ANNAPOLIS — Still digesting his team's 1-3 start, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo stepped onto a practice field just a short walk from the banks of the Severn River in early October.
Was another season about to slip away from the Midshipmen, who had gone 5-7 in 2011? Were the carefully constructed underpinnings of a golden age of Navy football, one that netted eight straight bowl appearances, collapsing beneath the fifth-year coach?
In short, was the reality it is hard to win — perhaps Niumatalolo's favorite phrase to employ with players and reporters alike — taking root in a lasting manner?
Niumatalolo walked out for the Mids' typically brisk Monday practice, and if he did not harbor doubts, he surely possessed concerns as Navy attempted to rebound from a 12-0 loss to San Jose State and a September littered with turnovers.
Niumatalolo is a restrained man, one not susceptible to head-on-a-swivel reactions. He is every bit a former offensive line coach, for those who work daily with linemen learn quickly there is no artificial way to accelerate improvement without a severe cost later.
Defensive line coach Dale Pehrson and Niumatalolo discussed the looming season in late August. Pehrson, a fixture at the academy since 1996, knows the tumultuous life of a midshipman as well as anyone on Navy's staff. The two looked at each other and agreed they felt really good about their team.
Notre Dame routed Navy 50-10 a day or two later.
There was no way to know the Fighting Irish would go undefeated, only that Niumatalolo insisted it was the best Notre Dame outfit he witnessed during his time at Navy. But two more losses followed before the month was up, and the Mids' season appeared to be at a crossroads.
Niumatalolo reflected on what he could do better. As his team stretched with foam rollers — a new addition to Navy's pre-practice routine this year — Chris Culton (another offensive line coach, one who was in his 10th year in Annapolis) walked over to the head coach.
"He said 'Coach Niumat, we're doing a lot of things right, we have to stay the course even if the tide doesn't turn right away,'" Niumatalolo recalled. "I just looked and I smiled. I needed that talk, too."
'We got it started'
It's easy to look back on Navy's season arc and come to clear conclusions. The Mids (7-4) enter Saturday's meeting with Army (2-9) at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia with nearly everything they could have desired.
They will play Arizona State in the Dec. 29 Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. They can claim the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 2009 with a triumph Saturday. And they can extend their decade of dominance and the bragging rights associated with 10 straight victories over the Black Knights.
Navy's surge started with a 28-21 overtime victory at Air Force, earned after erasing an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter. It is tempting to attribute all of the Mids' ensuing success to one game.
It surely made the team feel better about itself and provided evidence that established methods reflected in the program's marketing slogan "Tradition Never Graduates" could still work. More than anything, it pushed away sneaking fears another year could go sour.
"We got that burning desire that, 'Hey this is starting to go like the 2011 season and we don't want that,' so we turned it around," senior wide receiver Brandon Turner said. "Actually, I wouldn't say turn it around. We got it started."
The foundation for a bounceback season was laid far earlier. Linebacker Brye French and slotback Bo Snelson, elected captains before spring practice began, prioritized discipline and details and accountability. All were in abundant supply when Navy won 10 games during their plebe year.
Facing a trek west, it was a team with three losses but the certainty its record did not accurately reflect its ability.
"That wasn't like that just happened," Snelson said. "It wasn't like we just showed up and put all the pieces together. We were working toward it. It was a growing process. That was something that came together just from our guys believing when other people were starting to fall off. Maybe that's what we needed, to shed some of that extra weight and for us to come closer together and become tighter as a unit."
Steadiness at the top
There was one obvious, unmistakable change in the Mids over the last two months. Starting quarterback Trey Miller aggravated a sprained ankle in the second half of the victory at Air Force. Freshman Keenan Reynolds entered and spurred Navy's comeback.
Miller missed the next game, during which Reynolds tossed three touchdowns against Central Michigan.
Navy won in Reynolds' first four starts, and he has yet to relinquish the job. In the Mids' first four games, they had 12 turnovers; in seven games since, they have five.
A new starting quarterback undeniably helped. But so did the old-fashioned steadiness Niumatalolo provided in his day-to-day message.
"Wins or losses, it's been consistent: 'Hey, go to work,'" French said. "When Monday rolls around, let's get our workout in and get ready for the next one. That's definitely been good leadership to see that, to not get complacent but not also freak out with the losses. That even keel, it's definitely been positive."
Even if Niumatalolo appreciated the early October pep talk from an assistant, his manner of thinking was going to take him down a rational path. It's why he was befuddled when he attended an alumni event and heard people suggest the season was over at the end of September.
The three losses came to teams on their way to a combined 30-6 record. And his belief in the quality of his players did not fluctuate from the start of the season.
"There's some people who lost to Mike Tyson who might have been good boxers, but if you get hit by one of his right hands, it doesn't take away from that you might be good," Niumatalolo said. "My point was that when we lost to those three teams early on, that [didn't] make us a bad team. Those teams are good. Now, we could have played better, but I didn't want us to jump off the Bay Bridge just because we lost to those three teams."
Navy didn't take such drastic measures. Instead, it simply bore deeper into an autumn of improvement, with more still to accomplish.
How much of it was thanks to just one victory? Probably not as much as the structure already in place before the season even started. Tradition, after all, still hasn't graduated in Annapolis.
"I wouldn't say Air Force was when it turned around," French said. "That's just when it got recognized."
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