Brian Newberry, Navy’s new coach and renaissance man, aims to revive Midshipmen
Stars and Stripes June 27, 2023
When Navy decided to replace its head coach of 16 years last December, there was only one choice in the minds of the Midshipmen.
Ken Niumatalolo’s last three seasons at the U.S. Naval Academy amounted to an unceremonious 11-23 record, but through the struggles remained one constant: stinginess without the ball.
Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry’s successes over four years led to the simple decision to hire from within, avoiding any turmoil as a new chapter of Navy football begins.
On Dec. 19, 2022, eight days after the decision not to retain Niumatalolo, Navy named Newberry, 49, the 40th head coach in program history.
“For the most part, my body of work since I’ve been here was my pitch,” Newberry said. “How we played on defense, the effort that we played with, the creativity that we played with on that side of the football, I think people noticed that.”
In Newberry’s four seasons as defensive coordinator, the Midshipmen allowed no worse than the third-fewest yards per game in the American Athletic Conference every year. The first-time Football Bowl Subdivision coach’s defense held opponents to 22.3 points and 314.2 yards per game in 2019, both top-two conference marks, as Navy notched an 11-2 season complete with a Liberty Bowl victory over Kansas State.
A native of Moore, Okla., Newberry implemented the “Get Six” philosophy, which states that a combination of turnovers, defensive touchdowns, three-and-outs and turnovers on downs adding up to six would equal a Navy win. The Midshipmen “got six” in 15 games during the last four seasons and won 12 times.
Though first-year defensive coordinator P.J. Volker has his work cut out for him to try to keep the standards high, he knows his chemistry with his predecessor is strong.
“I don’t think I could ask for a better situation,” said Volker, who spent the past four seasons as the Navy linebackers coach. “Obviously I’m a first-time coordinator doing this. You have a guy with his expertise that I’ve worked with, I’ve been in the battles with, I’ve done all those things with, is a great friend. He’s an excellent resource for me.”
Having played under Newberry — who doubled as defensive coordinator and safeties coach — for three years, senior Eavan Gibbons said he was elated about the promotion.
“We really didn’t want to reload the program,” Gibbons said. “We didn’t want to have a whole bunch of new coaches, a new defense, a new offense, a new everything. Keeping Coach New, keeping the structure of the program was, I think, really essential and made me and my teammates happy.”
Newberry’s coaching journey has included several stops and a variety of roles across almost every level of college football. It began in 1999 as a graduate assistant at Division-II Southern Arkansas and led him to scattered Football Championship Subdivision jobs including Lehigh, Elon and Kennesaw State before his arrival in Annapolis, Md.
Newberry attended Baylor University, where he played safety for the Bears and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1998. Growing up a multi-sport athlete, he faced adversity in the form of a torn Achilles tendon during spring practice between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The recovery period lasted two years, leaving him with a big decision about his post-playing days, which were not so far away.
“At that point, everything I did, I identified as a football player,” Newberry said. “That was kind of taken away from me for a couple of years, which, in retrospect, was probably the best thing that could have happened to me, right? Because then you’ve got to figure out: Who are you without football?”
With an education degree came student-teaching, which Newberry quickly realized was not for him.
“There’s no way I want to sit in a classroom all day,” Newberry said. “I just didn’t really enjoy that part of it. If I could’ve just coached ball, that would have been awesome.”
Before pursuing a graduate assistantship and an MBA, Newberry took some time off, opting to go to Montana and work at Glacier National Park. Surrounded by the Rocky Mountains among other picturesque landscapes, he developed an affinity for photography.
Volker recalled his first meeting with Newberry, who invited him and his wife over for dinner. On the walls were some of the then-Kennesaw State defensive coordinator’s photographs from Montana, and on the menu were steaks garnished with rosemary from his garden and served with his own guacamole.
Newberry maintains that he is merely an amateur photographer and chef, but all of that was the work of a “renaissance man,” Volker said.
“I like to say he’s like the quarterback in high school that picks up the golf club and he’s the best golfer,” Volker said, “and then he goes and picks up the basketball and he bangs down the 3, and then he drives down the lane and he dunks it. Things just come easy to him, and usually those guys are easy not to like because they’re arrogant. He’s as humble as they get.”
Humility is an important characteristic to possess at the Naval Academy, where the football talent is rarely on par with other FBS teams, such as Notre Dame, against which the Midshipmen will open their season Aug. 26 in Dublin, Ireland.
“Awesome opportunity for your first game,” Newberry said. “And I don’t like to use the word ‘nothing to lose,’ but that’s kind of what it is.”
Newberry said he is a big fan of John Wooden, the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach. First and foremost, he preaches to his players and coaches the importance of being the best versions of themselves every day, and the wins will follow, just as the 10-time NCAA champion did with the Bruins.
Even though the win-loss record is of secondary importance to Newberry and the rest of the Navy coaching staff, he stressed that there are tangible goals for the Midshipmen during his first year. Primarily, they are after the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, awarded annually to the winner of the series among the U.S. Military, Naval and Air Force academies. Air Force won the 2022 iteration, the three teams split the title in 2021 and it has been four years since Navy won it outright.
Also on the minds of the Midshipmen are their first bowl appearance since 2019 and their first AAC title.
“I think we can do that,” Newberry said. “I think it’s realistic expectations and goals around here. That’s what (Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk) expects, and there’s no reason why we can’t do that.”
With goals in place for the 2023 season and spring practices in the books, Newberry and his staff are looking ahead to fall camp, which is scheduled to begin at the end of July, and the season opener against the Fighting Irish. The chaos of being a first-time head coach has seemed to settle, but it did not come without its challenges in the early months of the job.
Getting to know every player on a roster is a tall order, especially at a service academy, where the roster is larger. With 113 players already on campus and 65 more set to show up for camp, it requires a lot of help from the rest of the staff, Newberry said.
The hardest thing he had to do, though, was making those coaching personnel decisions first. He let go of some Navy coaches he had worked with and gotten to know over the course of four years.
“Those were gut-wrenching decisions,” Newberry said. “I was 189 pounds a month after I took the job. I’m 215 pounds now. I lost 15, 20 pounds with the combination of the season, what happened at the end. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t sleep a whole lot.”
Challenges will continue to present themselves, including the fact that all the Midshipmen have so much more work to do than most student-athletes around the country.
“We have school, we have football, we also have military obligations, and Coach, he knows that and he respects that, but he wants us to embrace it,” Gibbons said. “And I think that’s something that’s going to make us tougher as a team.”
Even though Newberry did not plan to become a head coach until after he arrived at Navy, he has become immersed in the culture in Annapolis and is leaning into the unique opportunity.
“It’s a phenomenal job,” Newberry said. “We’ve got great kids. I don’t think there’s a better place to coach in the country, I really don’t. So to have that opportunity as a first-time head coach, it’s beyond my wildest dreams. If you told me I could retire here right now, I’d shake your hand, I’d be done. I’m not really interested in going anywhere else after being here.”