Jeff Monken won 11 games with Army last season, and he has coached at a very high level the past three seasons. Is he a great coach yet? The most reasonable answer is..
..that he is in the process of becoming one. Every college football observer will eagerly watch how Monken performs this season without star defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, who went to coach for Mack Brown at North Carolina. If Monken keeps Army on top of the heap in the service academies, winning nine games a year with great regularity, his greatness will become self-evident, this may be better.
Monken and 11 are not part of this larger conversation, then — not yet. The number 11 applies to the three men who have coached at a service academy for at least 11 seasons in the past 35 years.
Other coaches have done well in the time they were given in the past 35 years of service academy football. Jim Young of Army had a seven-year span with just one losing season in the
1980s through his last season in 1990. Paul Johnson built the Navy golden age before handing the baton to his successor and moving to Georgia Tech. If we rewind 35 years ago, to 1984, both Air Force and Navy had recently thrived under short-tenured coaches — Ken Hatfield for AFA, George Welsh for Navy — who then moved to bigger jobs (Hatfield at Arkansas, Welsh at
The three men to have (head) coached for at least 11 seasons at a service academy school since 1984 are Fisher DeBerry and Troy Calhoun of Air Force, and Paul Johnson's successor, Ken
Niumatalolo. Other coaches have displayed quality, but these three men have combined quality and longevity. It is not easy to develop a strong college football program in a four- or five-year
sequence. How much more difficult it is to do so in 11 seasons, then 15, then 20. You’re not less of a coach if — after a long reign — your program runs out of steam and ideas. The proper point of emphasis is that the coaches who remain elite after lengthy periods of time are the legends of the sport. Those who succeed in a context of longevity earn extra praise; those who lose the magic touch in a context of longevity don't deserve (profound) criticism, at least not generally. The two active deans of service academy coaching are united with DeBerry in one very striking way, and the number 11 is the common thread.
Fisher DeBerry's first 11 seasons at Air Force: 1984-1994. Troy Calhoun's first 11 seasons at Air Force: 2007-2017. Ken Niumatalolo’s first 11 seasons at Navy: 2008-2018. You can look up schedule or result grids and arrive at this eye-catching discovery: All three men, in their first 11 seasons on the job, had exactly two losing seasons, none of them consecutive.
DeBerry's losing seasons came in Years 5 and 10. Calhoun: Years 7 and 11. Niumatalolo: Years 4 and 11. They all started strongly, then had a hiccup in midstream, then regrouped, and then had a rough season in Year 10 or 11 of their tenures.
These track records all point to the same basic realities: Some seasons spin out of control, due to injuries or other convergences of factors. Coaches can do really well at the academies, but there are usually cycles in which the right quarterback or the right roster construction doesn’t emerge. The inability to call upon Power 5 conference depth can and will — and does — sink occasional seasons.
Now, the follow-up on this "11 in common" statistic: DeBerry didn’t have another losing season after Year 10 (1993)) until Year 21 in 2004. Only in 2005 did he finally suffer consecutive losing seasons. He retired after his 23rd season in Colorado Springs in 2006.
Calhoun's second losing regular season at Air Force (he had a 6-6 regular season followed by a bowl loss) in 2017 was followed by another losing season in 2018. Calhoun finally got tagged with back-to-back losing seasons.
This brings us to Navy. The historical significance — and program-specific prestige — of this season rest in the ability of Niumatalolo to avoid what befell Calhoun and Air Force last year: consecutive losing (and bowlless) seasons.
Ken Niumatalolo matches up well with Troy Calhoun, and he will spend the next decade trying to match what Fisher DeBerry did at Air Force.
We will get to see how Navy builds on the first 11 seasons of one of its most successful coaching eras of all time.