Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

What Do You Think? | Navy Football, Inc.

Sep 01, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Frederick Schultz

Navy football has had its peaks and valleys since its inception in the late 19th century, and until recently, few players have stood out nationally. Names like Roger Staubach, Joe Bellino, and Napoleon McCallum are a large part of Navy lore, but they were exceptions in past decades. Those were simpler times, when midshipmen happened to play football, not when football players happened to be midshipmen, as is obviously the case today. 

Naval Academy football has become big business, and people are wondering where the motivations to play for Navy now lie. Are these men being groomed to drive ships and lead troops in combat, or are several let off the hook as part-time public-relations reservists in pursuit of the lucrative holy grail of professional football?

“Option Left! Option Right! Down the Middle, Punt!” This was the mildly amusing-yet-cruel “cheer” wafting across Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium back in the 1980s and most of the ’90s. The reference was to an acute ineptitude in mounting a credible offense. Navy wasn’t winning football games, and the lackluster eras of head coaches Elliot Uzelac, George Chaump, and Charlie Weatherbie were trying the patience of Navy fans everywhere.

A good case could be made for 1996 as the year everything began to change, when the midshipmen put together a respectable winning season for the first time in 14 years and ended up beating the California Golden Bears in the Aloha Bowl. Despite posting a passable winning record the following year, the “Down the Middle, Punt!” chant soon returned, and it would drone on for four more losing seasons. Largely overlooked at the time was one key component to that two-season win-blip: the short stint of Offensive Coordinator Paul Johnson under Weatherbie. The innovation Johnson brought to Annapolis quietly heralded Navy’s bold entry into big-time college football.

Are these men being groomed to drive ships and lead troops in combat, or are several let off the hook as part-time public-relations reservists in pursuit of the lucrative holy grail of professional football?

Johnson, currently head coach at Georgia Tech, had introduced something now called the triple “flexbone spread option,” a new running-game bag of offensive tricks he developed over successful years of coaching at Georgia Southern, followed by eight seasons at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. There, he mentored a quarterback by the name of Ken Niumatalolo, who went on to work for Johnson at Navy and succeed him in 2007 as head coach. Since then, “Coach Ken” has become the winningest coach in Navy football history, leading the team to big-payout bowl games 10 out of 11 past seasons and bringing in a salary of $1.6 million. Navy is also now in the Division IA Football Bowl Subdivision and part of the newly formed American Athletic Conference.

Sportswriter Joe Nocera’s pre-Army-Navy game article in the December 9, 2016 The New York Times concluded that the Naval Academy is “gaming the system,” then a bombshell indictment. He was referring specifically to the Naval Academy Prep School (NAPS), which serves as a sort of minor league for potential Navy football players. NAPS is now a means by which “Navy launders underqualified athletes into the Naval Academy,” Nocera wrote, and it costs an estimated 14 million taxpayer dollars a year to operate that laundromat. The article also sets its sights on the Naval Academy Foundation and the Athletic Association, the former being a funding pool to send football prospects to prestigious prep schools before advancing to the Academy, and the latter serving as the “corporation” that runs the whole Navy sports show. 

The Naval Academy has two major chances to make a splash on traditional national television each regular season: the annual meeting against Notre Dame and the pageant-laden Army-Navy game. Invariably, TV announcers emphasize the sacrifice made by the service academy players and tout the conditioning of the midshipmen, which is the only way they can compete, they tell viewers, with the oversize linemen from “big” football schools. 

Is that still the case? One wonders about the girth of some of Navy’s most recent football recruits: 6-3, 275 pounds; 6-4, 265 pounds; 6-5, 225 pounds; and 6-1, 301 pounds, according to ESPN. These don’t sound like players who can run circles around the opposition simply because they’re in better physical shape. And one would suspect that such future naval officers would be tight fits in a submarine or a fighter jet.

Don’t get the wrong idea here. Winning is much more fulfilling and fun than losing. But at what cost?