Signing Day

Today is football’s NLI Signing Day. Most schools participate in the National Letter of Intent program, and Signing Day is the first day that recruits can sign those binding letters and fax them off to the schools to which they’re committing. The service academies don’t participate in the NLI program, so their process is a little different. We won’t see the official list of Navy recruits until after I-Day, although Bill Wagner usually publishes a pretty extensive list by the end of the week. Even that isn’t comprehensive, though, since a lot of official visits to Navy come in the weekends after Signing Day. Sometimes guys hold out hope for offers that never come, and wait until then to visit. Of course, the opposite is true too; sometimes a last-minute switch by a recruit leaves a school short, and they offer a scholarship to guys who had given a verbal pledge to Navy. It’s just the way it goes. Hopefully we’re all well-adjusted enough not to take the life decisions of 18-year-olds personally, and aren’t surprised when they sometimes change their minds.

Even though Signing Day doesn’t have any kind of official significance at Navy, it’s still important. High schools around the country have Signing Day ceremonies to celebrate the scholarships earned by their students, and USNA sends certificates for recruits to sign so they can participate along with their teammates. It’s a symbolic gesture, but considering what these Navy recruits are committing to beyond just football, it’s good to make sure that they’re recognized.

That commitment, of course, is to become an officer in the Naval Service upon graduation. It’s a mature decision for someone coming out of high school, and some guys have second thoughts about why they are coming to Annapolis. Is it right to come to the Naval Academy when your primary reason is to play a sport? Critics of Division I athletics (especially football) at service academies are quick to ask that question too, claiming that athletes are admitted over other candidates that are more deserving or more dedicated to a career of service. It’s a reasonable question to ask. To find the answer, though, one needs to look no farther than the school’s mission statement:

To develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.

(For those Navy recruits that end up reading this, do yourself a favor and memorize that now. Trust me. )

The school’s mission is not to admit candidates already dedicated to naval service. The mission is to imbue midshipmen with those ideals after they’ve arrived. Graduates need to be dedicated, not candidates. You might argue that those gung-ho about the Navy at age 18 might be more likely to end up as a career officer, but that isn’t true. They can’t be; nobody coming out of high school understands what being a naval officer even means. There’s a cliche at the Academy about how the guys who’d swear they would be in for life end up getting out as soon as their commitment is up, and the guys who’d swear they would get out as soon as possible end up becoming admirals. There’s some truth to that. You can’t know if it’s for you until you’ve experienced the life of a naval officer for yourself.

The truth is that there is no wrong reason to come to the Naval Academy. Coming to play a sport? Awesome. Like the academic reputation of the school? Sounds good. Chose USNA because it’s free? Welcome aboard. None of those are the same as saying that you’re ready to make a career out of the Navy, but I’d be willing to bet that a large percentage of the 1000+ plebes raising their right hands on I-Day will do so for one of those reasons, just like they do every year. Those reasons are as valid as any. What matters isn’t how freshmen feel on day one, but rather what they think after year four.

Some people will love the Navy or Marine Corps and serve for 30 years. Some will find that it’s not for them, and use their military experience to get ahead in a civilian career. That’s fine too. The important thing is that there are people out there willing to give this Navy thing a shot, and we should celebrate all those who took the first step today.

Beat Army!

Coach Niumatalolo inducted into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame

The induction ceremony for the inaugural class of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame was held last night in Honolulu. Among the honorees was Navy’s own Ken Niumatalolo, who was enshrined along with other Polynesian luminaries like Junior Seau, Kurt Gouvea, Olin Kreutz, and Kevin Mawae. It’s an extremely impressive list, which comes as no surprise considering the rich history of Polynesians in football. For Coach Niumatalolo to be included in the first-ever class is a real honor, and a testament to how respected he is in the Polynesian community. I had a chance to witness that respect first-hand at the Poinsettia Bowl luncheon in 2007, right after Coach Niumatalolo was named head coach. He had just become the first Samoan head coach in college football history, and every Polynesian player on Utah’s roster wanted their picture taken with him after the event was over. It was a proud moment for this Navy fan to see our coach held in such high esteem.

Coach Niumatalolo wasn’t honored just for being first, though. He was honored because he wins, and does so in a way that gives credit to the school.

Here’s the enshrinement video they played at the ceremony:

Navy’s other bowl game

With 10 bowl appearances since 2003, it isn’t unusual for the Navy team to get a bit of national attention during the college football postseason. This year, though, the team wasn’t the only part of the Navy program to have its moment in the spotlight. While the Mids were in Texas preparing to take on Middle Tennessee State, the building they call home was playing host to Marshall and Maryland in the Military Bowl.

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Navy signs with Under Armour

It had been rumored for a long time, but now it’s official: Navy has signed a long-term agreement with Under Armour to outfit not only the football team, but the entire athletic department. Navy football had been with Nike since 2002, while other sports have had their own deals with various manufacturers (Navy lacrosse was actually with Under Armour for a few years in the late 2000s).  Terms of the contract haven’t been revealed, although it was once rumored that the length of the deal is ten years. The Naval Academy joins recently-announced Notre Dame under the UA umbrella, along with other past and future Navy opponents such as Temple, Hawaii, South Carolina, Toledo, Boston College, Northwestern, Texas Tech, Utah, USF, and of course, Maryland.

It’s that last one that seems to be causing the most angst among the Twitterati, with the fear that Navy will start wearing some of the crazier getups that UA has provided for the Terps over the last couple of years. That’s not how these deals work, though. Nike and Under Armour don’t dictate to these schools what to wear. Maryland wears these uniforms because they want to. It’s similar to the relationship between Nike and Oregon. UA founder and CEO Kevin Plank attended Maryland, just as Phil Knight attended Oregon. The two use their alma maters as showcases for their brands, while the schools leverage that relationship for marketing and recruiting. Just as every Nike school doesn’t dress like Oregon, every UA school doesn’t look like Maryland. Each school has plenty of input into the process and ultimately decides what gets put onto the field. Most UA schools have maintained something close to their traditional looks. For all the hype about Maryland’s rebranding, Northwestern’s was one of the sharpest and classiest in the game. I’m sure there will be special one-time uniforms that some people don’t like, but some people didn’t like Nike’s Army-Navy uniforms either. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

One of the most important elements to this deal is that it’s for all sports. In the past, with different sports having separate deals with multiple manufacturers, there was a somewhat inconsistent look for the athletic department. Some teams wore blue and gold, while others wore more of a blue and yellow, for example. With one manufacturer willing to pay for all of Navy’s sports, it gives the school the ability to promote a more consistent brand image across the board. A more consistent brand sends a louder message, which is very important to any school, especially a service academy like Navy.

Still, despite all the benefits, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the move is a little bittersweet. Nike was very, very good to Navy. I haven’t exactly been subtle in my praise for the Army-Navy uniforms of the last two years. Even if my desire to make them permanent was always going to be a pipe dream, it’s still a little sad for me to know that there’s no way it can possibly happen now.

In the end, it’s just business. Along those lines, the decision to move to UA reminds me of another recent business decision from NAAA. Nike is the unquestioned leader of their industry, much like ESPN was when they were bidding for the television rights to Navy’s home football games. Instead of going with the more established company, though, Navy decided to sign with upstart CSTV. It was a great call. CSTV eventually morphed into the CBS Sports Network, but no matter what they called themselves at the time, they’ve always treated the Naval Academy like kings. As the network grew, they took Navy along for the ride. Hopefully, signing with another hungry up-and-comer in Under Armour will pay similar dividends.

Georgia Southern picks a coach

From a Navy fan’s point of view, the Georgia Southern head coaching search boiled down to Ivin Jasper vs. Not Ivin Jasper. In the end, it was the latter that won out, as the powers that be in Statesboro chose Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz.

I don’t follow Georgia Southern closely enough to have too much of an opinion on the hire, but I am a little surprised that Coach Jasper didn’t get the job. He seemed like the natural pick to keep the momentum going after Jeff Monken returned the program to its option-running roots. Then again, perhaps Jasper’s background worked against him instead of for him. Jasper was probably seen as the “safe” pick. Maybe the AD wanted to make a splash instead, to put his own stamp on the program. Maybe the school’s leadership felt that the new FBS era called for a new approach. Or maybe they just plain liked Fritz more. Certainly his record as a head coach speaks for itself, and there are plenty of football programs that would feel lucky to have him.

Whatever their reasoning, Georgia Southern’s loss is most definitely Navy’s gain. I’m pretty sure that anyone reading this blog already knows what I think about the Navy offense under Jasper. Not quite as obvious is how good he is as a quarterbacks coach. He’s so good at teaching quarterbacks how to run the option that Navy feels they can go after any quarterback, not just guys who ran the option in high school. Without Coach Jasper, there is no Ricky Dobbs or Keenan Reynolds. He single-handedly increases Navy’s recruiting pool. All of that really only scratches the surface on everything he does for the Navy program.

Football is just fun for us fans, but it’s a career for these coaches. I know that. Coach Jasper has earned the chance to run his own team. That said, my emotions here are not mixed. I’m thrilled that he’s still in Annapolis. Yeah it’s selfish, but I don’t care. Coach Jasper is awesome, and I like when awesome people are at the Naval Academy. It’s only a matter of time before someone does give Jasper a head coaching job, and whoever does will probably become my second favorite team. Until then I’m just going to be thankful for every season this coaching staff sticks together.

ARMED FORCES BOWL: NAVY 24, MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE 6

The Navy defense picked a good time to turn in their two finest performances of the season, saving their best for last.

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Might as well talk about it

I am extremely hesitant to bring up the topic of Middle Tennessee’s conduct from yesterday’s game, mostly because there is a subculture of Navy fans that craves reasons to be offended. I am not interested in fueling that embarrassing fire. However, I feel compelled to talk about it because it wasn’t just a sideshow; it had a very real impact on the outcome of the game, and I’m not completely sure that it wasn’t at least a little bit intentional.

The players and coaches see things that we’ll never get on TV, so it’s hard to capture everything on video. It’s also tough to get a sense of what’s really being said at times. Still, here’s an attempt to capture some of the lowlights that could be seen on TV. Some things you see here wouldn’t be that big of a deal in a vacuum (guys running their mouths, for example), but combined with everything else that went on they help paint a certain picture. It started on the very first drive of the game. The clips you’ll see range from mild to completely beyond the pale. They include:

1. A lot of talking, standing over tackled players, etc.
2. Linebacker Rod Blunt continuing to try to rip the ball out of Noah Copeland’s hands long after the whistle, and appear to take a shot at Copeland’s groin.
3. Blunt pulling Keenan Reynolds backwards after Reynolds scored Navy’s opening-drive TD.
4. Throat slash gestures.
5. Blunt delivering a forearm to the head of Darius Staten, who was on the ground.
6. Blunt pushing Blaze Ryder into the pile long after the play ended (and Marcus Thomas’ retaliation).
7. Blunt gouging Keenan Reynolds’ eyes.
8. Safety Xavier Walker taunting the Navy sideline after the Mids converted on 4th down.
9. Blunt laying on top of Darius Staten after the play and having… words.
10. Late hit on D.J. Sargenti’s interception.
11. Knocking the ball away after the end of the play.
12. On the same play, Reynolds gets hit late while Blunt delivers a forearm to DeBrandon Sanders’ head.

Not all of these were created equal, obviously, and I’m sure there are people who will see something different when they look at those clips. Still, as a whole I’ve never seen anything like it. It looked like the campy depiction of a “bad guy” football team on an after school special. I thought it was affecting the Mids’ play in the first half, and I was concerned that it would carry over to the third quarter. To Coach Niumatalolo’s credit, he knew exactly what was going on and was very calm in his halftime interview. He probably conveyed that sense of calm and restraint in the locker room. Being calm isn’t exactly what he’s known for, so it’s a testament to Coach Niumatalolo’s situational awareness. The Mids settled down in the second half.

MTSU players said the “chippiness” went both ways. After watching each play several times, I have a very hard time believing it. I saw nothing from Navy that even looked unusual, let alone approaching the level of what MTSU was doing. I’ve seen some comments describing Wave Ryder’s penalty as dirty because it was helmet-to-helmet, but it was shoulder-to-shoulder. I’ve seen other comments claiming that Sargenti hit MTSU quarterback Logan Kilgore out of bounds, but he didn’t:

The TV camera doesn’t capture everything, so I suppose it’s possible that all the things MTSU players did were being caught on camera while everything Navy players did was missed. The odds of that are about the same as the odds of me winning a Pulitzer for this blog, though. I challenge anyone accusing Navy players of misconduct to show some evidence. Otherwise, keep your empty talk to yourself.

After the game, Coach Stockstill dismissed the characterization of anyone’s play as “dirty,” saying that he just saw it as physical.

But I’m not going to back down one bit. We came out there and we had something to prove. I thought our defense was very, very physical and tough, and I loved how they played.

Comments like that make me think that some of this was part of the game plan. There was some talk on the radio that MTSU players felt slighted by the bowl, but I’m not sure what Keenan Reynolds’ eyeballs had to do with that. To their credit, both Stockstill and Blunt have since issued apologies. While they’re both probably the product of damage control, there’s no reason for fans to get indignant. We weren’t the ones getting forearms to the head. If the players and coaches aren’t going to carry on about it, neither should we. Just be proud that the Mids kept their cool and took care of business.

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