The Ultimate Catharsis
After a generation of losing, Navy football has enjoyed more than a decade of success. It’s a decade that has included bowl games and big wins, and it all came to a crescendo in 2015. Venturing into the uncharted territory of conference play, the Midshipmen finished with 11 wins, their highest AP ranking since 1963, and the Lambert Trophy. Each new achievement brought a sense of amazement for Navy fans, who often found themselves asking each other things like, “can you believe this is happening?”
It’s understandable that fans would react that way, and not necessarily a bad thing. Those who remember the lean years are more likely to understand how difficult it is to win at the Naval Academy and appreciate the program of today. It’s good to maintain that perspective, although it might be time for attitudes to evolve a bit as well.
At last year’s American Athletic Conference media day, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo expressed his annoyance at how his program was perceived.
“People talk about us coming into the conference, and we have great respect for the programs and the head coaches, but we didn’t come from NAIA football,” he said. “We’ve been playing decent opponents.”
At Navy’s media day, he explained what he meant.
“In some of my dealings with the media I kept being asked what it’s like to come into a conference,” he said. “I felt like saying ‘Have you not been watching who we’ve been playing.’ I just wanted people to know that we’ve been in Division I. It was just something brewing inside me and just spilled out.”
After his Midshipmen defeated Notre Dame on Saturday, some of that frustration bubbled back to the surface.
“I don't have a better term, but it pissed me off in the offseason when I saw where we were ranked,” Niumatalolo said. “Some polls had us 80th. We went from 18th to 80th. There was another team that dropped 30 spots, we dropped 70.
“It was a slap in the face for our seniors. They were here last year, too. We have good players on our team. I think they wanted to show that they could play, too. “
As special as Keenan Reynolds was, there was a lot more to Navy than just one player. Niumatalolo and his staff have built a good football program in Annapolis. They were winning games before Reynolds arrived, and there was no reason to think that they would stop winning after he left.
The next frontier for the Navy football program is for the national media to stop treating them like a novelty act and give them the credit they’ve earned.
In a way, the same could be said about Navy’s own fans, too. It’s possible to appreciate how special those big wins are without being surprised at the fact that they happened. That said, if there is any time for Navy fans to react with wide-eyed wonder, it’s when the Midshipmen beat Notre Dame.
Navy is a good team. Their win on Saturday was an upset, but it wasn't a surprise, or at least it shouldn't have been. Navy has claimed victories over better opponents than this year’s Notre Dame team in recent years. The Irish aren’t even the best team that Navy has defeated this year. It doesn’t matter. A win over Notre Dame is unlike any on Navy’s schedule.
When Navy finally ended the losing streak to Notre Dame in 2007, many of the Navy faithful hoped that they’d never have to hear about it again. As much as they love Roger Staubach, it got old seeing the same highlight of his every year before the game. The truth, though, is that the streak will always be part of the subconscious of the program.
Navy and Notre Dame first played in 1927, the year after the Midshipmen claimed their only national championship and right in the middle of the Knute Rockne era in South Bend. It was, at the time, a clash of football heavyweights. Success at the Naval Academy, though, was fleeting; Navy was more susceptible to frequent coaching changes and different administration views on football. Even in the early days of the rivalry, the Midshipmen were usually on the losing end. The post-WWII years were especially lean, and in 1950 there were reports that Navy would drop Notre Dame in 1951 to "adopt a long-range policy of playing 'moderate' schedules."
Obviously, that didn't happen, and by the end of the '50s, things began to go Navy's way. From 1956-1963, the Midshipmen, under Eddie Erdelatz and Wayne Hardin, were 5-3 against Notre Dame. It was the Naval Academy that was producing Heisman winners and playing for national championships while Notre Dame struggled under Joe Kuharich. That role reversal was short-lived, though, and Navy didn't win another game in the series for 43 years.
It was more than just a losing streak. It was a testament to how college football had changed. The annual clash with Notre Dame served as a monument to a time when Navy was a factor on the national scene. The annual loss drove home the point that those days were long gone and would never return. Even as Navy put together winning seasons under George Welsh and Paul Johnson, the Notre Dame game was a reminder that there were limits on just how much success was possible.
Then, in 2007, the Mids pulled off the upset. Then they did it again. And again. And on Saturday, Navy defeated Notre Dame for the fourth time in ten years.
Even with all the bowl games, wins over ranked teams, and their own top-25 appearances, there is no greater symbol of Navy’s football resurgence than the success they have found against Notre Dame over the last decade. Breaking the losing streak was cathartic, but showing that it wasn't a fluke is a powerful statement on just how far Navy has come.
There was a time when Notre Dame would barely scheme for Navy. The Irish would simply line up and play, counting on their physical superiority to win the day. That is no longer the case. On Saturday, the Irish defense lined up with a different look on almost every play. Notre Dame has a coach on their staff whose only job is to figure out how to stop the Navy offense. For those who remember the days when Lou Holtz was mocked for pretending to be afraid of the "University of Navy," it's unthinkable. That Notre Dame invests so much effort into beating Navy shows a tremendous amount of respect not only for Niumatalolo and his staff but Navy's players as well; far more respect than what Navy gets from national pundits.
The people who know, know.
I think that most Navy fans understand and appreciate the progress that the football program has made. Most of them also spent their lives wondering if they'd ever live to see another win over Notre Dame, though. The losing streak to the Irish was such a fact of life that it's difficult to let go of that past. Beating the Irish will always be emotional, and it should be.
Emotional, but after four wins in ten years, no longer exceptional.