Like most football coaches, there was a point in Brian Newberry’s life where he pondered his path forward. Now the new Navy head coach, Newberry explored a multitude of trails before settling on the one that eventually led him to Annapolis.
Those trails were both metaphorical and literal.
“I took another semester to graduate and during that transition, our staff got fired. So, I didn’t have any real connections to try and stay on at Baylor,” Newberry remembered of his college playing days. “I didn’t know if I wanted to do a graduate assistantship and go that route, so I took a year off basically.”
But it wasn’t the detour most would imagine a guy fresh out of playing college football would take - Newberry became a tour guide at Glacier National Park in Montana.
"I believe whole-heartedly in the mission of the Naval Academy - it's more than football. I love that about this place." - Head Coach Brian Newberry#GoNavy pic.twitter.com/0ceye8iylB— Navy Athletics (@NavyAthletics) December 21, 2022
“There’s these old antique red busses they do tours on. The top comes off and you take groups on tours and you are mic’d up and you talk to them about the flora and the fauna of the park and the east side versus the west side, so I did that for five months during the [football] offseason,” revealed Newberry.
To be fair, this was peak “A River Runs Through it” time. The fly-fishing dream out West called to many a midwestern young man. But not all of them had a childhood friend that worked at the park the summer before, like Newberry did, beckoning them to mountain life.
“The training was not extensive. it should have been, but it wasn’t,” admitted the Oklahoma native. “I had to get a CDL license and then I think I did one tour with another driver and they gave me a book and they were like ‘you’ve got a tour next week.’ I didn’t know what I was doing like the first 10 tours. It was really bad. But once I knew what I was doing, what I was talking about I really enjoyed it.”
“I had fun with it. We would stop and do little hikes, things like that. Told a lot of silly park jokes, it was awesome.”
Newberry eventually followed the path back to football, coaching at several smaller schools until Ken Niumatalolo hired him in 2013. The defensive-minded coach collected habits and things he liked along the way, unconsciously preparing for the day he would be at the helm.
But when Newberry was named the 40th head coach at the Naval Academy following the Midshipmen’s 20-17 double-overtime loss to Army last December, all the preemptive planning went up in smoke.
“I’ll tell you this, I was unprepared in a lot of ways because it was so unexpected,” Newberry told UDD. “Coach Niatmatalolo and I had conversations before this and he was supposed to try and coach for four or five more years probably and then would likely retire and he felt like I would have an opportunity to fit into that role, felt really strongly about that. Working for him and the way that he did things really kind of got me excited about that possibility, but I didn’t expect it to happen this fast.”
Suddenly, Newberry was tasked with leading a program that had been run by the same man, the same way, for 15 years. In the spirit of that big change, Newberry found he had to make more small changes of his own to pave the way for Navy’s football future.
“To be promoted from within and have to make changes to the staff that you are already a part of and have been with a long time - it was really, really difficult,” Newberry shared, as he spoke of finding his new assistants.
“All the decisions I made were about what’s best for our players and our program and how can I set this up as perfectly as I can moving forward so we can have success here.”
A shift was indeed needed, particularly on the offensive side of the ball where the Midshipmen were averaging just 21.9 points per game last season, tied for the lowest mark in the American Athletic Conference. So, Newberry recruited his former coaching buddy from Kennesaw State, Grant Chesnut, to run the offense. He also added another longtime small school coach in Tommy Laurendine to tame the tight ends room. It won’t be the air-raid, but it will be more exciting.
“With the changes on the offensive side of the football... I mean we are still going to run the option, we have to be able to do that here to be successful,” explained Newberry. “But we’re going to evolve, be a little bit of a sexier version of the option, maybe just slightly more creative in the way that we are going about doing it, but with the same principles. We are also going to double down on being unique on defense in the same regard.”
The Midshipmen boasted the fourth-best scoring defense (24.3 points per game) in the AAC in 2022 as well as the second-best total defense (339.1 yards). They also had one of the best rushing defenses in the country, giving up only 88.9 yards per game, prompting Newberry to promote linebackers coach P.J. Volker to defensive coordinator.
“That’s kind of what I brought here, I think, when I was the coordinator - let’s be as unique and different on defense as we are on offense, let’s be as difficult to prepare for in that phase as we are on the other side of the ball and I think we’ve done that.”
You know what you are going to get with a team like Navy, which is why Newberry focused a lot of his attention on the intangibles during the off-season.
“One of our biggest and most important hires was our strength and conditioning head coach. I made a change there and that’s been entirely different than what our kids are used to – the way that they train, the energy in the weight room, it’s totally different,” emphasized Newberry. “Those are the things that are going to separate us and help make up for the talent gap - the effort, the attitude, the toughness combined with what we are doing schematically is how we can give our players an edge.”
It hasn’t been easy. Newberry admits he often struggles with his inner “WWKD” – “What Would Ken Do?” But as spring ball wraps up and the team turns its attention to its opener against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland on August 26th, the new head coach feels confident in the adjustments he’s made, the staff he’s hired, and the young men following him down this trail.
“This place is a unicorn now,” said Newberry. “The Academy jobs before were great jobs. Now, they are phenomenal jobs – I think I have the best head coaching job in the country because of the things I don’t have to deal with and because of the kind of kid we can coach on a daily basis. We’ve got guys that go through the fire to get here and through time those relationships, the trust that builds is unique, the way our guys care about each other is different.”