ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Dear America,
I hope more of you chose to watch the NBA and NHL playoffs Sept. 7. I hope you chose to watch the not-so-star-studded U.S. Open. I hope you watched “American Ninja Warrior” or professional wrestling or Josh Charles’ new Netflix show or the Scientology Network. I just hope you didn’t watch college football.
I did. I was at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to watch the Navy Midshipmen (0-1) kick off the season in front of no fans against BYU (1-0). It did not go well for the home team. The final score was reportedly 55-3 in favor of the Cougars, which I should probably be able to confirm but I most certainly stopped counting at some point. It honestly wasn’t even that close.
To touch on the questions we’ve all been asking in 2020, it was certainly weird to watch a nationally broadcast college football game without any fans in the stands or the typical pomp and circumstance of game day, maybe even more so at a service academy. It felt like a spring game, or a random high school football game that was for some unknown reason played in a bigger stadium. Or if a couple hundred fewer people than normal showed up for a late November game during the Randy Edsall era at Maryland.
But it was a football game. The TV broadcast eschewed pumped in crowd noise in favor of the natural sounds from the sidelines, which is a unique concept considering the sheer number of players on each team who can create such noise. It will be interesting to see what networks do moving forward, particularly as some fans are allowed into the stands at other games.
Still, I simply hope you weren’t watching. Which is strange for me to say because I have been rather outspoken throughout the years in asking you to consider watching Navy football more often. But I hope you didn’t watch this time.
While plenty of attention is paid to Navy when they face Army every December, much of that conversation is typically about the nature of the game than it is about the quality of the program/programs. I fear that the high profile national broadcast of the BYU game combined with the demoralizing result will make it easy for many football fans across the country to fall back to a preconceived notion that Navy football is no more than a neat, likable program full of quality young men but not worthy of greater conversation in the scope of the sport.
And I’d just rather you have been unaware the game was even played than to mistakenly be dismissive of the quality of the program.
So if Navy isn’t actually this irrelevant of a program, what exactly happened then? It might have had something to do with the truly bizarre nature of preparing for this season.
“That game was 1,000 percent my fault,” head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Obviously we weren’t prepared. One team was prepared very well. BYU played great, [head coach] Kalani [Sitake] had them well prepared. Obviously we weren’t. One team was playing football. We were kinda — well, we looked like that was our first live game. Normally your live stuff is against yourselves. But there’s nobody to blame but myself. I erred on the side of trying to keep our guys safe with COVID-19 and contact tracing. … Obviously it’s the worst Navy football game we’ve ever played.”
It would be beyond the pale to suggest that a team that lost a football game by 52 points would definitely have won the game if they hadn’t been forced to not hit each other at all during the course of the preseason. But it’s also hard to diminish how significant a role it played in what happened. Trying to do what’s best in the midst of a pandemic is admirable, and — this must be the part you understand — FAR MORE IMPORTANT than football. But for the team to be able to play competitive football, they’re going to have to be able to practice, you know, playing football.
So why didn’t they?
“Just the contact tracing,” Niumatalolo said. “Some of the people we talked to, just going face to face contact, what constitutes contact tracing?”
“It was a lot of conversation with our doctors, people from our conference. But ultimately I made that decision. I’m not going to blame anybody. The information that was given to me, I made that decision and practiced that way and obviously it killed us.”
Niumatalolo was insistent that he wasn’t forced by anyone to not have contact in practice. He reiterated that the decision was his own in the name of keeping players safe in the midst of a crisis. There’s certainly room to second guess, but it is unsurprising that one of the best people in all of coaching had his heart in the right place.
Will that change moving forward?
“We gotta do something,” Niumatalolo said. “I gotta talk to the doctors and see what we can do and what we’re allowed to do. But obviously it’s hard to tackle dummies. … We’ll see.”
It feels nearly breathless to recap such a demolition by offering a thought as trite as “this isn’t what Navy football is,” but it is most certainly true and it is particularly important to say anyway because it will be far too easy for those who don’t pay as much attention to the program to not be fully aware of it.
This is quite possibly the most consistent non-Power Five program of the last decade. Only six programs outside the Power Five have posted more wins during the span, with most of those teams playing far less brutal schedules. Niumatalolo is truly one of the most remarkable coaches in modern college football history.
Don’t allow yourself to be dismissive of a program because of the result of one truly bizarre game in absolutely bizarre circumstances to kick off the single most bizarre season in the history of the sport.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Navy Athletics