The 2017 Military Bowl contest featuring your Virginia Cavaliers and America’s Navy Midshipmen is an exciting matchup for a lot of reasons. Fans of both teams are so excited for this bowl game that they set a new single-day record for ticket sales for the Military Bowl, now in its 10th year. It’s more than just a hunger from UVA fans for a bowl game -- it’s actually a great matchup of historically intertwined programs.
Virginia and Navy have met 39 times prior, with Navy leading the all-time series, 28-11. Virginia’s record books, however, only shows a 27-11 advantage for Navy, who notched a forfeit win back in 1895 (coincidentally, though likely un-relatedly, the same year the Rotunda burned down).
The two teams met for 15 of the 21 years between 1974 and 1994, with the Hoos winning the last five meetings between 1990-1994. Virginia was coached by the legendary George Welsh, the all-time winningest coach for Virginia from 1982-2000, and former Navy head coach from 1973-1981. Welsh’s 55 wins during his time at Navy make him the second winningest coach there, behind only the current Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
The connection goes beyond Welsh. While Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall was still at BYU, he coached Coach Niamatalolo’s son, Va’a. Through that, Mendenhall and Coach Niamatalolo developed a deep respect for one another. Mendenhall also has ties to Navy defensive line coach Shaun Nua, who played at BYU under Mendenhall, and who Mendenhall had previously tried to recruit as an assistant at UVA.
Despite the history of the two teams, the similarity in programs, and familiarity among the head coaches, don’t expect to see the Navy and Virginia series to start back up any time soon. While both coaches agree that it’s a great matchup, there are logistical and other reasons that stand in the way.
For Navy, Niumatalolo says he can’t remember ever being privy to any discussions of reviving the series between the two schools, at least as long as he’s been there. Niumatalolo started as a running backs coach with Navy in 1995, and worked his way through the assistant ranks until he became head coach in 2007, other than a brief stint at UNLV from 1999-2001.
“It’s just so hard for both of us. We really only have one open team every year, and I don’t know if it fits in with their schedule.”
Outside of Navy’s eight AAC conference games, three of Navy’s four out of conference games are already spoken for — annual matchups against Notre Dame, Air Force, and Army. Since joining the American Athletic Conference in 2015, Navy has rotated its fourth spot among some weaker teams -- this year the Midshipmen traveled to Florida Atlantic to open the season, and in the past has hosted Fordham and Colgate.
When Mendenhall was asked whether, despite the George Welsh connection, Navy was simply too dangerous a team for Virginia to play in a series, he said that was certainly a part of it, particularly given that the teams would be playing at the beginning of the year, leading into conference play.
“When you play an option football team, it’s physical and it’s tough,” Mendenhall said. “It requires a different mindset. So it almost has to have you step out of what normalcy looks like to do that. Especially at the beginning of the season, where most of the time this would be happening, it’s very difficult to go into that mode and then back out of that mode without kind of a little bit of a lull.”
“Currently, in our early season scheduling, there’s no time for a lull. We have to make the most out of every early season game.”
For Mendenhall, the matchup is better suited for Virginia as a postseason, rather than an early season game, giving a nod to Navy’s program being “consistent and developed and...strong.”
So, enjoy the Military Bowl when it kicks off at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 28 between two programs with a storied history, something you don’t often get in postseason play. Just don’t expect the series to be revived anytime soon.
“We’ll see,” Niumatalolo added. “I’m sure it’d be pretty difficult, but you never know.”