In Ken We Trust - 2008 Navy Preview

Ken Niumatalolo (GM/David Ausiello)

After all the accomplishments of the Paul Johnson era--capped off by the win at Notre Dame last season--some might wonder what Navy football can do to top the past several years. But if anyone feels that Navy football has nowhere to go but down, they're thinking the wrong thoughts and doubting the wrong man. Ken Niumatalolo is ready to make 2008 the finest hour ....

....yet for Navy football, the proudest moment of this program's decade-long resurgence.

The passionate coach will employ the same offensive system used by his former boss, but if he achieves anything close to the same results, he'll make Navy one of the better and more special programs in the United States. In an ironic but real way, the 2008 season of Midshipmen Football could offer a moment of crowning glory as rich as last year's triumph in South Bend against the Fighting Irish.

Think of what the Niumatalolo era means to both Navy and to college football in general.

If the zen of Ken works wonders this season and beyond, Navy will wind up showing America that, for one thing, it can win with a minority head coach, thereby opening countless doors for other minorities in a profession where minority representation--at the head-coaching level--is shamefully, disgracefully low. Just as importantly, a successful Niumatalolo regime would tell the rest of the college football world that the Midshipmen are more than the man who left them for Georgia Tech. Navy football needs to be able to say that its success rested on the shoulders of many men other than Paul Johnson. While it's true enough that Navy's former coach built a formidable program from the ashes of the very early part of this decade, it's also true that staffers like Niumatalolo--along with step-up leaders and performers at the skill positions--created the Annapolis ascendancy that has stirred the hearts of Navy people everywhere. The march from mediocrity to the Milestone Midshipmen of 2007--a journey several years in the making--was a collective labor, and so the 2008 season will mean so much to this program because it can show the nation that Navy football can stand on its own feet, without the need for Paul Johnson to be given all the credit.

There's a new skipper at the wheel, and he's ready to show America that this successful football force is still supremely seaworthy in the choppy waters of big-time college football. Sustaining the excellence of past years would really and truly represent a moment of unsurpassed glory for Navy football.

What are the challenges that stand in Navy's way, as the tenure of Ken begins for real?

Quite frankly, the biggest challenge the Midshipmen face is a matter of hunger.

Now, now, you might say--surely service academy players aren't going to lack the fire in the belly needed to compete. But sports psychology has a funny way of working. Sports history--especially in recent years--is loaded with ballclubs who, for whatever reason, gelled under the leadership of certain men but then shriveled as soon as new coaches occupied the seat of power and authority. It's a mysterious but real part of sports: this thing called chemistry--which you can see but not measure--carries far more impact in athletic competition that it should. Talent is supposed to win out, but the mental toughness and competitive desire of players--sometimes subconsciously, and other times far more overtly--is often dictated by the people in charge of a team.

In the college football world, look at the example of Pete Carroll, a man you might have heard about now and then. In the NFL, Carroll was laughed at by many in the business, and he could never coax maximum effort out of his players, though he maintained that he was getting closer to unlocking the talents of his Jets and Patriots teams when he got fired at those two coaching stops. As soon as Carroll entered the world of "CollegeLand," however, his same basic coaching philosophy produced a juggernaut of spectacular proportions. Young men are climbing over each other to attend USC and compete under the watchful eye of Pete Carroll. The man whose hiring at USC in 2001 was met with anger, revulsion and disbelief in Los Angeles is now the owner of that city from a sports standpoint, even more than Kobe Bryant. Funny how things work out that way. It's just one example of how leaders in sports seem to have a surprisingly large effect on the emotional health--and the competitive subculture--of the teams they inherit.

In 2008, then, Ken Niumatalolo--while familiar with this program and these players--is now the man in charge. This simple but substantial fact creates some emotional obstacles that the Midshipmen, up and down the roster, will have to cope with.

Will players assume that the same successes experienced under Johnson will fall into their laps under their new coach? Navy must avoid complacency.

Will players respond to Niumatalolo's unique motivational methods and his practice field mannerisms? Navy must avoid living in the past.

Will players want to win too badly for their new coach? Navy must avoid performance anxiety and maintain its competitive edge. Swagger, after all, is something carried and held with a cool, low-key confidence. No one on Navy needs to be uptight about this season.

There's the picture, football fans. So much is different for Navy football, but the triple option--and so many other things--figure to be the same. The main challenge for this ballclub is to maintain the same dedication to excellence and the same focused mindset that apply to all successful sports teams. With a workmanlike year of confident, poised football--a year just like the past few--the Men of Ken will bring great honor to a Navy program that is currently a model for every other outfit in the United States.

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