It’s almost impossible to not take them for granted, right?
This area isn’t exactly thought of as a college football hotbed. Baltimore is overwhelmingly a pro sports town that has traditionally had as much fondness — if not more — for college basketball and lacrosse than college football.
The shame about that is that one of the most consistent programs and unquestionably one of the greatest coaches currently in the sport are right in our backyard. In fact, we should probably start thinking about where that coach might stand among the greatest of all time.
That’s because Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has done it again. And the Mids have done it again.
When Navy struggled to a 3-10 record (2-6 in the American Athletic Conference) last season, it was reasonable to wonder if perhaps the program was regressing back toward a more reasonable mean. The Midshipmen had (perhaps wildly) overperformed during the career of former quarterback Keenan Reynolds, a top-five finisher in Heisman Trophy voting in 2015 and the first Navy skill position player to be selected in the NFL Draft in 30 years. They extended that streak through 2016, reaching the AAC championship game for the first time.
But in the two seasons that followed, Navy went just 10-16. It’s not just that the realities of recruiting at a service academy seemed to be hampering the program’s ability to remain competitive in the top “Group of Five” conference. The Mids entered this season having lost three straight to Army and having won just one Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in the last five years.
Perhaps the task was becoming even too difficult for the great Niumatalolo. Drastic changes were needed. He overhauled the entire defensive staff. He reinstated embattled Malcolm Perry as the team’s singular quarterback for 2019.
And this season, the Mids have been one of the biggest surprises in all of college football. As I’ve written before, that is, of course, if we were actually capable of being surprised by Navy football in the Niumatalolo era. The Midshipmen opened the year 7-1 and returned to the Associated Press top-25 poll. In the process, the Mids reminded fans locally and across the country that last season was purely an anomaly and that Navy remained one of the gold-standard programs in the entire sport.
That start included one of the best moments of the entire college football season. After blowing a two-score lead in the second half against Tulane Oct. 26, the Mids marched back down the field in the final minute. Perry engineered a game-winning touchdown drive, setting off an absolutely uproarious scene in Annapolis, Md. The brigade of Midshipmen rushed the field to celebrate the team and the quarterback whose struggles were so significant in the early portion of last season that he was moved back to slotback after just five games. It was a highly emotional scene and yet still just ONE of the better wins of the Niumatalolo era.
It was an incredible victory as part of an incredible start to the season and yet somehow it was all still commonplace enough by Navy standards to barely garner much in the way of proverbial “water-cooler talk” in the area.
Look, I get it. In Baltimore, the Ravens (and the Orioles) will always dominate sports conversation. And there are bigger-picture topics that understandably drive chatter on social media and in everyday conversation. And because of the nature of the Academy, it’s not as if the team is made up of all local players or the region is made up of Navy alums. But it feels like, AGAIN, a Navy team — made up of young men who are all willing to risk their lives to protect ours — is probably worthy of a bit more notice than what we’ve given them.
Perhaps what’s running through your mind ranges somewhere from, “OK, boomer,” to “Dude, I get it. Navy is good. But did you really just use an entire page here to write about Baltimore sports and you didn’t mention Lamar Jackson once?” That’s fair.
But as long as PressBox continues to allow me to take up a minimal amount of its space, I’ll continue to use it to sing the praises of one of the great modern local sports figures we’ve had (Niumatalolo) and a football program that continues to give me an incredible sense of pride as a sports fan.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 259: November 2019
Originally published Nov. 15, 2019