You don’t have to be paranoid to win at college football. Just look at Navy.
By Dan Steinberg – Washington Post
This summer — like most recent summers — has birthed new restrictions in the coverage of our most secretive communal pastime: college football. There’s LSU, which announced it would close all preseason practices to members of the media. And Notre Dame, which announced new rules on what sort of practice details could be revealed, and when, and at what length. And Texas, which announced a ban on the contemporaneous posting of quotes on social media, although that was later described as a preference.
In that context, an unlikely breeze of openness continues to waft from Annapolis. Breathe it in and grin. The Naval Academy — the rare college football program whose players might one day guard actual state secrets — doesn’t approach the sport as if it’s a fully classified endeavor. It doesn’t traffic in paranoia. And somehow, despite keeping its front door cracked open, Navy manages to win.
As in, a lot. Under Coach Ken Niumatalolo, the Midshipmen have finished with winning records eight of the past nine seasons. They’ve averaged nine wins a year since 2012. They’ve won more games in those five years than Texas A&M or Southern California, more than Nebraska or Florida. And the program doesn’t particularly view TV clips of players stretching, reporters roaming the sidelines or post-practice interviews with assistant coaches as a hopeless impediment to success.
“We just wanted to be transparent. And I didn’t really think much about it,” Niumatalolo said this week. “I always thought that [media members] are helping our program, too, and the exposure’s helping our program and helping our kids. So I didn’t really think anything about it; I just thought it was part of the deal. I don’t know, I guess that’s just my personality. I probably talk too much. But we didn’t have anything to hide. I just feel like, ‘Well, come in our house. You can look in our closets. We don’t have anything to hide.’ ”
Niumatalolo didn’t say a single disapproving word of any other program, of any other approach or of any other coach. He didn’t call me to brag about these policies, and in fact, he never really sat down to plot out this approach. I called him because I was curious why he seemed so unafraid, in a profession that prizes fear.
Maybe fans have little interest in this topic, in contrasting the media policies of Navy with, say, Michigan, where Jim Harbaugh is undoubtedly designing khaki straitjackets for the working media. And it’s not like Navy is running some sort of Pete Carroll-style free-for-all; cameras aren’t permitted during team drills, Thursday practices during the season are closed, and Niumatalolo said he trusts that the small group of regular reporters will not reveal strategic details.
Still, things are a bit different there — and it’s not just the locals who’ve noticed. When Poynter’s Ed Sherman wrote a piece on dwindling access to college football programs two years ago, one frustrated Southeastern Conference writer explicitly contrasted his local program with Navy, which “bent over backward getting me anything and everything.” Every preseason practice at the Academy is open to members of the media. There aren’t restrictions on social media use by reporters. And every assistant coach is available on request.
“I mean, they’re all grown men,” the head coach explained. “If I couldn’t trust them talking to the media, how the heck can I trust them to work for me? The assistant coaches are the lifeblood of your program. They’re the guys that go out and recruit, they’re the guys that actually work with your players. And if you can’t trust them to talk to the media … ”
Navy isn’t Michigan, of course. There aren’t media hordes; there isn’t an obsessive fan base hanging on every training camp update; and there isn’t an annual expectation of a national title. Sound bites there rarely spawn headlines, and “First Take” isn’t poised to pounce. But Niumatalolo, whose name has sometimes been connected to high-profile job openings, said there’s “no doubt” he would feel the same, even at a bigger school.
And his anti-paranoia goes beyond post-practice interviews. In a sport that prizes office sleepovers and 70-hour weeks, Niumatalolo tells his staff to stay home on Sundays. That’s not a hollow suggestion, either. The football offices are closed.
“Like I said, coaches are paranoid … and sometimes you’re paranoid about trying to come in” to work, he said. “I guess it comes from this: We preach to our guys we want to help them, develop them as young men of character, and help them become leaders and fathers and husbands. I don’t know how you can teach people how to be a father and husband if you’re not tending to your own family and helping out your own family. So Sunday’s a time to go be with your family. … If Chick-fil-A can do it — and they’re a fast-food deal, and they’re still thriving — I guess you can close a day and still be successful.”
It’s a related philosophy that animates his program’s relationship with the media. And while this wouldn’t be possible without Niumatalolo’s attitude — reporters “are doing their job, they’re making a living,” he said — he has a willing ally in Scott Strasemeier, the school’s senior associate athletic director for sports information.
“I don’t think having media at our practice has anything to do with whether we win or lose; we’re going to win football games if we don’t turn the ball over and can run the ball,” Strasemeier said. “We want to sell our program, and the best way to sell our program is through the media. And for our student-athletes, the guys on the team, it’s great practice for when they go on to the military. They’re going to be leading enlisted men and women in the Navy and the Marine Corps; they have to be able to stand up and talk to people. I think interviews are great practice for that.”
Perhaps none of this is transferrable to the bright lights, where a five-loss season is a tragedy, and scores of media members are on alert for news. But there’s something refreshing about a head coach who isn’t focused on drawing the blinds, who doesn’t think college football must be guarded as carefully as the nuclear football. You don’t have to be paranoid to win. That’s Navy’s example.
“Sometimes as coaches, we are control freaks, and I guess I am, too, to an extent in a lot of things, but not with the media,” he said. “I’ve always been a firm believer: People can handle the truth. That’s just been my motto: People can handle the truth, good or bad. And that’s just kind of how I operate.”