the last two months.
A decade ago, the idea of finding fault in a Navy win -- especially considering that in 2001 Navy never won -- would have been ludicrous. There was even a time this year -- during a 1-3 September -- when no one would have questioned means to a triumphant end.
But as times change, naturally our frame of reference does too. It's easy to get accustomed to a good thing, and hard not to take it for granted.
Surveying the canvass of a Saturday, we fixate on the flaws -- like a lost fumble on 1st-and-10 from the Texas State 24-yard line or a later scoreless series featuring a 1st down at the Bobcats' 2 -- as much, if not more than we appreciate the overall finished product.
That's when we need to step back for a reality check. If not Niumatalolo's, then our own.
So at 21-10, the Mids' latest piece of work wasn't an offensive masterpiece. Even when "things are a little ugly there," as Niumatalolo himself told his players afterwards, winning is beautiful. Imperfections and all.
It's also difficult. Extremely.
"It is hard to win. It...is..hard...to...win...football games," Niumatalolo said on Monday, drawing out his words on second mention, as a means of emphasis in his soft-spoken manner. "Whenever you get a win, whether it's by one point or four points, you better take it and move on."
Niumatalolo then referenced the comments he made outside the locker room, beneath the south grandstand of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium two weeks ago.
"You know, people thought I was a little bit short (after Texas State) with reporters, with their line of questioning after winning our last game," he prefaced, before concluding. "You understand that's the nature. People will always want to pick at things. You definitely have your right to do that. But you also realize coaching in this profession and being in (the game), it is hard to win."
On the other end of a phone line, Niumatalolo was led to revisit his earlier remarks when asked for his reaction to the rash of firings that broke out as this week in college football began. Monday alone, five head coaches were let go. They included:
- Auburn's Gene Chizik, two years after presiding over a BCS title. More than likely, a 49-0 thrashing by rival and defending national champ Alabama to cap a 3-9 campaign had more to do with his exit than reports of an NCAA investigation into the Tigers' program.
- North Carolina State's Tom O'Brien, the Naval Academy graduate who previously launched Boston College's 12-year run of postseason appearances. Despite O'Brien's reputation for operating an upstanding program, a 5-1 record vs. North Carolina and a pending fourth bowl game in his six seasons, the school reportedly paid $1.2 million to buy out the remaining four years of his contract.
- Boston College's Frank Spaziani, an ex-Navy assistant to George Welsh, whose dismissal by a new athletic director was no surprise, considering this fall's 2-10 mark. Nonetheless, Spaziani leaves after 16 years of loyalty to BC, the last four as Eagles head coach.
- Purdue's Danny Hope, less than 12 months removed from signing a contract extension. Last season, his third as head coach, he guided the Boilermakers to their first bowl victory since 2007. Last week, he led them to a 56-35 rout of improving in-state rival Indiana. This week he is out of a job.
- And Colorado's Jon Embree, who was in place for all of two -- two! -- seasons. Granted the Buffaloes were 1-11 in 2012, after going 3-10 in 2011. However, the program he inherited had gone 19-39 under Dan Hawkins, including 17 straight losses to out-of-state foes. With barely enough time for any of Embree's recruits to get on the field, Colorado reportedly bought out his contract for $1.625 million.
Whatever the degree of difficulty, today's college coaches better win now. And better win often. Very often.
Here at Navy, though Niumatalolo, his staff and players are judged by other standards as well, winning remains essential. No one values its importance more than they do. Yet the challenges they must overcome are more substantial than those of Division I counterparts, save for other service academies.
Niumatalolo is absolutely correct. It's hard to win football games. It's harder to win at the Academy.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't wonder what went wrong when something didn't turn out right. But at the end of the day, if we get caught up inspecting the finer points, we shouldn't lose sight of the larger points.
The next time we see the Mids, a week from Saturday in Philadelphia, they need concern themselves only with carrying out an order handed down by generations of their predecessors. Since 1890, in football at least, it's demanded of Navy to "Beat Army." By any means, by any margin.
Then, another few weeks after that, the Mids will move on to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. And as we bid the season farewell from the streets of San Francisco, will anybody really care about some scoreless drive or two into Texas State territory?
I can think of two radio announcers who won't.