Niumatalolo stumps for more support of Navy football

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo owns up to his responsibility for last season’s disappointing 3-10 record. The Midshipmen simply did not perform to typical expectations in 2018 and ultimately the blame falls on the coaching staff.

“It all starts with me. I’ve got to coach better and I’ve got to find a way to get our team to play better,” Niumatalolo said prior to the start of spring football practice.

However, Niumatalolo has repeatedly pointed out that Navy played the toughest schedule of his 12-year tenure with Notre Dame qualifying for the College Football Playoff, Central Florida earning the lone Group of Five berth in a New Year’s Day bowl and Army setting a program record with 11 wins.

It was a season that also saw the Midshipmen meet the most difficult slate of American Athletic Conference opponents since becoming a member. Factor in four losses by a touchdown or less and the Midshipmen were saddled with just their second losing season since 2003.

Niumatalolo has been pushing for numerous program improvements since taking over in 2008 and felt Navy’s sustained success – winning records in 14 of 15 seasons – caused the academy leadership to dismiss his concerns.

No doubt, last year’s dismal record provided ammunition for Niumatalolo’s arguments. During a media luncheon on Monday to preview spring camp, the 13th-year head coach expressed satisfaction with the response he’s received this off-season.

“I think some of the things I’ve cried wolf about before have kind of fallen on deaf ears. It’s not falling on deaf ears anymore,” Niumatalolo said. “I’ve been way more vocal this offseason because the truth has got to come out. Our league is getting better and better – so the gap is definitely widening.”

Niumatalolo engaged in several spirited meetings with long-time athletic director Chet Gladchuk regarding the future of Navy football. There was healthy debate about what improvements are absolutely necessary, but the coach was pleased with the progress.

“Chet and I had some long, hard discussions about this during the offseason,” Niumatalolo said. “I think everybody recognizes that coaching, playing and recruiting have got to be better, but support from the athletic director and administration – the superintendent and commandant – is also needed in order to compete at this level.”

One of Niumatalolo’s primary talking points has involved nutrition. Most major college football programs feed their players in a dining facility that is part of the football complex. Navy players eat most of their meals at King Hall with the entire Brigade of Midshipmen. Often, treatment following practice forces many to miss dinner during the season.

“There’s a certain level of support that we need if we want to be in this league,” Niumatalolo said. “Now, the powers that be might not want to hear that, but this year I’m not holding anything back. There are things we need.”

Niumatalolo noted that offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper recently returned from a visit to a Power Five school and was blown away by the football facilities, using the term “unbelievable” to describe some of what he saw.

“I feel confident Chet recognizes that we need to keep up with the Joneses if we want to be in this league,” Niumatalolo said. “I think Chet knows there are some musts that you have to do if you want to compete with these schools.

“To Chet’s credit, he is addressing some of the issues. Facilities-wise, there is a plan to do a lot of things,” Niumatalolo added. “There are some really exciting things on the horizon. Unfortunately, I feel like it took last season for some of this stuff to happen.”

The Naval Academy Athletic Association is currently constructing a major addition to Ricketts Hall, the aged building overlooking the Severn River. Gladchuk has included some football facility upgrades as part of the $20 million Physical Mission Center, which is scheduled to open this fall.

“I’m really excited about some of the things Chet is doing here with the new building. We’re going to get a new weight room and a new locker room,” said Niumatalolo, who is hopeful that a nutrition bar will also be part of the Physical Mission Center.

Niumatalolo indicated that improvements to the indoor practice facility at Halsey Field House are also in the works. On the side of Halsey that was once home to Navy basketball, an artificial surface was laid down so various sports can practice indoors during inclement weather. Niumatalolo has previously raised concerns about the indoor complex in terms of functionality for football.

There is no debate that Navy football is funded at a much higher level than any other varsity sport, and naturally so. However, Naval Academy leaders have sometimes gone out of the way to ensure that football does not receive special treatment.

Niumatalolo believes it’s time to take a different approach now that Navy is a member of the highly-competitive American Athletic Conference, which has mounted a two-year campaign to be considered on equal terms with the so-called Power Five conferences.

“Division I football is hard as crap – hard, hard, hard. You have to be all-in as an entire institution – administration, athletic department – and you have to set some priorities about where you’re program is at,” Niumatalolo said.

“Not everybody can get what football gets. That’s just the truth. I don’t want to hear that so and so is not getting Muscle Milk. My response is that so and so is not playing Notre Dame,” Niumatalolo added. “We can’t worry about distributing things evenly. Those are the kinds of battles that I’ve been fighting behind the scenes for 12 years that nobody knows about. I think we’ve been winning for so long there has been this feeling that football will be okay.”

Niumatalolo noted the leadership of archrival Army made a complete and total commitment to finally fielding a winning football program. Fundamental changes in the way the West Point administration approached football has led to a dramatic turnaround for the Black Knights under the direction of head coach Jeff Monken.

If the Naval Academy administration won’t make a similar commitment, Niumatalolo believes the football program should pull out of the American Athletic Conference.

“If we’re not willing to make those sacrifices, if people are too concerned or don’t want to do that, then I’m cool with that and let’s just go into the Patriot League,” Niumatalolo said. “Army wasn’t concerned. They were tired of losing and did everything it took to turn things around. That’s kind of where we’re at now.”

Based off his off-season discussions with Gladchuk, Niumatalolo believes the Naval Academy will do what it takes to compete successfully in the American Athletic Conference while also keeping pace with service academy rivals Army and Air Force.

“I’m excited about the direction we’re going in. I think people recognize now that the league is getting better and our rivals are getting better and we have to do things,” he said.

Niumatalolo closed out his lunchtime comments by making sure it was understood he was not shifting responsibility for the sudden struggles of Navy football, which has gone 5-16 since mid-October, 2017.

“I know some people out there are complaining and saying I’m pointing fingers,” he said. “Ultimately, the finger is always going to come back to me, the coaching staff and the players.”

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