"Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" When Admiral David Farragut spoke those famous words as he steamed through the mine-laden Mobile Bay in 1864, he probably wasn’t considering the cost versus benefit of his decision. Navy Football Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo must feel like he’s navigating his own minefield as he attempts to get through spring practice each year unscathed by injury.
This spring, the Mids lost starting center Blaze Ryder to a leg injury that will keep him out through the beginning of next season. Instead of continuing full speed ahead through the last week of practice, Coach Niumatalolo walked into a staff meeting Monday morning and told his assistants that he was planning to cancel the last three practices of the spring.
The potential for further injury and a desire to allow his players to focus on their academic and military responsibilities without the added pressure of practice are the reasons Coach Niumatalolo cited to Bill Wagner of the Capital Gazette earlier this week for ending the spring early. Coach Niumatalolo told the Capital that he is confident that his team accomplished all it needed to with the practices it held.
He later told Chris Vannini of CoachingSearch.com that even though there were some positives with continuing to practice, it wasn’t worth the risk. He went on to explain that sometimes he feels like coaches get caught up in the rat race of coaching and trying to ensure you simply do more than others. He is putting to use the old clichés of working smarter, not harder and that sometimes, less is more.
I, for one, applaud Coach Niumatalolo for doing what he feels is best for the program even if it goes against conventional wisdom. In the Navy, the approach Coach Niumatalolo has taken would be said to be using proper Operational Risk Management. Navy publications define Operational Risk Management as "a systematic, decision making process used to identify and manage hazards that endanger naval resources.
Its purpose is to increase operational readiness by anticipating hazards and reducing the potential for loss, thereby increasing the probability for success to gain the competitive advantage in combat." Coach Niumatalolo simply looked at what had been accomplished in practice and decided the benefits of continuing practice did not outweigh the costs associated with potential future injury. He saw the law of diminishing return at work and decided he was not going to practice just for the sake of practicing.
While the risk of further injury was one reason for discontinuing spring practice, the other reason mentioned was to allow the players to focus on their academic and military requirements as the semester draws to a close. All of his players will be taking final exams in courses from calculus to chemistry and physics to electrical engineering in the coming weeks.
While most college athletes are thinking about their summer vacations, the Midshipmen are preparing to spend their summers sailing on ships, below the surface on submarines, and training with Marines. Giving them a chance to focus on the unique responsibilities associated with attending a service academy shows where the focus of the program lies. Coach Niumatalolo realizes how his team connects to the overall mission of the Naval Academy and he is ensuring that the team’s priorities remain in order.
In addition to cancelling spring practice, Navy is also not holding a spring game again this year. Coach Niumatalolo said before spring practice began that he will probably never hold another spring game, and it appears other coaches share in his aversion. Coach Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss recently said in an ESPN article that "I'm not a fan of it -- at all." I'd vote to get rid of [spring games] in a heartbeat, but I don't know that others would feel the same."Coach Freeze meet Coach Niumatalolo.
Coach Niumatalolo has taken what some would deem drastic measures in reducing the amount of spring practices and not holding a traditional spring game. While some may grumble about not using the opportunities given to the program to continue to "get better", I believe that Coach Niumatalolo has simply put Operational Risk Management to use in ensuring that his team reaches peak efficiency while not risking further injury. The precedent has been set with the Navy football program that it is a unique program with unique responsibilities at a unique institution and sometimes this requires unique approaches in order to be successful.