Bowl Announcement Teleconference - Dec. 4
TIM SIMMONS: To get started, we'll introduce Brant Ringler, executive director of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl. The 14th edition, Brant. Can you believe it?
BRANT RINGLER: No, seems like I was just thinking the other day how fast time has gone by and we're already at number 14. And excited for this year's matchup between Louisiana Tech and the U.S. Naval Academy.
TIM SIMMONS: Brant, tell me what went into deciding ‑‑ obviously, we knew Navy was ticketed for the bowl game with a preseason agreement. But how did the competition come about? Because, obviously, the Big 12 conference was part of the initial planning.
BRANT RINGLER: Sure. First, I want to thank Chet Gladchuk and the U.S. Naval Academy for their continued commitment to our game. We had an agreement with them back before they joined the American Athletic Conference, and he made sure to honor that agreement. That was very special to us in our relationship. And we just want to say thank you once again to Chet and his team for being a part of that and making that happen.
In regards to the Big 12 conference, you know, we were supposed to pick seventh this year, and they had six teams qualify. So, unfortunately, we were not able to have a Big 12 team as originally expected. But I think we got a team that's high flying, very active across the field. You know, I love the coach in Skip Holtz. They're going to bring a lot of dynamic to this game, and I think it's going to show a completely different contrast to what Navy brings, because they're the ground game. We're going to have an air‑ground competition. I'm excited about that. And once we did not have a Big 12 team, we were able to work with the conference in trying to identify the right opponent for Navy.
We wanted to make sure the matchup had teams with similar records from a win/loss column and felt like a 5‑7 team was really just too far away to make something like that happen with ‑‑ you know, at one of the ATR teams as such. So when we were talking to the conference office, it made quite a bit of sense to target Louisiana Tech. We've had them in our bowl game over in Dallas, the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and they brought a lot of fans, so they're a great regional support.
And the athletic director there, Tommy McClelland, is fantastic to work with and his team. And like I told you about Skip. He's phenomenal as well.
So we're excited about having the Bulldogs here in Fort Worth and look forward to hosting them.
TIM SIMMONS: Before we get to the Louisiana Tech representatives, any questions for Brant Ringler?
Q. Hey, Brant, just real quick, I know it was bad for Navy that they lost in the conference championship game, but it was good for your bowl in that it assured they weren't going to the Cotton Bowl and you weren't having to try to find a replacement team.
BRANT RINGLER: As I told everyone here, I was pulling for Navy regardless. They're partners of ours. They're friends of ours. I want what's best for them. It actually hurt a little bit yesterday to see them lose, see their players get hurt. And that was tough for me to see. Obviously, we're proud to have them in our game. We felt like they'd be in our game regardless since Western Michigan had won. But we wanted them to come in here as conference champions. That would have been fantastic to see.
But didn't, unfortunately, it did not happen. Obviously, they still have another game with Army, and we know they're going to have a great game against them.
Q. Brant, hi. Last few years, Lockheed Martin has not been shy about saying they love having a service academy in this game that maybe was able to come back for a second appearance.
Can you talk about that just in the context of your title sponsor?
BRANT RINGLER: Yeah. Obviously, that's part of the niche of our bowl game, is to make sure we do our best to have an academy in our game. We've been very fortunate. This now makes eight of the last ten years for that to occur. We're the only bowl game ever to have all three academies in their game at some point.
So it goes a long way for our title sponsor, Lockheed Martin. They build a lot of equipment, whether it be airplanes or ships, that our military will use. And these kids that play for the Naval Academy, they will go on and serve our country and most likely, in some capacity, be on or use a Lockheed Martin product.
Q. Just wondered how much the 2004 experience with Louisiana Tech, how much did that go into the decision‑making process to want to bring Louisiana Tech back to the Dallas area?
BRANT RINGLER: It would have took quite a bit, actually. As I mentioned earlier, Tommy and his staff and Skip and his team came into this marketplace, did a fantastic job of bringing a large fan base to the game. In addition, the team was very respectful in all aspects, handled themselves appropriately. So there wasn't any questions with regard to Louisiana Tech. We definitely targeted them as a potential team when we knew the situation was that we would not have a Big 12.
TIM SIMMONS: Closing comment, Brant, about the bowl game and the structure this year.
BRANT RINGLER: We're very excited, obviously, in regards to the matchup. We're equally excited to the day of the game. We've been post‑Christmas the last 10 years, and luckily we're pre‑Christmas this year in regards to it being a Friday afternoon. We have not had an afternoon game as well. We think that's going to bode very well for the fan bases and for our corporate partners and our local community to come out and be a part of this day. So, like I say, we're very excited overall.
TIM SIMMONS: Now to turn it over to Louisiana Tech athletic director, Tommy McClelland. Tommy, welcome, and just comments about bringing the Bulldogs into Amon G. Carter Stadium, first time a Louisiana Tech team, from my records, has played in the stadium.
TOMMY McCLELLAND: First of all, we're super excited about the opportunity to go to our third bowl game in a row, a first for our program, under the direction of Coach Holtz and just really excited about the job he's doing. Honored to be able to be alongside the Naval Academy. Such an honor to be able to be in the game with them. And then also Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor, we're just excited to be a part of something that's a part of the fabric of this great country.
DFW is one of our largest alumni pockets. So we're really excited to be able to go to an area where we know we're going to be able to have a great attendance and great fan support. And so we're just really excited about being able to be in this game and to add to the atmosphere of it.
BRANT RINGLER: Tommy, obviously, when you made reference to playing in the Zaxby Heart of Dallas Bowl back in 2014, the day after Christmas, do you see any advantage playing the day before Christmas Eve?
TOMMY McCLELLAND: Absolutely. The last couple years, we've had two different experiences. We had, two years ago, in Heart of Dallas the day after Christmas; last year was prior to Christmas. This is kind of in between both of those. I think it's a great date when you think about the distance from Ruston to Fort Worth, just under four hours, obviously, we want folks to come out and experience the whole week in Fort Worth, Sundance Square and do all those things. But if a person just wanted to get Friday morning and drive to the game and drive home, they'll be able to do that in north Louisiana. So I think that's go to, again, add to the attendance, and we're looking forward to it.
Q. We talked earlier in the week about maybe this would develop later in the week with the Armed Forces. When did you first think this was going to be a possibility?
TOMMY McCLELLAND: I think we knew it might be a possibility is the week began to close, kind of the end of the week. Did not know officially it would be a possibility until I literally saw Wisconsin on those TV screens being in the Cotton Bowl against Western Michigan. That's the first time that I knew that was going to be, indeed, where we were going. Then we had 30 minutes to prepare for public announcement at 2:00.
Q. How do you feel everything played out, going back to the Dallas‑Fort Worth area for the second time in three years? That being the first part. And then just the opportunity to play a ranked opponent in Navy. I believe they came in 25th in the final college football playoff ranging.
TOMMY McCLELLAND: As I said before, we have well over 5,000 alums in the DFW area alone. And I think in a 30‑mile radius, we have over 30,000 alums combined as you get into the Houston and then Shreveport market and those areas.
This is something we're excited about being able to get engagement from our alumni and our fans. It's a great bowl, looking through the manual, we'll have the opportunity to do and participate in. It's a great reward to a great season, and we're looking forward to being able to do it.
TIM SIMMONS: Now to turn it over to Coach Holtz.
Coach, congratulations. Three straight years in a bowl game.
SKIP HOLTZ: It's pretty special. I'd like to thank my president, Dr. Geist, and Tommy McClelland for the leadership they provided for this university. When you look at the growth that's going on right now in the city of Ruston at the university, the success we're having in our athletic department, not just on the football field but in so many areas in the athletic department.
But it's fun to be a part of. Winning creates a lot of excitement and energy and just to have the opportunity to be riding this momentum that we're riding right now at the university has been a lot of fun. And it's a real tribute to our players and the job that they've done and the hard work that they put in to put the program into this position.
TIM SIMMONS: Coach, obviously, it's been a long season. This will be your 14th game. Your thoughts about playing the Naval Academy, and what have you seen? Obviously, you have the benefit of seeing them play one more game before you face them on the 23rd.
SKIP HOLTZ: I'll probably watch this game a lot closer than I have the other 12, for sure. Obviously, congratulations to Navy at this point on their 9‑3 season, and I wish them certainly the best of luck this week as they get into the Army‑Navy game. I've always ‑‑ it's always been one of my ‑‑ one of the things on my bucket list that I've wanted to do in college football is to be able to attend the Army‑Navy game, the tradition and the histories that go along with it. I think that, obviously, they've got a great program. The number of bowls they've been to, the success that they've had.
I've had the opportunity to play Navy in the past. I think they do a great job. They're very disciplined, a very physical football team. They really do a nice job. And I certainly think it's going to be an honor for us to play a team that has had this success. And, as you talked about a week ago, they were in the conversation of being one of those at‑large teams. I think, obviously, well‑deserving When you look at the teams they've beaten and the success they had this year. It will certainly be a challenge for us on the field.
But what an honor to have the opportunity to play the Naval Academy and to be associated with this bowl game. Just with not only playing one of the academies, but also the title sponsors and just the way that they represent our country and the freedoms we enjoy on a day‑to‑day basis. This is much more than just a well‑earned trip for two teams that have played extremely hard and have the opportunity to go enjoy a game.
And I'll also add that Brant Ringler does an unbelievable job, and we're really excited about being involved with the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl.
The people I've talked to with the bowl activities, the player activities, the things that they're able to do and interact with each other, knowing that you're interacting with young men who are going to be protecting our freedoms when they're done with this football game will be a real experience for our players and the great teaching moment for us.
I think Brant does a phenomenal job. We were able to be in the Dallas area, as Tommy talked about, and the number of alumni we've had in that area. We've had a great following there. I think a lot of it starts with the leadership, and that's where Brant does a great job with the bowl game and runs a first‑class affair. We know what type of show we're in for. We're really excited to have the opportunity to be part of in so many different aspects and respects.
TIM SIMMONS: Coach, my last question, can you single out a couple players offensively, defensively on your team that the fans will have a real treat of watching? I know you have a receiver that is pretty highly ranked on the all‑time active list.
SKIP HOLTZ: Having two receivers that were in the final 10 in the Biletnikoff Watch List that goes to the best receiver in the country, and to have two in the final 10 was a special honor for us as a program.
Trent Taylor, who is the all‑time leading receiver now in school history, and Carlos Henderson both have been ranked in the top 10 in the country in yards, receptions, touchdowns, the things that they're doing on the field, two very special and very talented players.
And I think a young man that I've been cheering really hard for all year is our quarterback, Ryan Higgins, who has waited his turn patiently over the last couple years, has waited as a senior this year, then got his opportunity to be the starter and has certainly made the most of it. He has thrown for I think over 4,000 yards now in 11 games. He's really provided some leadership.
I think those three are the three marquis names on the offensive side the ball. We've got a tailback who has rushed for over a thousand yards in Jarred Craft and a lot of guys working really hard.
On the defensive side of the ball, Jaylon Ferguson, who is one of the guys in the tops in the country in sacks. I don't know how many opportunities he's going to get for that. Maybe an opportunity for a tackle for a loss, but this is not going to be a traditional passing team. So I'm going to think he is certainly one of them.
Russell Farris, as a linebacker, is a guy that has been very active for us. Xavier Woods, who right now, I think, is one of the top players in college football on the active list with a number of interceptions that he's recorded. And, again, some guys that have played really hard.
And then I think Jonathan Barnes, Number 10, our place kicker, has a chance to really be special, and he's on his way, as just a junior, to help be in some pretty special company when it comes to kickers that have been at Louisiana Tech in its past.
Q. Just trying to see if at what point did you feel the season was turned around after starting 1‑3?
SKIP HOLTZ: Probably the next week when we found a way to start our win string. We were 1‑3, and we were placed as being one of the youngest football teams in the country coming into the season with experience and not really knowing what you had as a football team until you get out on the field. And we were 1‑3, but yet when you talk to our players, there was a lot of encouragement in a 1‑point loss to Arkansas, a 4‑point loss on the road to a team that also was bowl‑eligible program.
I think we really gained some confidence, believe it or not, even in a loss because we really didn't know what to expect. So I think we gained a little bit of encouragement and steam through that, and I think the players and the assistant coaches deserve an awful lot of credit because nobody panicked or flinched. We just stayed the course and we kept the battle cry of let's focus on the process, let's keep getting better, everybody doing your job and having it come together as a team.
And then we went on that 7‑game win streak, which was a real tribute to the job these players did. And it wasn't a thing where we were 1‑3 and said, okay, this one thing happened. I think it was just a process that, as we started winning the game and gaining momentum, you just watch us keep getting better as the year went on.
Q. You alluded to your quarterback. But when you got a redshirt and you look at what he's done in the past, in your wildest imagination, a 4200‑yard year, could you have envisioned that at all?
SKIP HOLTZ: No, I'd be lying if I said, oh, yeah, I saw this coming. I'd be lying to you. But when you look at Ryan Higgins got an opportunity to play as a freshman our first year here, I don't know that he was really ready for that experience as a freshman. I think it was some valuable experience for him, but I think as he went through it, I think it was a learning process. And then he played a backup role to Cody Sokol, who was a transfer coming in, and then Jeff Driskel, as a transfer coming in.
But I think where I'm most proud of him is same thing. He never flinched. He stayed the course. He kept working hard. I felt like, last year, had he been the starter last year, he was ready for that. He was ready for that opportunity going into his junior year. But, unfortunately, he got some injuries, and that gave Jeff Driskel the nod in a competitive fall camp. And Jeff went on to have a great year for us and be drafted in the NFL. And now Ryan, like I said, just has waited patiently for his turn and has certainly made the most of it.
Q. Can you talk about, obviously, the American Athletic Conference made a push that they feel they belong as a P6 Conference right there with the Power 5. Can you talk about what beating a team like Navy that has a lot of national sector and is form of the American Athletic Conference can do for both your program and your league?
SKIP HOLTZ: I don't think there's any doubt. There's much more riding to it than just a win/loss for Louisiana Tech. I think in all these bowl games, I know that in the last five years, I believe Conference USA has the second winningest percentage only behind the Southeast Conference in bowl games. So every conference right now is fighting and jockeying in this new era of college football, and some of the realignments that have gone on, everyone is jockeying for where everybody fits.
So I think right now, not only for Louisiana Tech but for Conference USA and every team that has an opportunity to represent their conference, it's more than just for you. You're also fighting for your program, but you're also fighting for your conference, prestige, honor, however, you want to put it, or where you fit in the sliding scale in what's going on with conferences.
Navy is the team that, as I said a minute ago, was in the at‑large question, was in the at‑large conversation just a couple days ago. They had a great year. They're 9‑3. They have another game to play. Great respect for that program and the job they've done. And, obviously, they represent the American athletic, and we are two schools that are competing to represent a group of five conference and trying to put our best foot forward.
Q. Coach Holtz, both of these teams are coming off sort of the disappointment of falling in that conference championship game. Does that give both you and Navy extra motivation to kind of make things right here at the end?
SKIP HOLTZ: It certainly has a role in it. It's a motivating factor for both programs. I think bowl games are a great opportunity to reward your players for a hard‑fought season. But it's also an opportunity, as we were talking about a minute ago, to represent your school and represent your conference as well.
So I think both programs are very proud. Both programs have been winning. Both programs certainly want to finish the season on a positive note and go have an opportunity to win. But I think with both of us losing in our championship games, I think, A, speaks volumes that both teams were in the championship game because there's only 20 teams competing for 10 conference championships that have an opportunity to be in that game. So I think for both Navy and us to be in that game was a huge accomplishment, but also probably left both of us a little bit hungry walking into this bowl game for sure.
TIM SIMMONS: Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk, if you could just make a comment about bringing the Midshipmen back to Fort Worth for the second appearance in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl.
CHET GLADCHUK: Take what Skip just said and put it in the context of Navy, that's exactly how we feel. Great game. We really enjoyed it. It's a tremendous destination. We've been there before.
We've been to 13 bowl games now, and I rate the Fort Worth area and the Armed Forces Bowl as one finest experiences that we've had. It's a great hotel, accommodations. The facility is outstanding. We've had the good fortune and also the tremendous support in the 12 bowl games to date that we've gone to prior to this one, we've sold all the tickets to every one of the games. So I would expect that, starting tomorrow, we'll get back into it.
We'd been as an independent before we became part of this conference. About four years ago, Brant and I actually made a commitment that Navy would appear in this game this year, at that point, again being, independent. So we've been lining up games for quite some time, and this is the last of our alignments as an independent.
Of course, it coincides with us being in the AAC and appreciative for the Commissioner to allow us to fulfill this obligation and this commitment that we made.
So this just didn't happen that's something that happened yesterday or today in the bowl class. It's something that we've been planning on and looking forward to and, again, with fond collections of a wonderful time the last time we were there.
TIM SIMMONS: Coach, congratulations on another successful season. We're coming off a disappointment from yesterday, just like LA Tech. But just thoughts about playing in your second Armed Forces Bowl.
KEN NIUMATALOLO: As Chet mentioned, it's a great honor for our program to be playing in the Armed Forces Bowl. You said this is our second time. It was a great experience the last time we were able to be there, for our players, for our entire program, the staff and coaches and their families. It was a great experience. We enjoyed ourselves. We're looking forward to another great time for the bowl game.
TIM SIMMONS: Coach, I notice on your roster you have 24 players from Texas and the surrounding area, of which half of them make a contribution to your team.
How important is it for the Naval Academy to be playing a bowl game in Texas?
KEN NIUMATALOLO: When we originally got in the AAC, being in the west side, was important for us. And a big part of it was recruiting. Texas is a big state for us. Obviously, the state of Texas is probably the best state for high school football, and high school coaches association is the strongest that there is in the country. It's been a big recruiting pool for us during the years.
We've had a lot of great players who have come out of there. Not only have they been great football players, but they've been good people, great Americans. So it's a place that we constantly go to, and we're excited to be back again in the great state of Texas and especially playing in the Armed Forces Bowl.
TIM SIMMONS: Coach, if you could comment on the starters from Texas on your roster. I guess Norton, Thomas, Morris, and West, if you could make a comment about those kids. I noticed they were on your depth chart as starters.
KEN NIUMATALOLO: Well, you know Justin is a kid who played a lot of special teams for us early on. So they really made a season but had a tremendous impact as a late starter. He played really well his first start, played really strong against SMU, being able to come back in Dallas and play well at home.
Micah Thomas is our leading tackler. Tremendous football players. One of the leaders on our football team, one of our best players.
Maurice Morris is our starting center, has tremendous season for us for a team that's pretty high up in rushing the football and going offense all season, and he has been a big part of that.
And Adam West is a kid that, you know, all‑conference selection, senior, had a tremendous season to this point and hopefully will be able to finish strong, not just in the bowl game but also there following.
Q. Hey, Kenny. Obviously, you have Army coming up. But just the last game of the season in this bowl game, for your senior class, what would it mean to send them out the right way, given what they've accomplished, being the winningest class over any four‑year period in Navy?
KEN NIUMATALOLO: It would mean a lot. Obviously, you've got the Army game coming up. To win, to finish off strong, to be able to beat Army, that's our main goal, is finish strong in the bowl game and have a chance to play against a really good LA Tech football team. And Coach Holtz has done a great job there. We want to finish this strong. That's our goal right now, to finish strong, and it would be a tremendous accomplishment for this great group of young men.
Q. Hey, Kenny. You are in a very tough grind here. Eight straight weeks without any time off. After you play Army, what are your thoughts as to what you might do to maybe give the kids a break? I'm sure that will probably coincide with exams. I don't know exactly when exams are. But have you thought a little bit about what you might do in between Army and the bowl game?
KEN NIUMATALOLO: Not in great detail yet. But I know we will give them a break. As you said, we're going to ‑‑ you know, we have coming off devastating loss for our football team against Temple.
Also, losing all the players that we did in that game. To be able to come straight back and play Army is going to be another physical football game. We'll definitely need to rest. As bad as you want to beat LA Tech and represent ourselves well in that game, we'll definitely need some rest. But exactly how many days off and all that kind of stuff, because of exams and all that kind of stuff, I'm not exactly sure.
But I know we're going to get some rest because we're going to eventually need it. We will definitely do that.
Q. Coach, can you talk a little bit about Zach Abey's learning curve at this point and that of some of the others that you've got at running back right now after yesterday?
KEN NIUMATALOLO: Yeah. His learning curve has got to be pretty quick. You know, he's been getting a ton of rest all year. He obviously played against SMU and played well, and I thought he did decent things yesterday against Temple, but as guys have been injured, guys have stepped up. But, unfortunately, we've been having injuries all year, a lot of injuries, a lot of key players.
You know it's unfortunate because it's part of the game, part of the game of football. You know, we don't make excuses. We feel for the kids because the people get hurt, and you feel for these kids. So the next guy had to step up.
TIM SIMMONS: Coach, final question we have: How tough is it for you to play Army and then, as you said, talk about that and then prepare for LA Tech? This probably hasn't happened a lot. So when you're having that extra game before the bowl game, what are you thinking?
KEN NIUMATALOLO: Well, we have to do that pretty much all the time. We've been through a lot of bowl games, I believe 13 out of 14 years we've been there.
But we'll always have to play Army before the bowl game. Army is the biggest game of the year for us. So it's always a tough deal because you've got a big game after the Army game, which is your bowl game. We're very grateful to be in the Armed Forces Bowl. But it's always been that way. You have a huge game before your bowl game. And it is what it is, and we just adjust. You try your best to get ready for your rival and the biggest game of the year. And then you know you've got to amp it up again to get ready for your bowl game.
TIM SIMMONS: Coach, have you ever gone against Skip Holtz in a game?
KEN NIUMATALOLO: I do not believe so.
TIM SIMMONS: Do you know much about LA Tech or anything like that, knowing that you've got all your attention on Army right now, but any thoughts about Louisiana Tech?
KEN NIUMATALOLO: I just know we have great respect for them. I've watched some of their games during the year. But in detail to prepare for how you prepare for an opponent, I don't know much about them that way. You know, obviously we know Coach Holtz. He's been out coaching the game. He's done many great things over the course of his career, and we know that he's going to have a good football team, and it's going to be a tough challenge for us.
Q. One more question if you could. Could you just kind of sum up your thoughts on the whole season that you guys have had, the conversation that you were in? I know it was close and it's disappointing. But you've made just a real impression as a program nationally this year.
KEN NIUMATALOLO: Just really proud of our players, especially the seniors. We've experienced some tremendous roster through injury, losing our starting quarterback at the beginning of the year, and then to lose our defensive captain, Daniel Gonzales, in our other rivalry game against Air Force, those are tough losses. Then yesterday, to lose our starting quarterback, he's had a tremendous season, and then to lose our offensive team captain, Toneo Gulley, yesterday. And he too was playing tremendous football for us. Those injuries, we've had other injuries.
To be able to overcome all of those injuries and still experience the season that we have, you know, I couldn't be more proud of these guys and these young men and just really happy for them. The senior class was able to be the winningest class of all time. That's a tremendous accomplishment because we won football games over the years.
TIM SIMMONS: Coach, thank you very much.