Monken-Niumatalolo is the second-most common matchup of the Army-Navy Game
Few enjoyed the 2013 holiday season more than well-traveled college football head coach Jeff Monken.
Mere days before Thanksgiving, Monken ended Georgia Southern University’s time at the Football Championship Subdivision level with a jaw-dropping win over the University of Florida. It was a 26-20 triumph in Gainesville earned without the benefit of a single completed pass.
As New Year’s Eve loomed, Monken received a late present in the form of an offer to take over the historic proceedings at West Point and become the 37th head coach in the history of the United States Military Academy.
Monken undoubtedly had support from friends, family, and colleagues as his pen neared the West Point contract. After all, Monken undoubtedly earned such consideration, picking up three straight 10-win seasons with GSU (now members of the Sun Belt Conference) after holding numerous offensive positions on staffs that spanned Hawaii to Buffalo.
But protest came from a close, reliable source: a friend whom his new supporters and proteges likely regard as a mortal enemy of sorts.
“He called me while he was still the head coach of Georgia Southern and asked me some of my opinions about taking the job. I kind of chuckled (and asked)…can you take another?” current Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo told Jets X-Factor with a smile this week. “Do you have to go to Army?”
Monken indeed took the West Point job and the trials that came with it. The Black Knights’ football fortunes were dire enough – they had only two winning seasons in the preceding two decades.
But the modern ledgers against Navy were perhaps even more unacceptable.
Monken’s entry came in the shadow of a 12-year losing streak to the Midshipmen, all but two defeats coming by multiple possessions. Niumatalolo greeted his friend to the rivalry with two more losses, but Monken eventually broke through with a 21-17 victory in 2016’s game in Baltimore.
Saturday’s latest meeting, the 122nd staging of the service academy showdown (3 p.m. ET, CBS), comes with Army having won four of the last five get-togethers, including last year’s 15-0 shutout at Michie Stadium. It will be the eighth matchup between Monken and Niumatalolo, one short of the most common coaching tilt in the series’ history, the nine-year battle between Earl Blaik and Eddie Erdelatz (1950-58).
“Kenny will always be my great friend. We coached together for a long time and I just feel a great sense of brotherhood with Kenny,” Monken told Jets X-Factor in the leadup to Saturday’s showdown. “It’s really hard to have that relationship when we’re coaching in the biggest rivalry in sports. We want to beat each other’s pants off. We don’t want to lose to each other in anything: this game, recruiting, you name it, we don’t want to lose.”
The signing of Monken’s West Point deal coincided with the end of Niumatalolo’s sixth season at the gridiron helm of the Naval Academy, Army’s long-standing rival who wound up crushing Middle Tennessee in the day’s Armed Forces Bowl.
Die-hard fans of each side would probably assume it was the end of a friendship fostered in Annapolis at the turn of the century. Monken had joined the Midshipmen as a running backs and special teams coach (guiding future Super Bowl champion Kyle Eckel to some of the best numbers in program history) in 2002, when Niumatalolo was firmly entrenched as the offensive line boss.
The two became particularly close on the recruitment trials, which produced the artists of a Navy football renaissance. The winning streak over Army was accompanied by the program’s first 10-win season in 99 years (2004) and first streak of consecutive bowl victories ever.
Further collaboration between the two wasn’t meant to be when Niumatalolo was promoted to Annapolis’ head coaching spot. Monken followed incumbent Paul Johnson to work in the same role at Georgia Tech, where he’d work with ACC rushing leader Jonathan Dwyer.
When West Point eventually came calling, the friendship didn’t end but rather gained a new layer: competitiveness, one on pure display in one of college football’s most, if not the most, cherished rivalries.
“Right now the friendship’s strained. We can’t be the same because we’re doing all of our power to beat them and they’re doing all the power to beat us,” Niumatalolo said. “But when it’s all said and done, and we’re not coaching, our relationship will definitely go back to what it used to be.”
With this fateful edition comes a slight reversal of fortunes from when the personal rivalry first began. Monken and the Black Knights (8-3) are heading to a bowl game for the fifth time in the last six seasons (set to face Missouri in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 22) while Niumatololo’s Midshipmen (3-8, 3-5 AAC) are in the midst of their first stretch of consecutive losing seasons since the turn of the century (1998-2002).
Right from the get-go, Navy’s supposed downfall can’t truly be lampooned. Half of their losses have come by one possession (including a respectable 27-20 loss to College Football Playoff rep Cincinnati in October).
But this is the Army-Navy Game, a matchup where one day can make up for the sins of a lost campaign, a de facto guaranteed national championship staged every second Saturday in December. No amount of gridiron trouble bestowed by a schedule that also featured Houston, UCF, SMU, Memphis, and Notre Dame could break the spirit of Niumatalolo’s squad.
Monken wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m really proud of Kenny. He’s built an incredible program (in Annapolis),” he said. His teams are always so well-coached. They know us better than anybody knows us. They create challenges for us that nobody else does. This will be the toughest ball game we’ve played all year.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags