It's the end of an era for Navy football. The Midshipmen have operated as an independent since the program was established in 1879, but will no longer do so after this season.
Independence worked well during the 1950s with coach Eddie Erdelatz and future Hall of Famers such as Ronnie Beagle and Bob Reifsnyder or the 1960s with coach Wayne Hardin and Heisman Trophy winners Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino. It carried over to the 1970s when George Welsh was a consistent winner with such all-time greats as Chet Moeller and Eddie Meyers.
After managing just two winning seasons from 1983 through 2002, Navy recaptured the formula for success during the current triple option era under head coaches Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo - posting winning records capped by bowl berths in 10 of the last 11 seasons.
"There are a lot of wonderful memories among the Navy football faithful about the ability to succeed for so long as an independent," said athletic director Chet Gladchuk, who recalled the glory days of the "East Indies" when Navy was one of many strong independent programs on the East Coast along with Army, Boston College, Penn State and West Virginia.
"Independence served Navy incredibly well for 124 years because of the ability to be flexible in terms of orchestrating the most important components of college football, which are television, bowl games and scheduling," he added.
Navy will enter uncharted waters in 2015 when it joins the American Athletic Conference as a football-only member. Gladchuk said the "writing was on the wall" with regard to realignments that produced super conferences and felt the Midshipmen needed a safe harbor at a time when the so-called Power Five have "formed monopolies with an exclusionary mindset."
"We had to detach ourselves from the emotional component of being independent and consider from a business perspective whether it made sense to continue in that format," he said. "It has become quite clear that you can't survive in this era of college football as an independent. As we look to the future, there are many great memories about the way we were able to navigate the waters and create opportunities for our football program to succeed as an independent."
Optimism abounds that Navy's final season as an independent could be a memorable one. Niumatalolo, beginning his eighth season as head coach, said he has never been so excited about a team or a season.
"Talent-wise, I know we're as skilled as we've ever been, we're as athletic as we've ever been. We have a lot of proven performers coming back and I like our leadership," Niumatalolo said. "That doesn't mean anything unless you produce on the field. We like our pieces and hopefully they will fit together on the field."
Navy returns 17 starters (eight offense, seven defense, punter, kicker) from last year's 9-4 team that captured the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy and defeated Middle Tennessee State in the Armed Forces Bowl. The Midshipmen, who received two votes in the Associated Press preseason poll, have a contract to appear in the Poinsettia Bowl provided they reach the requisite six wins.
Niumatalolo admits his confidence is boosted by the presence of quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who took over as the starter midway through his freshman season and has led Navy to a 15-6 record. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior amassed 2,403 yards of total offense and set an NCAA record for rushing touchdowns (31) by a quarterback in 2013.
"Keenan is the best quarterback we've had since I've been here," said Niumatalolo, who has worked in Annapolis for 17 years. "It's definitely a great comfort to have a player at that position who is tried and tested, who has been in big games and played in hostile environments."
Reynolds has plenty of weapons to in Navy's triple-option offense. Fullbacks Noah Copeland, Chris Swain and Quinton Singleton teamed to rush for 1,120 yards while starting slotbacks Geoffrey Whiteside and DeBrandon Sanders combined for 1,084 yards from scrimmage. Those skill position players will operate behind an offensive line that returns all five starters.
Navy has some question marks on defense, having graduated its two leading tacklers. Senior safety and co-captain Parrish Gaines is the leader of a unit that held nine of 13 opponents below their season scoring average in 2013. Jordan Drake, a two-year starter at outside linebacker, has moved inside to provide experience and sure tackling at that key position. Other defensive leaders figure to be nose guard Bernie Sarra, defensive end Paul Quessenberry, outside linebacker Chris Johnson and cornerback Brendon Clements – all of whom are coming off outstanding seasons.
If Navy achieves its primary goals of beating Army and Air Force to claim the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the 10th time since 2003 and earning a bowl berth, it would likely enable Niumatalolo to reach a major milestone.
Niumatalolo boasts a 49-30 career record as head coach and needs seven victories to become Navy's all-time leader, surpassing Erdelatz (50-26-8 from 1950-58) and Welsh (55-46-1 from 1973-1981).
"That is the furthest thing from my mind. I worry about the here and now," Niumatalolo said. "Maybe 10 or 15 years down the road I might sit back and look at my career, but not four days before we have to play Ohio State."
Niumatalolo called it a program accomplishment and said the players, assistant coaches and support personnel deserve all the credit.
"Any organization that is successful, whether it be a football team or a Fortune 500 company, there are so many important people that contribute," the 49-year-old Hawaii native said. "The head coach just sets the tone and provides leadership. When it comes down to it, the folks who really get things done are the players and the assistants."
Niumatalolo recently took a "selfie" that showed the Severn River and Annapolis harbor in the background and posted the photo to Twitter along with the comment "View from my office. How can you not love coming to work every day?"
"I feel blessed and fortunate to be the head football coach at the Naval Academy. This is an incredible institution and we get to work with great young men who are going to be this country's future leaders," he said.
Adding to the excitement is Navy's new partnership with Under Armour, the Baltimore-based sports apparel company. In January, the Naval Academy Athletic Association announced a multi-year partnership that designates Under Armour as official outfitter of the school's 33 varsity intercollegiate sports.
Deputy Director of Athletics Eric Ruden said Under Armour will produce special, one-time uniforms for Saturday's season opener against Ohio State at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
MIDS AT GLANCE
HOME FIELD: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
COACH: Ken Niumatalolo, eighth year (49-30)
2014 RECORD: 9-4, won Armed Forces Bowl
OFFENSE: Spread triple-option
DEFENSE: Multiple 3-4
Aug. 30 Ohio St., Noon (Baltimore)
Sep. 6 at Temple, 1 p.m.
Sep. 13 at Texas St., 8 p.m.
Sep. 20 Rutgers, 3:30 p.m.
Sep. 27 W. Kentucky, 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Air Force, 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 11 VMI, 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 25 San Jose St., 1 p.m.
Nov. 1 Notre Dame, 8 p.m. (Landover)
Nov. 15 Georgia Southern, 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 28 at South Alabama, TBA
Dec. 13 Army, 3 p.m. (Baltimore)