From this time last year to Sunday, the Middle Tennessee State football team rode a roller coaster of emotion.
After posting an 8-4 record last season in the Sun Belt Conference, coach Rick Stockstill and athletic director Chris Massaro had to tell their football program that it received no bowl bids.
“I said it last year — I’ve said it many times — that that was the hardest thing that I’ve had to do in 30 years of coaching, was to stand in front of that team and tell them that ‘You were 8-4, played for the conference championship, you were in second place, won four out of your last five games, and you’re not going to a bowl game,’” Stockstill said. “‘They’re taking somebody else that had a worse record than you, and you beat them on their home field.’ It was very heartbreaking to me. It was very emotional to me and that team.”
After a move into Conference USA over the off-season and another 8-4 season, both Massaro and Stockstill had a different message on Sunday.
They let the team know it will be traveling to Fort Worth for the Dec. 30 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium to face Navy.
Executive director of the Armed Forces Bowl Brant Ringler even called in the middle of a team meeting to formally offer a bid over speaker phone so all could take part in the event.
“I told them to think back to their emotions that they had at this time last year, to understand and appreciate how special going to this bowl is going to be,” Stockstill said.
The Armed Forces Bowl, which emphasizes application toward the branches of the U.S. military, is also a fitting destination for Middle Tennessee State, which made national headlines before the season began, thanks to freshman and former Marine Steven Rhodes.
Rhodes, who served five years in the Marine Corps, initially was denied half of his eligibility because he played on a military service intramural football team. After appeals, he eventually was granted full four years of eligibility and was ruled eligible to play this season.
As a true freshman defensive end, Rhodes played in all 12 of Middle Tennessee State’s games, recording 10 total tackles.
“I know he’ll be excited to play in this game,” Stockstill said. “This will have a little bit of extra special meaning for him, I’m sure.”
For Navy, a Fort Worth postseason destination has been in the cards since before the season began, completing the trifecta of military schools to play in the Armed Forces Bowl. The only challenge was reaching bowl eligibility, which coach Ken Niumatalolo and his team achieved by going 7-4.
Navy can expect a good following in Fort Worth. The Midshipmen have sold out their bowl allotment for their last 10 bowl games.
But before Navy can begin game-planning for Middle Tennessee State, it must prepare for the most important game of the regular season: Saturday’s Army-Navy matchup for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
“All of our focus and preparation is on the Army week,” Niumatalolo said. “This is a big game for us, the biggest game for us in the season. That’s where all of our focus is. Once that is over, we’ll start our preparation for Middle Tennessee.”