When Chet Gladchuk began his tenure as athletic directory of the Naval Academy in Sept. 2001, he found a program in disarray.
“Everyone was on their own page,” Gladchuk said by phone this week. “They were disjointed and things were going in different directions. The football team had been losing, and a number of the Olympic sports had been struggling.”
Gladchuk began a complete overhaul, starting with the football team, which did not win a single game in 2001.
Under Gladchuk’s watch and the guidance of two like-minded coaches, the Navy football program has achieved sustained success despite the inherent disadvantages service academies face in Division I. Next week it looks to cap an unprecedented decade of winning against Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
“The key was to get everyone on the same page with regard to our ambition,” Gladchuk said. “And the ambition is clear: The United States Navy shouldn’t be a loser.”
Making Navy a winner again, however, was no small undertaking. The program had fallen behind in the always-evolving world of college football. Outdated facilities, disinterested fans and unenthusiastic administration had made the Midshipmen irrelevant.
First, Gladchuk hired head coach Paul Johnson, a former Navy offensive coordinator, from Division I-AA power Georgia Southern. With Johnson came the unorthodox triple option offense. Johnson’s tenure started slowly, 2-10 in his first season, but improved quickly. In his second season, the Midshipmen went 8-5 record and earned their first bowl berth in six seasons.
With Johnson taking care of the football side, Gladchuk began working elsewhere. He pushed facility upgrades, which led to a $42 million renovation of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in 2004. He negotiated new radio and TV contracts, increasing the program’s exposure, and worked tirelessly to raise more money from alumni.
Everything seemed to be working, yet Navy was still at a significant disadvantage against the likes of Notre Dame, Rutgers and Maryland.
“A young man aspiring to play in the NFL is not going to select a service academy,” Gladchuk said. “He’s going to go to an institution where he can play a bit and hopefully land himself at the next level.”
That leaves the Midshipmen with the players perhaps a few inches too short for the Big East or a step too slow for the Pac-12.
“We’re smaller than everybody,” current coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “This is a physical game. There’s a reason that in boxing they have weight classes. So first and foremost, the size is a huge disadvantage.
“The reality is we don’t get a ton of three-star, four-star, five-start recruits. Those aren’t the kind of kids we have.”
With that built-in disadvantage, Johnson had to find a way to build competitive teams with the talent he had access to. That’s where coaching came into play.
“We have to have outstanding coaches,” Gladchuk said. “What they do is take good talents and someone with great potential and they coach them up to become athletes that can compete at the Division I level.”
Molding lesser talents worked for Johnson. He coached the Midshipmen to five straight winning seasons and five bowl games, a stretch unlike any in program history. Then he left, departing to take over at Georgia Tech before the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl.
All Navy had done to rebuild appeared at risk, but Gladchuk took action quickly to maintain the upward trajectory. He elevated Niumatalolo, the offensive coordinator of six seasons, to head coach, which kept most of the existing staff in Annapolis.
Niumatalolo had watched Johnson transform the football program from the start, arriving from UNLV when Johnson was hired. He saw a different attitude than his previous stint as a Navy assistant from 1995-98.
“The administration was tired of losing,” Niumatalolo said. “That’s definitely why they went and hired Coach Johnson. He just brought back a winning mentality and changed the culture.”
Niumatalolo’s familiarity with that culture made for a smooth transition. So too did his knowledge of the triple option, which is now run by just four FBS teams — Georgia Tech and all three service academies.
The triple option is Navy’s solution to being undersized.
“We’re not big enough to line up and run conventional stuff,” Niumatalolo said. “So the option for us has been a great equalizer. It’s allowed us, from a schematic standpoint, a competitive edge or at least allowed us to be in some ball games.”
Niumatalolo went 27-13 in his first three seasons, including a 10-win season in 2009, and continued the unconventional approach to recruiting.
“We have kids who embrace the components of the military that they learn here — discipline, toughness, integrity,” Niumatalolo said. “We have to really play into those intangibles and accentuate those because we feel like the sum total of all those intangibles may be able to help us overcome some of the physical deficiencies as we play bigger teams.”
Despite Navy’s new place as a consistent competitor, Niumatalolo encountered even more challenges as the college football landscape continued changing.
After the Midshipmen went 5-7 in 2011 to suffer their first losing campaign in nine seasons, Gladchuk provided more help. For example, Navy hired two full-time strength coaches before the 2012 season. They previously had just one, who also had to split time with other sports.
“There’s nobody in the country that only has one full-time strength coach,” Niumatalolo said.
Navy got back on track in 2012, going 8-4 and locking up an invitation to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl nine games into the season. When Navy meets ASU on Dec. 29 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, it will be the program’s ninth bowl game since Gladchuk arrived, the same number it had in the 79 seasons before the 2003 berth.
Niumatalolo credits Gladchuk with putting Navy in position to do all it has the past decade, and Gladchuk insists that just what administrators do.
“We eliminate the hurdles,” Gladchuk said. “I tell the coaches all the time that it’s my job to provide the resources that will eliminate the hurdles.”
The formula for football, Gladchuk says, is simple and two-faceted: Win the Commander in Chief’s Trophy by beating Army and Air Force and finish with a winning record. Everything beyond that Gladchuk calls “gravy.”
It might sound like Navy is basing success on low expectations, but Gladchuk says the expectations are simply realistic.
“We stay in our zip code, and that’s the bottom line,” Gladchuk said. “Our eyes aren’t bigger than our bellies at Navy. We know what’s realistic. We understand it absolutely clearly.”
The zip code will change in 2015 when Navy joins the Big East, but Gladchuk says the goals will remain just as attainable as they are today. There might just be chances for a little extra gravy.
“We’ve got to continue to raise the bar,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to continue to push ourselves from a facilities standpoint, recruiting, nutrition, the way we stretch, the way we use technology. Any edge we can get legally, we’ve got to explore. We’ve got to continue to try to reinvent ourselves without forgetting who we are.”