As I sat in my chair at AAC Media Day last week and began to listen as Mike Aresco addressed everyone gathered at the Hyatt Regency in Newport, I heard a familiar rhetoric.
He discussed the strength of the conference. He discussed the inaugural championship game. He elaborated on the superior coaches, administrators, and players. He continued to push for the American Athletic Conference to work its way into the conversation as the sixth member of the Power 5 conferences, hoping in turn to add Power 6 to the college football lexicon.
Aresco welcomed Navy into the conference in a familiar way as well. He spoke of the Midshipmen as "the best this country has to offer." He talked about tradition, Army-Navy, and Staubach. The dialogue flowed as expected.
After Aresco was finished, ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi led a roundtable discussion with the coaches of the West Division. Once again, nothing out of the ordinary emerged. Tom Herman talked about establishing culture and getting buy-in. Justin Fuente discussed building off of the success from the previous year.
Then Fuente handed the microphone to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo and I anxiously awaited the standard Coach Ken remarks that I would scribble down on my notepad and tweet out to my 100ish followers (I'm still new to the Twittersphere).
I was ready to type something about what a privilege it was for Navy to be in the American. That line came and went. Then Niumatalolo talked about how this is a "competitive deal." He talked about how "we gotta win." Then he dropped the line that "We will shake your hand and open doors for women, but do not be confused, we're coming to compete." Now it was getting a little fiery. He then said that the United States Naval Academy produces fighters, and "we are gonna fight."
I was feeling motivated.
Coach Niumatalolo wrapped up his introduction by telling the media members gathered in Newport that, "People talk about us coming into the conference and we have great respect for the programs and the head coaches, but we didn't come from NAIA football." This was certainly not something I had expected to hear.
As I sat in traffic on the Jersey Turnpike on the drive back to Annapolis, I wondered what prompted the NAIA comment.
When I finally got around to asking Niumatalolo where the NAIA comment came from on Saturday at Navy's Media Day, he chuckled. He admitted that in the process of being asked over and over about what it was going to be like to join a conference and play against the level of competition prevalent in the AAC, he wanted to say, "Have you not watched who we have been playing?"
He went on to say that Navy has played a number of schools in the American in the last few years, and that "there was something kind of brewing inside me and it kind of spilled out."
The issue seems to be with Navy's perception externally as they navigate the "transition" process from independent to conference affiliation.
Internally, nothing has changed. Navy is still going to be undersized. They still need flawless execution on offense. They will have to continue to be one of the least penalized teams in the country.
But that is the established Navy culture. That is what is expected. That is the standard.
However, I think Coach Niumatalolo felt the external perception needed to be addressed as well. Navy does not simply fill the 12th slot necessary to host a conference championship game. Having Navy in the American Athletic Conference is not merely about bringing in tradition and fanfare. The AAC is getting a pretty successful football program to go with all of that.
If you are a Navy fan, you already know the stats:
• 11 out of 12 years in a row going to a bowl game and winning at least 8 games.
• In that same span, Navy has more wins against Power 5 schools than any non Power 5 school in the country with 21.
• Navy has more wins in that span (100) than every team in the AAC except Cincinnati (101).
The point is that Navy has been playing and beating quality competition on a consistent basis for the last decade. The level of competition in the American Athletic Conference will certainly provide a challenge for Navy, but don't expect an extensive "transition" process.
The AAC is getting much more than just tradition from Navy. They are getting a successful football program that will be ready to open doors, fight and compete from day one.