When Navy football's been bad, it's been awful. Just ask Rick Forzano, Gary Tranquill, Elliot Uzelac, and George Chaump. (Who? Exactly.)
However, when Navy football's been good, it has been tremendous. To make the point even more precise, the product of Navy football is tremendous in the present tense. Ken Niumatalolo has taken what Paul Johnson started and turned it into pure magic in Annapolis. Bowl seasons and wins over Army are best labeled by one word in Maryland: NORMAL. This doesn't mean wins over Army are taken for granted -- never, ever, ever will they be treated that way. This doesn't mean various successes are yawned at or otherwise treated as ho-hum occurrences. They're not. Winning bowl games in consecutive years -- something Navy hadn't done since 2004 and 2005 under Johnson -- offers a timely reminder of how good the Midshipmen and their fans have it these days. Making a bowl game might have become commonplace, but winning that bowl never gets old, and now that Navy has a two-game postseason winning streak, it's easy to think that pigskin prosperity will continue to be "usual business" for a long time.
This is where our story gets complicated... and goes to the past.
You saw the forgettable names above: Forzano, Tranquill, Uzelac, Chaump. Those are four coaches who surrounded George Welsh (Forzano as predecessor, the other three as successors) in Navy football's head coaching line of succession. None of those four men ever won seven games in a single season, and in only one season (Tranquill, 1982) did any of those coaches win six games. If you add -- as a predecessor -- William Elias to the equation, Navy had a total of one six-win season over the course of two separate periods: 1965-1972 (Elias and Forzano) and 1982 through 1994 (Tranquill-Uzelac-Chaump). In 21 total seasons, Midshipmen fans had very little to cheer about.
However, after the late 1960s and before the bulk of the 1980s, there came an oasis in the early 1970s, lasting through 1981. These were the George Welsh years, a period in the history of Navy football that feels like an island where a naval base is stationed. The surrounding decades might have been bleak, but the nine seasons Welsh spent in Annapolis bathed the football program in sunshine.
How does one put in perspective the Welsh years, capturing the immensely successful tenure of a man who would one day lead the University of Virginia to a top-five national ranking and a Sugar Bowl appearance? You have to start somewhere, so let's start with the piece of hardware that was one year old when Welsh took over in Annapolis.
The Commander-in-Chief Trophy was first handed out in 1972, when the Division I-A service academies began the practice of playing each other on an annual basis. Army won the first CIC Trophy in '72, but when Welsh came aboard at Navy in 1973, he established near-total ownership of that coveted prize. From 1973 through 1981, Welsh lost the CIC Trophy only once, to Army in 1977. Welsh won the trophy outright with a sweep of the other two academies seven times. The only other year Navy didn't win the trophy outright was in 1980, when it split its two CIC games, but managed to retain the trophy. Seven outright wins, one retention, and only one full loss. That's more than formidable.
There are more eye-popping stats to pass along about the Welsh era in Annapolis: For one thing, Navy made three bowls in four years (1978 through 1981) for the first time in the history of the program. Not until the Johnson era in 2005 did Navy make a bowl in three straight years. Welsh, of course, was operating under stricter standards back then, with far fewer bowl games and 11-game seasons (meaning you really had to have a winning record). What he did then looks even better now.
Then absorb this fact: Welsh's two immediate predecessors, Elias and Forzano, combined to win 25 games at Navy. Welsh's two immediate successors, Tranquill and Uzelac, combined to win 28 games. Welsh did endure four losing seasons out of nine in Annapolis, but in his four best years -- 1978 through 1981 -- he won a total of 31 games, more than those two pairs of coaches before and after his stay at the Naval Academy.
It is easy to look at the present moment and find it hard to imagine how Navy could ever stop winning. Yet, that cessation of good times can occur as soon as the right coach scratches an itch, as Welsh did to try his hand in the ACC in the 1980s. Over a quarter of a century later, Johnson felt he had to test himself against the ACC, but Navy was lucky in that instance -- Niumatalolo was the perfect man to take the baton and keep things going. In 1982, the Midshipmen weren't as fortunate, and they needed two full decades to get a quality head coach in charge once more.
The George Welsh years move farther into the past, but their value to Navy football remains undiminished -- and becomes more impressive -- as time goes by.