The regular season for most of college football ended this past weekend. However, there is still one big game left to be played, and it rightfully gets its own national spotlight on Saturday, December 9th. That afternoon, the Army West Point Black Knights and the Navy Midshipmen will meet at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia for the annual Army-Navy Game.
Last year, Army snapped a 14-game losing streak in the rivalry with a 21-17 win over the Midshipmen at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore thanks to a running game that rolled up 319 yards on 70 carries with three touchdowns. This season, Ken Niumatalolo and the Mids are looking for revenge and to regain control of the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy. Ahead of this year’s game, we caught up with Coach Niumatalolo to discuss what makes the rivalry so special, his favorite moments from the rivalry during his tenure, and what it’s been like to be the focus of the Showtime documentary series A Season With Navy Football.
CBS Local Sports: Army-Navy is arguably the best rivalry in sports, what’s your favorite part about it?
Ken Niumatalolo: The purity of the competition. You’ve got two schools that, as passionate as they both are about sports and football, it’s not everything for them. We want to win in the worst way, but there’s a bigger calling, there’s a bigger mission for that one day, just everything about it. I love how it touches the whole country. There are a lot of great rivalries, but most of them are regional in various states. This one, it touches our whole country. Pretty much everybody in our country knows somebody that’s serving or somebody that has served in the Army, Navy or Marine Corps.
CBS Local Sports: For someone who hasn’t attended one of these games, how would you describe the atmosphere on game day?
Ken Niumatalolo: The pageantry is unreal. We see a little bit of it with the march-ons and the flyovers. There’s always dignitaries or people who will come. That said, the thing that I think is so cool is, I’m trying to think of other games where the entire student body from both schools will be at the game. That’s what I think sets this game apart. The whole game, both schools are yelling the entire time, with Army on one side and Navy on the other. They just scream for three and a half or four hours.
CBS Local Sports: You’ve spent 19 years as part of the Naval Academy coaching staff in various roles, including nine as the head coach. Is there a particular one of these games that stands out as the most memorable? Which one and why?
Ken Niumatalolo: They’re all so special. I always think about the first one. Just driving to Veteran’s Stadium, and I came from Hawai’i, and our rival was BYU, so I was trying to equate it to that type of rivalry. When I got here, I remember we were driving through the parking lot, and you could see all of the corps of cadets getting ready to march on. And then on the other side, you saw the brigade of midshipmen. It just… made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It was almost like a war, you saw this big group of people on both sides getting ready to march on.
I remember our first warm-up, I was coaching the running backs then, and a couple of our slot backs were confused about where we were supposed to go and what we were supposed to do. That just mind-boggled me. I was like “What? We’re doing what we have done for the last 11 weeks, what are you talking about?” That’s when it hit me, that these guys are so nervous and so tight, that this was different. From then on, I had to realize, I had to treat it differently. It was more than any other game.
CBS Local Sports: These two programs have the national spotlight to themselves every year for this game. How cool is that for you and the players to have the entire nation’s attention for this game?
Ken Niumatalolo: Especially for our players, for them to be the focal point of college football, I think it’s really exciting for them. I think it’s very appropriate. Here are young men who are going to selflessly serve our country and, for one day, you pay tribute to them and you watch them play. Because after that, it’s over for them. Both teams and both schools are sending their people out, and they’re going to be in harm’s way. It’s awesome that they get the spotlight for that day.
CBS Local Sports: Army ended your 14-game winning streak in the rivalry last year. What’s the players’ mindset this year as you look to take back bragging rights?
Ken Niumatalolo: You have to treat it from the perspective of any other game. People used to ask me in the past, “oh, you’ve won 14 straight games, what are you thinking?” I always answer [that] we’re getting ready for this game and this year; 2016 doesn’t help us, win or lose. The 14 wins don’t help us, the loss last year doesn’t hurt us. This is a totally different year. That’s always been my approach. Every year is different, every game is different. This isn’t Houston from last week. It’s a whole new week, and we have to get ready for a really, really good Army 2017 team. That’s the way we’re approaching it.
CBS Local Sports: The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is on the line this year as well, as you’ve both beaten Air Force. Does that add a little extra motivation to the game?
Ken Niumatalolo: Oh, definitely. I’m trying to remember the last time this game was played for that, but it’s been awhile. (Ed. note, 2012) When the winner of this game is for the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy, that’s all of our goals. You want that trophy, so there is a lot more on the line.
CBS Local Sports: Final question for you, you’ve had cameras following your team all season as part of a Showtime documentary series. What’s it been like to be followed by cameras all year?
Ken Niumatalolo: It took some time to get used to all the cameras around. First of all, we were flattered that we would be picked of all the schools. The two other schools prior to us were Notre Dame and Florida State, so to be in that kind of football company was, for us, a great honor. But it took some time to get used to that they’re always around. Now that we’re ending the season, I’m grateful that they did it. I’m grateful that they were able to see our young men, who they are and the type of people they are.
On game days, people see them with their helmets on. But it’s just a feel-good story for our country. We’ve got great kids. Here are some selfless kids, who are going to go out to serve our country, who are just normal kids. They’re from all parts of the country. That’s the cool part, that they represent our country. They’re from different ethnic groups, different economic backgrounds, and they’re from different parts of the country. That’s what I’m grateful for. Our country got a glimpse into who’s going to serve us, and the type of people they are.