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David Ramsey: Air Force's Troy Calhoun struggles to overthrow Navy's Ken Niumatalolo, emperor of service-academy football

September 28, 2016 Updated: September 28, 2016 at 6:36 pm
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Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, right, meets with Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun, left, after an NCAA football game, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, in Annapolis, Md. Navy won 28-10. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Troy Calhoun is not the emperor of service-academy football. The title belongs to Navy's Ken Niumatalolo.

Calhoun is consistent, leading Air Force to seven winning seasons and eight bowl games since 2007. He's tough at Falcon Stadium, winning 44 of 58 home games, including 14 straight. He's a superb recruiter who persuaded receiver Jalen Robinette and safety Weston Steelhammer to endure the rigors of academy life. Both players could start for virtually any college team.

But ...

Calhoun has failed to unseat his archrival, losing six of nine games to Navy. The Midshipmen, and Emperor Niumatalolo, retain a firm grip on the Commander-in-Chief's trophy.

Of course, Calhoun declined to talk specifically about his rivalry with Niumatalolo. Eager, as usual, to blur a subject that's unflattering to him and his program, he talked instead about pouring foundations and emotional maturity and the massive importance of today's practice.

He refused to compare his program to Navy's. Any measure of his Falcons, Calhoun said, should be based solely "on Air Force."

He still was trying to flee from Niumatalolo when he asked this question:

"Anything you pursue in life, can you get close to the ceiling of what you may have capability-wise?"

In his one-of-a-kind way, Calhoun wandered right back to the subject.

Coach, I'm sure we agree there is no more important ceiling, and no more vital goal, than passing Navy and reclaiming Air Force's place at the pinnacle of service-academy football. And we both know, even though you refuse to talk about it, that you spend a lot of time pondering Navy and that ceiling of possibility.

Niumatalolo has led a tidal wave of change. From 1982 to 2002, the Falcons won the Commander-in-Chief's trophy 16 times while defeating Navy 19 times in 22 games.

Niumatalolo, then offensive coordinator, walked along the Navy sideline in 2002 when the Air Force bombarded the Midshipmen, 48-7, at Falcon Stadium. He, joined by enraged Navy players, took a long look at the scoreboard.

The defeat marked the conclusion of an era of blissful sunshine for the Falcons and humiliating darkness for the Midshipmen.

Navy and Niumatalolo launched a run of dominance, winning the Commander-in-Chief's trophy seven straight times.

Comparing Calhoun to Niumatalolo is utterly fair. They work with the same restrictions and same benefits. They employ similar run-obsessed offenses.

They are close to the same age. Niumatalolo is 51, and Calhoun joined the 50 club Monday, when he returned home at 9 after a long day of studying video and directing practice. He ate a celebratory dinner of gumbo with his family and retired to bed, where he most likely dreamed of defeating Navy.

In December, Calhoun's and Air Force's chances of surpassing their archrival seemed on the edge of multiplying. Niumatalolo was flying high, helped by quarterback Keenan Reynolds, one of the finest players in service-academy history. His Midshipmen were nationally ranked.

Brigham Young came calling, and the temptation was enormous. Niumatalolo is a devout Mormon, and his son, Va'a, plays linebacker for BYU. For a few days, Niumatalolo to BYU looked almost certain.

But he stayed at Navy, signing a new contract worth more than $2 million per season. Winning at Navy is a demanding task, but not as demanding as satisfying BYU's highly engaged, highly unrealistic fan base.

His return is happy and sad news for Calhoun and fans of Falcon football. The Navy-Air Force rivalry is one of college football's best secrets. Games are close and violent and distinctive. Passing has overwhelmed college football and the NFL, but Navy-Air Force defies modern norms and offers a fresh, primal, entertaining version of the game.

We should be blessed to watch Calhoun and Niumatalolo struggle for the throne for another 10 seasons, and maybe more. If Niumatalolo said no to BYU, you can expect him to say no to everybody else. Calhoun seems settled, despite his occasional grumbling, at his alma mater.

A year ago, the Falcons lost by 22 at Navy. It was a dreary performance, one of the worst of the Calhoun era. But Reynolds has departed the Midshipmen backfield, and Calhoun heads into Saturday's game armed with one of his most talented teams.

Busting through the Navy ceiling has been a frustrating failure for Calhoun, but the ceiling never has beckoned from closer range. He's won three of his past six battles with Niumatalolo.

He can begin his overthrow of the emperor Saturday.

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