JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Not even a month had passed since Navy's best season since the Coolidge administration and coach Ken Niumatalolo was draining the joy.
Navy had just capped 2015 with 11 wins, a first in program history, and finished No. 18 in the AP Poll, but there was an unrelenting frustration Niumatalolo couldn’t stop sharing with players. It was January, and he saw an outlet drop Navy into the 80s of its 2016 rankings. Each week he was calling another meeting to belabor what he saw as a flippant dismissal of Navy.
"It pissed me off when I saw where we were ranked," Niumatalolo said. "We’re not a one-hit wonder. We’ve been winning for a long time."
Departing after 2015 was FBS career touchdowns record-holder Keenan Reynolds, and with him went projections the Midshipmen could flourish in the Group of 5. Admiration for the Navy program never wavers -- just watch Notre Dame join Navy to sing the Blue & Gold after Navy’s 28-27 win Saturday -- but it’s rarely commanded recognition despite more than a decade of sustained success, Niumatalolo believes.
No Group of 5 team has more wins against the Power 5 since 2003, but Niumatalolo senses eyes are cast down at Navy, seen as a novelty program. Yet it is four wins from back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins for the first time in program history.
"We knew we had a strong culture. People just didn't know about it," he said. "They look at us as a team in white suits with nice uniforms. They would pat us on the head like we were nice house pets or something, but we're a good football program. Don't be confused by our uniforms. We're going to hit you in the freakin' mouth."
When they’re finished, they could have an outside chance at the New Year’s Six. Having shed its independence after 134 years for the AAC last season, Navy has a defined path to a major bowl. Navy knocked off Houston from the ranks of the undefeated last month, and if the Midshipmen beat Tulsa on Saturday they will likely win the AAC West.
If Boise State and Western Michigan lose, 12-2 AAC champion Navy could maneuver into the New Year’s Six as the Group of 5 representative.
If not this season, it might not be long until Navy plays in a major bowl for the first time since the early 1960s. Given its stability, there might not be a program better positioned for annual runs at the Group of 5 bid. Players don’t leave early for the NFL, and though the constant threat of Power 5 poachers looms over other Group of 5 programs, only five assistants in nine years have left Niumatalolo’s staff. Two of them retired.
This offseason, Niumatalolo agonized over an offer to coach BYU, but he felt Navy, his home for 19 seasons, was the best place for him. Though most Group of 5 coaches aspire to reach the Power 5, Niumatalolo has rooted himself in Annapolis.
In nine seasons as head coach, he’s elevated Navy to a top-25 team by embracing its service academy standards on the field. The Midshipmen have appeared in the AP Poll nine times since 2015, which matches their total from the previous 51 seasons, and they’ve done it by embodying the U.S. Naval Academy’s structure.
They are at their best in critical moments, as the Midshipmen are 17-4 in their past 21 games decided by eight points or fewer, third best in the country. They don’t give up leads, as they are 60-4 under Niumatalolo when entering the fourth quarter with one. No team is penalized less.
"We have to stay disciplined. That’s a difference I see in a lot of teams we play," linebacker D.J. Palmore said. "I have a lot of friends that play within the conference, and we’re a lot more disciplined than they are. It comes from the school and life we live. Every day we got to do something."
In the closing minutes of a win in a rivalry that not long ago included 43 straight losses, Navy was all poise. On Saturday’s clinching drive, Notre Dame interfered with a Navy receiver, but there was no sideline eruption even as Navy’s brigade backdrop in the stands blistered an official. Later that drive, Dishan Romine converted a third down, but shrewdly fell in bounds after tiptoeing the sideline. Four plays later, quarterback Will Worth converted a fourth-down throw to seal the win.
"We displayed our culture by how we played," Jamir Tillman said.
Niumatalolo said the preseason doubts were "a slap in the face of our seniors" like Tillman.
"I tell my kids to stay humble, but my blood always boils. I'm a hot-headed person. We're competitors and we got a ton of competitors in our locker room," he said. "... We didn’t come here for moral victories."