Later this week, Navy head coach Brian Newberry leads the Midshipmen across the pond to face Notre Dame in the opening game of the 2023 college football season. In many respects, it’s the foremost mission of a command he didn’t always know he wanted, but at the same time, the role he’s been primed to take on.
The journey he’s taken, the roads he’s traveled, all led here.
The Man in Waiting: Inside the Journey of Navy Head Coach Brian Newberry
“Truthfully, to be a head coach has never been the end goal for me,” Newberry states with a smile.
It might sound like an odd thing for the new Navy head coach to say as he readies his troops for a mission across the pond to face a deadly but familiar adversary on foreign fields. It’s not the usual hyped-up motivational talk that you come to expect from a college coach.
However, as Newberry sits down with College Football Network, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a story behind the sincerity of his statement.
On becoming the 39th head coach of the Navy football program, he described it as an “incredible opportunity,” and there’s an honesty in that too.
Don’t mistake the goal at the beginning of a journey for a lack of gratitude or a lack of desire. Since the beginning of his journey to the minute that he walks out in Aviva Stadium, Dublin as a head coach for the first time, a lot has changed for Newberry. There’s influence, there’s discovery, there’s been opportunity, and there’s also been a sense of destiny he is ready to embrace.
“I had a couple opportunities since I’ve been here to take other jobs,” Newberry continues. “The conversations I had with Coach Niumatalolo were, ‘hey, I might do this for four or five more years and then maybe step away at that point. At that point, I think you’ll have the opportunity to step into that role.'”
“That started preparing me to wrap my mind around it, to start thinking about things that I might do differently, and things that I wanted to do. It was bittersweet to be stepping into this role,” Newberry says of taking over from former Navy HC Ken Niumatalolo. “It was overwhelming, to be honest. Getting settled into my role now, and man, I tell you, I’m really enjoying it.”
Newberry arrived in Annapolis as the defensive coordinator in 2019, a role of his own volition he wasn’t necessarily qualified for, but thrived in.
Cultivating one of the stingiest defenses in the nation made him a handpicked replacement for the man who hired him. Yet, it’s the roads that led here that have prepared him for an opportunity that arrived sooner than expected.
From Oklahoma to Annapolis
The fact that you can’t just take one road from Oklahoma to Annapolis is an almost perfect metaphor for the journey that Newberry has taken to get from the place he was born, to the site of his first college football head coaching role. The Navy head coach zigged and zagged across the country and between the various levels of college football, learning valuable lessons at each stop.
As I come to learn, each of those stops along the way to his current destination added a little something to the armory that he’ll deploy as a first-year head coach this fall. Yet, in the late 1990s, Newberry wasn’t even sure of the end destination, let alone the journey that he’d embark upon to get there.
Growing up in Oklahoma, he knew he loved football. That was for sure.
Newberry played in high school and played collegiately at Baylor. His love for the sport was never in doubt, and the talent wasn’t either. If not for injury, his story might have taken a different path.
While he loved the sport, unlike so many players and coaches, there wasn’t a coaching influence in the home.
“I really had no idea what I wanted to be, even deep into college,” Newberry confesses at the outset of our interview. “Then I thought about (how) I had some really, really influential high school coaches. Great human beings who were great mentors to me. I always admired their camaraderie amongst themselves and valued the way they treated us.”
“I learned a lot from those guys,” Newberry continues. “I wanted to stay a part of the game and thought I could have an impact on others like those guys had on me. So, initially, I thought I would coach and teach at the high school level. I did my student teaching, and let me tell you, being in a classroom isn’t easy. At that point, I didn’t think that I wanted to be in the classroom.”
When you come to a crossroads in life, and you’re uncertain which road to take, sometimes it’s best to take the route less traveled, which is exactly what Newberry did when faced with the indecision over which direction he wanted his journey to take. A friend working in the Glacier National Park provided the perfect opportunity for the future Navy head coach to reflect and assess.
Working as a tour guide for four hours a day, Newberry reveled in “the time and space” to figure out his next steps on a road that ultimately led to Annapolis.
During that year in the Montana mountains, he cultivated a love of fishing, hiking, and photography that is an important part of understanding the man behind the football coach that you’ll see on fall Saturdays.
“I’ve always had an affinity for nature and for the outdoors, but I truly fell in love with it at that point. The solitude, you know, when you’re out in the mountains and woods by yourself. I wish I could do it more often. I get a lot of peace and clarity when you’re in nature and away from the noise. If I could press pause and do it again, man, I would because it was a lot of fun.”
The Foundation of Newberry, the Coach
Far from hitting pause on his journey during that time, the peace and solitude solidified a resolve within Newberry to pursue a graduate internship at a college football program. The path would allow him to be around the camaraderie of coaching but without the need to be involved in the classroom.
So, in 1999, the path to being a college football head coach began in Magnolia, Arkansas.
“Started out at Southern Arkansas,” Newberry recalls fondly. “I didn’t know anybody there, but what a great experience that was for me. It really opened my eyes as to what college football entailed, the work, the hours, the things you had to do. I cut the grass, painted grass, cleaned the locker rooms, coached both sides of the ball.”
“I was kinda upset initially that I didn’t get a graduate internship at a big FBS program,” Newberry continues. “But that right there was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. From there, I worked my way up and around. Moved around a lot, coached DII, DIII, FCS, back to DIII.”
From Southern Arkansas he moved on to Washington & Lee, where he served in various roles — including defensive coordinator — between 2001 and 2006. One-year spells at Northern Michigan and the historic University of the South in Sewanee followed a four-year spell with Elon before he landed in Georgia and the newly-formed Kennesaw State program.
While cultivating his reputation as a ferocious defensively-minded coach at each and every one of those programs — Kennesaw State ranked in the top 10 of the FCS across multiple defensive metrics with Newberry as defensive coordinator — the new Navy head coach furnished himself with the tools that prepared him for a role that he never initially set out to achieve.
“What a great experience it was because I got to work for a lot of really, really good coaches. I was around a lot of good people. I got to see what I wanted to be as a football coach and, really, what I didn’t want to be as well. That experience early on was really vital to me. I was pretty immature at the time, trying to figure it out.”
“There was one year in particular that was a tough year,” Newberry reflects on some of the negative experiences that helps shaped the defensive coordinator he was, and help shape the head coach that he wants to be at Navy.
“It was the first time that I was exposed to the business side of football, and a staff that was a little toxic. You felt like you were walking on egg shells every day going to work. What I learned in that instance was, what I didn’t want to be as a head coach, an environment I did not want to foster at work. That was at the time difficult, but critical in my development and philosophy.”
As he developed as a coach through those experiences, through those landmarks on the road to Annapolis, Newberry developed his own defensive philosophy. It has underpinned a defense that has been stingy in all phases but particularly against the run. It has allowed individual accolades for the players that have adopted it and thrived.
His philosophy has seen Newberry attain personal accolades as a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, honoring the best assistant coach in college football. While offensive coaches preach getting the next score or getting the next six points, his defensive mind developed a dominating mantra at Kennesaw State that would come to be known as “Get 6” during his early years at Navy.
“It was always three takeaways,” Newberry explains of his philosophy. “We felt like if we could get that, we could win the game. Then it was, “if we can get a combination of this many takeaways and this many three-and-outs, then we’ve got a good chance to win the game.” Those takeaways, those three-and-outs, we valued the three-and-outs as much as the takeaways.”
“When I got here, I wanted to have a solid number,” Newberry explains. “We went back years to find out, what was that magic number? It turned out it was six, seemed to be the magic cut-off spot where we had a good chance to win. So, that’s how that was born. It gives us a really good chance to win.”
As he leaves the defensive coordinator role behind, a move he admits was “easier than I thought” as he entrusts those duties to P.J. Volker, Newberry now has the opportunity to impart new philosophies on the program as a whole — not just the defense.
While that won’t mean wholesale changes to the offensive identity of the Navy football program, Newberry admits there will be “wrinkles” in his first year in charge that could become a more permanent feature within two years as the program adapts and evolves to changes in the rules and targets different positions — like tight end — in coming recruiting classes.
While philosophies around the triple-option or “Get 6” may ebb and flow, one thing will always be a constant philosophy for Newberry. His role as a football coach, whether that is as a graduate assistant, a defensive backs coach, a defensive coordinator, or as the head coach, will always be defined more by how he molds men than how he manipulates Xs and Os.
“To me, it’s one of the things I love most about this profession,” Newberry explains the importance of that element of his role. “You love the game, but you love the relationship piece, you love developing young men. Here at the academy, it has even more significance because you’re helping mold young men who are going to serve their country. It’s very important.”
Ready for the Opportunity
Newberry is the 39th head coach of the Navy football program, but is the first new head coach since 2008. Under Niumatalolo, the program had seen remarkable success, including an 11-2 season during their new leader’s first year as the defensive coordinator in 2019.
Yet, three consecutive losing campaigns bought an era to an end, and an opportunity for a new dawn.
With a similar new era in the American Athletic Conference featuring several arrivals and departures, a rebound or return to success is difficult to predict, expect, or define — especially for a first-year head coach.
Newberry, however, has no difficulty explaining what success looks like for the Midshipmen during his first year at the rudder.
“Maximizing our football team. Being the best version of ourselves. If we can do that, here at the Academy, there are going to be years where that is an 11-win season like 2019. There might be certain years where we do a phenomenal coaching job, and our players, we maximize them, but we only get six or seven wins.”
“You just never know,” Newberry continues. “There’s going to be talent discrepancies every week we play, and I think there are ways that we’re going to make up for that. We have goals. We talk about winning the CIC [Commander in Chief’s Trophy], which is really important to us, winning our conference, going to a bowl game.”
“At the end of the day, we’re going to be the best version of whoever we are, coach our tails off, and our kids are going to play harder than anyone else in the country and we’re going to be elite at the intangibles, and at the things that we can control. If that’s good enough to win on Saturdays, then hallelujah.”
As he looks ahead to the trip across the pond as his first engagement as the head coach of the Navy football program, Newberry reflects back on all the stops on his journey that led him to this moment.
“All the jobs that I look back on that I had, I needed those jobs at the time,” Newberry states with conviction. “To develop me, to mold me. What you learn to do is work with a lot of different athletes, a lot of different kids from different backgrounds.
“All those jobs, all the stops you make — even the bad ones –when you look back on it, led me to be ready for this opportunity.”
He may not have known what he wanted to do in life. He may not have ever envisioned being a college football head coach. But, this job has been waiting for Newberry, and the man in waiting is ready to take this team on the next stage of their journey.