There are just a few days remaining before "America's Game," and Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo has some explaining to do.
The last time the Midshipmen were in the national spotlight, they were across the Atlantic Ocean being trampled in their season opener by a Notre Dame team that has never looked back on its way to the upcoming BCS Championship Game. Two weeks later, they were beaten soundly by Penn State — the combined score of their first two games a humbling 84-17.
Coming on the heels of his first losing season at Annapolis and a period of understandable "self-reflection" within the program, Niumatalolo could have been forgiven for wondering where his team — and his career — was heading, but he says now he knew in his heart that the Mids would find their way back.
"I did. … I still felt strong," he said at Tuesday's Navy football luncheon. "I knew after we lost to Notre Dame, that was a good team. That was a very, very good football team. Now they're playing for a national championship. I knew Penn State was a good team and I knew that San Jose State (now 10-2) was a good team. We just had to stay the course and keep grinding."
So, the same team that went 5-7 in 2011 and started this season 1-3 bounced back to beat Air Force in overtime and reel off six wins in seven games to enter Saturday's 113th Army-Navy Classic with a chance to vanquish the Black Knights of West Point for the 11th straight year and recapture the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy.
Niumatalolo made some subtle changes after the Mids failed to earn a bowl berth last year for the first time since 2002, but said he never wavered in his belief that his program would come back stronger than before.
"We felt like what we were doing was right," he said. "We lost five games by 11 points to good teams — South Carolina, Southern Miss, Air Force — so we knew we weren't far off, but we needed to look at what we were doing to make sure it didn't happen again. I think it was self-reflection [rather than self-doubt], but you can't be arrogant either and just say 'We're fine, just keep going.' We just had to make sure we took a hard look at what we were doing and make sure that we were doing everything to try and get ready to go."
It would have been harder to do that if he had spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder, but he said his job security never crossed his mind.
"My thoughts have never been about me," Niumatalolo said. "My thoughts were about our program. I'm a competitor. I hate to lose. All my pressure comes from within, knowing that we've got young men that are working hard and we're responsible for them and hopefully we send them off the right way. This is a bottom line profession. You've got to win to keep your job, but that pressure comes from within."
Athletic director Chet Gladchuk made it clear that nobody was on the hot seat, but he admits that there were some moments earlier this season when it was not so easy to foresee the dramatic turnaround that has put Navy in position to complete a very successful regular season on Saturday and then prepare to face Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 29.
"I didn't know what to envision after the Penn State game," Gladchuk said. "I think we were all a little confused. That was a tough way to open things up."
Obviously, it's all a lot easier to figure out now that Notre Dame has established itself as — at worst — the second-best team in the country and both Penn State and unheralded San Jose State turned out to be bowl-caliber teams (though Penn State was not eligible to play in a bowl this year). It's also easier to swallow when you're only a year or so removed from a decade that ended with eight straight bowl appearances.
"There was never any panic and there was never any concern on my part," Gladchuk said. "We have a program that is extremely well-founded in its base. It has a strong foundation. If you get into three years and four years and things are off dead-center, it's incumbent on any administration to weigh in to some degree, but there was never an issue on our end.
"This year, we were just a whisker from nine wins and last year we were a whisker from eight wins. Programatically, things are solid. It's the nature of the game that you're going to win some and lose some, but there's nothing broken at Navy."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.