The 118th Army-Navy Game will likely have a familiar feel to folks in Atlanta, Kennesaw, and Statesboro, and there’s a good reason.
It’s not often that two limbs from the same coaching tree square off head-to-head on such a grand stage, but when Jeff Monken’s Army team finally beat Ken Niumatalolo’s Midshipmen after a 14 year drought, it was West Point successfully fighting fire with fire.
Niumatalolo and Monken are both students of the option offense, and from the Paul Johnson school to be more specific.
Fans of Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern are very familiar with Paul Johnson’s brand of option football, and now with Johnson protege Brian Bohannon’s success at FCS Kennesaw State, his coaching tree is deeply rooted in Georgia college football. On Saturday, football fans from all over America will get a healthy dose of it too.
Option football has long been a necessary equalizer for the service academies that play FBS football, but due to military size and weight regulations, do so with undersized players. The option allows for speed and misdirection to give smaller offensive lines a fighting chance against larger teams, and helps give outmatched defenses some breathing room by scoring fast and often.
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Ken Niumatalolo took over at Annapolis when Paul Johnson left the Naval Academy for Georgia Tech in December of 2007, and successfully picked right back up where Johnson left off. The former assistant head coach under Johnson at Navy had first met Paul Johnson as a quarterback, and then a graduate assistant at Hawaii while Johnson was the offensive coordinator there.
Having been a student of Johnson’s option for over two decades, Niumatalolo was a perfect candidate to continue rebuilding a winning tradition at Navy, and domination of the Black Knights on an annual basis is quite possibly the most important piece to that puzzle. Starting with Paul Johnson’s arrival in Annapolis in 2002, Navy had beat Army every single year through 2015.
14 seasons of one-sided domination in any major rivalry is far too many, and Army needed an answer. Navy had stuck close to the tree by retaining a Paul Johnson disciple, and West Point smartly found their answer in the same orchard by hiring Jeff Monken away from Georgia Southern after playoff runs in three of four seasons running the option in Statesboro.
Monken and Niumatalolo have a very similar background in terms of their associations with Paul Johnson. All three of the men first crossed paths at the University of Hawaii where Monken was a graduate assistant during the 1989 and 90 seasons. Later on, Monken coached running backs for Johnson at GSU during the Eagles’ back-to-back national title run, and then followed his mentor to Navy and then to Georgia Tech.
Last season, when the Black Knights of Army put to bed 14 years of frustration by beating the Midshipmen 21-17 in Baltimore, Paul Johnson’s service academy legacy was once again on display, even if most of the college football world failed to recognize it.
Paul Johnson’s time as head coach at Navy began a dominant era for the Midshipmen in the annual chase for the Commander in Chief’s Trophy. He’s been gone for nine seasons now, but has a lineage at the head of two of the three FBS football programs within America’s service academies.
Johnson’s direct and indirect footprints on both Army and Navy’s football programs are undeniable, and fans in the rivalry owe him a debt of gratitude for helping keep the game’s importance meaningful for years to come.