Despite both being relatively green in their head coaching roles, Army's Rich Ellerson and Navy's Ken Niumatalolo share a friendship through football that's very old school.
See, Ellerson, then an assistant at Hawaii, successfully recruited Niumatalolo - a native of Hawaii - to play for the Rainbow Warriors. Ellerson soon moved on to other coaching stops. But the two never really lost touch, sharing life experiences along with tidbits of football information during Ellerson's head coaching stints at Southern Utah (1996) and Cal Poly (2001-08) and Niumatalolo's assistant coaching stops at his alma mater (1992-99), UNLV (1999-01) and Navy, where he took over the head coaching duties in December 2007.
Fast forward 20 years and perhaps the classic case of the student becoming the teacher has begun to take shape. Niumatalolo, in his second season, has led Navy to a 16-9 overall record (8-4 this season) and, with an appearance in the Dec. 31 Texas Bowl, two straight bowl games. In Ellerson's first season with the Black Knights, Army is 5-6.
The two teams clash for the 110th time at Lincoln Financial Field a week from tomorrow (2:30 p.m., CBS3).
"I have to congratulate Ken on his season and making the Texas Bowl," Ellerson said at yesterday's media luncheon at the Linc. "His team has really given us that bar to strive for as we too want to partake in that level of success."
The Black Knights could achieve that success in their coach's inaugural run, as a win over Navy would net a 6-6 regular-season finish and make Army bowl-eligible. But Ellerson says that would only be the icing on a layered cake, given the prestige, honor and respect that participation in "the nation's greatest rivalry" brings.
Navy holds a 53-49 lead in the series, with seven ties.
"Here's what's most fragile in this whole thing in my opinion - we have to create a vision, and that vision, first and foremost, is the bond and brotherhood that this tradition brings about," Ellerson said. "I am new to the program and I want to beat this team, but that camaraderie amongst brothers is something that can't be replaced and is always remembered. Our older players get that, and you can see it rubbing off on our younger guys. We just have to feed it with enough success that it becomes a mainstay within our program and we can get back to that winning tradition."
Winning the classic has not been the status quo in recent for the Black Knights as Navy has won nine of the last 10 dating back to 1999 - seven of those in Philadelphia.
This year, Navy has the third-best rushing offense in the country (279.67 yards per game), led by quarterback Ricky Dobbs, and is 33rd in scoring defense (21.33 points per game), led by senior linebacker Ross Pospisil. So it's safe to say Army has a daunting task ahead.
"We aren't even thinking about our bowl game, we aren't looking past Army," said Pospisil, who was one of four captains to receive citations of merit from Mayor Nutter yesterday. "That they have over there is a dangerous package when run effectively and we know they are going to come out studied and mentally prepared for us. We need to come out even better and keep this winning tradition going for our brothers that came before us."
It's a brotherhood on both sides, and between the two coaches who have known each other for years. But come game time, it will be an all-out fight to the finish.
"It's funny considering that coach Ellerson recruited me out of high school," Niumatalolo said. "So I had a lot of mixed emotions when he became the coach at Army. I know what he represents and I know he likes to win. So we'll be ready."
Ellerson said, "Ken is a dear friend. I respect Ken, but next Saturday, that friendship gets put on the shelf. We want to beat Navy. Right now, that's our priority."