The era of football at the United States Naval Academy under the direction of head coach Ken Niumatalolo has been defined by success, stability, consistency and respect.
But things have been a bit crazy recently in Annapolis. The past three days have been defined by the opposite.
First, Navy lost to Air Force on the gridiron in an ugly way on Saturday, 23-3. That game, played on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, deserved a better display of effort and talent from the Midshipmen — from Niumatalolo all the way down to the last player on the bench. The defeat — Navy’s second straight of the season, and second straight to Air Force — was uncharacteristically embarrassing.
And that led athletic director Chet Gladchuk to make an erratic and emotional decision, firing offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper moments after the loss. This was a move made individually by Gladchuk. He went over Niumatalolo’s head to dismiss the head coach’s friend and someone he’s known for three decades. Niumatalolo and Jasper met at Hawaii in 1991, when Jasper was a freshman quarterback for the Rainbow Warriors and Niumatalolo was a grad assistant. Since then — save for a stretch from 1998 to 2001, when Jasper was at Indiana State and Georgia Southern, and Niumatalolo was at UNLV — they’ve been inseparable. Both of them came back to Navy in 2002 as offensive assistants under Paul Johnson.
Gladchuk has been at Navy for a long time too, coming to Annapolis to take the athletic director job in 2001. And he deserves some credit for the success the Mids have had in all sports over the last 20 years. But on Saturday, he made a misguided, emotional and ridiculous choice.
Navy’s offense has been unimpressive, disjointed, inefficient and lackluster, to say the least. The Mids have entered the end-zone twice in their last five games. But unless the Mids were going to ditch the triple-option all together, firing Jasper doesn’t solve anything.
All it did was hurt feelings and create an unstable cloud of chaos. Jasper has helped mold and shepherd along the likes of Ricky Dobbs, Keenan Reynolds, Will Worth and Malcolm Perry. To think that the Mids would be better off without him this year — a season in which their quarterbacks are extremely inexperienced — is absurd. Moreover, firing Jasper means that you’re throwing away two decades’ worth of institutional knowledge and recruiting relationships. To toss that away two games into the season is beyond damaging.
It was a massive, knee-jerk mistake made by Gladchuk. That was apparent after the firing was reported Saturday night by the Capital Gazette and the Washington Post. Some Navy graduates were upset. And the majority of former players were irate.
This whole situation infuriates me for a number of reasons. You can’t un-ring the bell— Keenan Reynolds (@kreynolds_19) September 13, 2021
Hate that he had to be the scapegoat. Nothing but love for Coach Jasper and his family https://t.co/Bwy1OvuRkW— TJ Salu (@T_Jiggle) September 12, 2021
100% the wrong move— Andrew Wood (@AndrewWood10) September 12, 2021
Niumatalolo cleaned up the mess as best he could. After talking with Gladchuk, Jasper was reinstated to the football staff on Monday. He is no longer the offensive coordinator, but will continue to coach the Mids’ quarterbacks, something he’s done for two decades. Niumatalolo will take hold of play-calling duties.
Here’s a portion of what Niumatalolo said on Monday, during a Zoom press conference with several media members:
“I don’t think Mr. Gladchuk was too happy with the way things transpired, and he’s the leader of our department. He made the decision after the game that he was going to let Coach Jasper go. And, you know – again – none of us were happy. A lot of emotions after the game. To lose to a rival like that. We didn’t play well on offense. But there’s been some discussions since then. I met with (Gladchuk) and we just talked more about the situation… Is that the right thing to do? We still have a lot to play for. Coach Jasper has met so much to this program… The things that he’s done for this school and this program over the years has been monumental… More importantly, he’s beloved by people. And he’s beloved by his players. He’s a great developer of quarterbacks, but also of men, guys that are serving our fleet.”
“So, I asked Mr. Gladchuk to reconsider… My mind didn’t agree with the situation. It’s not the right thing to do. So, after further consideration – Chet wanted changes, though. He doesn’t like where we’re at as an offense, which I get. I’m the head coach and I recognize that we’re struggling on offense right now.”
“What we’ve done now, since that time, is I asked (Gladchuk) that I would love to keep Coach Jasper. I’m already heavily involved in the offense. I always have been. I’ve always been on the offensive side of the ball. Coach Jasper will be with the program, but he’ll coach the quarterbacks and we’ll continue forward. I’ll call plays. I’ve called plays before. Coach Jasper had been the coordinator, but I’m in there, heavily involved, coordinating with him, and I’ll continue to collaborate with him and all of the coaches on our staff.”
“It was an unfortunate situation. There’s some emotion involved, obviously. We just lost a big game. Some things happened in the locker room, but cooler heads have prevailed.”
“Coach Jasper has been reinstated, which I’m grateful for. We’re a stronger program. We have a better chance if he’s with us. He’s the best option coach around. We’re not playing very well and we’ll get that fixed and we’re going to keep working. Losing him was not the right answer… The right thing is to keep Coach Jasper here… We’re not quitters, man. We’ve been in this profession a long time. And we recognize what this profession is about… We have a lot to play for, man… We ain’t going anywhere. We’re going to keep fighting.”
“We didn’t need a wake-up call… We do this as a living. We’re coaches. This isn’t a 9 to 5 job. You know you have to win and you have to produce.”
“I don’t know if this sounds egotistical or whatever, but there’s reason I’ve been in this profession for a long time, because I know what this profession is about. This is a frickin’ ruthless profession. It’s ruthless. And it’ll spit you out in a heartbeat. You know, I’ve be coaching 31 years, I know what this business is about. It’s a hard, hard, hard, hard business. This isn’t for the faint of heart. To be a coach is not for everybody. This is a hard deal. I didn’t need anybody to tell me anything. I don’t think any of our coaches need anybody to — we know we got to get better. And we want to keep fighting, and we want to keep inspiring.”
“As a head coach, you normally make those decisions with your assistants. I wasn’t involved with it. There’s a lot of emotion after the game. Yes, I was surprised by it. We’ve had discussions after that to try and hopefully mend this… Everybody’s mad. Anyone involved with Navy football – nobody likes losing like that. We didn’t like losing to Air Force. And (Gladchuk) was very upset with the offense. So, I get it. But I wasn’t involved with it. I was actually in another part of the locker room. It’s normally not how it’s done. I guess we all live and learn.”
“Our athletic director is not happy with the offense. Neither am I. I’m not happy. We’re a proud offensive unit, man, that has scored many points over many years and been very prolific over the years. To be where we’re at, none of us are happy. We had a lot of discussions… And I get it, man. He’s the athletic director, and he wants some answers. I’m the head coach. I’m a big boy, I’m willing to sit down and discuss things.”
What the hell got into Gladchuk, and what does it say about his relationship with the current football staff? If Gladchuk was willing to go over Niumatalolo’s head to fire Jasper, does Gladchuk have the gumption and the power to dismiss Niumatalolo this December if things don’t dramatically improve?
It was once unconceivable to think that Niumatalolo leaving Annapolis would be a decision made by Navy. For a while, the thought was that, if Niumatalolo was going to leave, it would be for another job. He did flirt with openings at BYU and Arizona. And the consensus seemed to be that, if Niumatalolo left, Jasper would simply step up and fill his shoes as the head coach, the way Niumatalolo did when Paul Johnson went to Atlanta.
But after this past weekend, it no longer seems to be the case that Jasper is the coach-in-waiting. And Niumatalolo’s stock as a candidate elsewhere isn’t as high as it used to be, considering the start to this season and the Mids’ middling three wins last year.
To advocate for Niumatalolo’s firing would be foolish, unwise and ludicrous. Navy has been to 11 bowl games under his watch and won six of them; the Mids have captured three division titles in the AAC since 2015; he has a winning record against Air Force and Army, and he’s won seven C.I.C. trophies.
However, it’s fair to wonder what the status of Niumatalolo’s relationship with Gladchuk is after this weekend, and it’s reasonable to think about what Niumatalolo’s future in Annapolis looks like. Currently, it’s unclear.
What is clear is that Navy is on track for its third losing season in the past four years. And that has led to the fortress of stability in Annapolis to be shaken by emotions and dysfunction. The Midshipmen need to — pardon the pun — right the ship.
And they need to do it quickly before this era of Navy football ends in shambles.