BYU's coaching search could be winding down soon, as their interest in Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has led to an in-person interview taking place today. Niumatalolo has said that he "won't drag out this decision", so it is entirely possible this search gets wrapped up one way or another in the next day or two.
The mutual interest between BYU and Niumatalolo has been oddly public as far as other coaching searches are concerned, with this meeting getting leaked out days ahead of time, and with Niumatalolo not being shy about why he might be interested in BYU. Navy's beat writer understands the connection Niumatalolo may have with the school, but also added this, in his most recent column about what 'Coach Ken' has accomplished at Navy:
If Niumatalolo does leave for BYU it will not be about football. In my humble opinion, Navy is a better head coaching job during this era of college football. BYU faces some serious issues as an independent while it was proven this season that membership in the American Athletic Conference has provided a massive and positive lift for Navy.
Wait, is Navy a better job than BYU? That seems a little outlandish at first, but is it, once you actually dig into it?
For one, Navy actually pays pretty well. Per the USA TODAY head coach salary database, Niumatalolo made a little over $1.6 million a year, good for 58th in the country among programs that reported their salary. That's more than a few Power Five coaches make (like Indiana's Kevin Wilson, or what Bill Cubit made at Illinois last year), and before this offseason's coaching salary explosion, more than most coaches outside of the Power Five made. It's also almost certainly more than what BYU was paying Bronco Mendenhall.
Since BYU is a private school, and thus exempt from FOIA requests from noisy reporters and bloggers, the exact terms of Mendenhall's deal aren't known, but there are some estimates floating out there. One earlier estimate had Mendenhall at $900,000 a year. Virginia paid $1,185,000 to buy out Mendenhall's contract, leaving some to speculate that was a year's salary. It's probably fair to estimate that whatever the final number was, it was less than $1.6 million.
BYU may very well match Niumatalolo's salary if he decides to come to Provo, but a big raise doesn't seem very likely. As an institution, BYU doesn't shell out far above market rate for any of its employees, and even though the trend in college football is heavily moving in this direction, it's understandable if the Church wants to avoid the optics of paying a football coach four million bucks (even if that came from booster money). If one evaluated the quality of a coaching job purely by money, one could argue that Navy may very well be a better gig than BYU.
But I'd guess that Wagner's argument, and one that I've heard before from other writers, centers more around conference affiliation. After all, BYU doesn't get an automatic path into a prestigious and lucrative New Year's Six Bowl, and unless they shock the world and get fortunate with their out of conference scheduling, they can't make the playoff either. Navy, on the other hand, now has stable conference membership that includes regular home games against quality opponents, and a pathway towards major bowl opportunities. The financial investments that many AAC programs are making this offseason, their showing this year, and the group of coaches in the league, make AAC membership look a little better. If nothing else, Navy knows exactly what it is at this point.
I'm trying to be as objective as possible, and while I recognize that being an independent has a lot of flaws and challenges, I don't really buy it. After all, if BYU really wanted, they could get an invitation to join The American pretty quickly, given the esteem both conference leadership and member institutions have for BYU, and BYU's #brand advantages. BYU has also already played most of The American's membership, and likely wouldn't have much trouble getting future games, so it's hard to see how Navy gets too much of a schedule advantage.
In its current situation, yes, BYU probably won't ever make the playoff, or even a New Year's Six game. But Navy probably won't either. They weren't able to do it with their best QB since Roger Staubach, one of their best coaches ever, and with a down year from the Mountain West. Given their harsh recruiting restrictions and the growth of the AAC, it's hard to see if they'll get a better chance anytime soon.
And those recruiting restrictions are a big deal. Given Navy's strict academic requirements, limitations on physical size, and oh yeah, required military service, their prospect pool is going to be hugely limited, making it perhaps the toughest job in the entire country. If you go by recruiting rankings, Navy will be at a talent disadvantage against virtually every FBS program they face. BYU's recruiting restrictions are also significant, but they're still able to recruit a few blue chip players, and generally recruit at a low Power Five caliber (~top 60 classes). There are lots of kids on BYU's roster who could play for Pac-12 and Big-12 programs. That's less of the case at Navy, even during a great year.
I think that's the tipping point. If you look at both jobs in terms of pure football potential, BYU is where one could win more meaningful games against quality teams. For as unquestionably great as Niumatalolo has been at Navy, this is the first year his program has cracked the Top 25. For all the hand-wringing at BYU about their place in the world post independence, they've made three AP Top 25 appearances as an indie (and in seven years since 2006). For as trying a year this has been for BYU, and as excellent as it's been for Navy, there is a non-trivial chance BYU still finishes above Navy in the final polls. BYU can get better athletes, has fewer restrictions, and can play more big name opponents than Navy can.
The two jobs have lots of similarities. Both have unique affiliations that help give them national fanbases, unique expectations, and require the coach to be a special representative of something more than a football team. Both have recruiting challenges and will be underdogs in many games they play. Both have awesome places in college football history.
But one has much higher potential on the field, and makes things a little bit easier off of it. The money might be a little nicer at Navy most of the time, and the expectations a little lower, but in terms of what can actually be accomplished on the football field, I think BYU is the better gig. We'll see if Niumatalolo agrees pretty soon.