In 1989, Ken Niumatalolo's college football career, a frustrating four-year ride at Hawaii, was coming to a close.
It had not been the stuff that fairy tales and highlight reels are often made from. A third-string quarterback for much of his tenure, Niumatalolo was ready to move on. Already married with a newborn daughter, he was dreaming of a career in broadcasting as a sports anchor. He figured he'd spend the rest of his days in his native Hawaii and let football fade into memory.
Paul Johnson, then Hawaii's offensive coordinator, had a different idea. He asked Niumatalolo to come see him in his office.
"It's kind of ironic," says the soft-spoken and serious Niumatalolo, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms. "I respected Coach Johnson, but it wasn't like we had the greatest relationship. I was the backup quarterback, and I felt like I should have been playing more. On several different occasions, I'd gone into his office and spoke to him about it."
But on this occasion, Johnson wanted to talk about something else: Would Niumatalolo be interested in a coaching career? Would he be willing to take a spot on Hawaii's staff as a graduate assistant?
"I had honestly never given any thought until then," Niumatalolo says. He pauses, a tiny half-smile forming on his lips, as the memory bubbles up. He's sitting in his office, the one reserved for Navy's assistant head coach, overlooking the choppy waters of the Annapolis Harbor. His life would be vastly different, he knows, if not for that moment.
Some coaches spend years dreaming they'll be the next Lombardi, Shula or Landry, and are fueled, each day, by that ambition. Others stumble into the profession almost by accident and fall in love forever. Niumatalolo was one of the latter. But his story isn't unique. Every football program in the country has moments like the one between Johnson and Niumatalolo. That moment when the Assistant Coach, the worker bee of college football, is born.
Some, like Niumatalolo, will rise through the ranks, often bouncing around the country, gaining knowledge and experience. Others will languish. But nearly every one dreams of running his own football program, Niumatalolo included. After years of hard work, he's in position to be a serious candidate for Navy's head coaching job should Johnson, the Midshipmen's current coach, entertain offers from other schools, as he is expected to do.
"I think every coach has those aspirations," says Niumatalolo, who has worked under Johnson off and on for 11 years. "But I'm not one of those guys who loses sleep over it. You see a lot of guys who are always so focused on looking for that next job, and they end up not enjoying the job they have, or they don't work hard enough at it."
Until the day comes, though, Niumatalolo will remain virtually anonymous, like thousands of other assistant coaches at every level of football, working behind the scenes for little glory while enduring grunt work. The assistant coach is often as faceless as he is indispensable. And the journey to head coach can be long, nomadic and humbling.
"I was essentially a go-fer the first two years," Niumatalolo says of his days at Hawaii. "Sometimes, that involved picking up the head coach's dry cleaning or another assistant's kid from school. One time, it was my job to haul an exercise bike into the head coach's hotel room. It's a lot of busy work and not a lot of coaching. But you know you're paying your dues, and everyone pays their dues."
It meant that Niumatalolo's wife, Barbara, had to be the breadwinner of the family. Because graduate assistants are unpaid, she was the only one bringing home a paycheck.
"We were poor," Barbara Niumatalolo says, laughing as she recalls their days in Hawaii. "Really poor. We were eating at Pizza Hut the other day with our kids, and I told them, 'You know, there was a time when this was a real treat for us. A pan pizza was a luxury.' Paul would take Kenny to lunch every day. That was how he ate. We joke about it now, and I always tell [Johnson], 'Hey, you kept us alive.'"
In addition to snagging whatever crumbs of coaching wisdom he could catch, Niumatalolo had to learn to navigate the hierarchy of the coaching fraternities.
"You learn to keep quiet and know your place," he says.
In time, though, respect would come. Niumatalolo embraced hard work, and when a position opened up coaching the offensive line, he got it. In 1995, Johnson, who had left Hawaii to become the offensive coordinator at Navy, called Niumatalolo with another question: Would he be interested in moving to Annapolis for a position on Charlie Weatherbie's staff?
"He was just a really smart guy who could grab concepts quickly," Johnson says of Niumatalolo. "He related to kids really well, and I thought he'd be a good coach. I think he'll be great" as a head coach. "
Convincing Barbara, who grew up on Guam and lived on an island her entire life, wasn't as difficult as one might imagine.
"I remember he called me after the interview and said, 'Well, it's green and it has water,'" says Barbara, who met her husband at a dance in college. The couple have three children. "I said, 'OK, I can do it.' ... A football coach's wife needs to be like a good military wife, I think. You need to be independent and strong enough, and you can't be a high-maintenance woman. But it's been a great life. Whoever thought a girl from Guam would love living in Annapolis?"
There would be another move, this time across the country to Las Vegas for three years to work for legendary coach John Robinson at Nevada-Las Vegas. But Navy would come calling again. When Johnson was hired to replace Weatherbie, fired in the middle of an 0-10 season in 2001, Niumatalolo was one of the first people he hired.
"I've learned a little of everything from Paul," Niumatalolo says. "He's as smart as they get. And I've learned that you don't have to stay until midnight to get all your work done if you're organized and prepared. I'm grateful for all he's done."
You can see Johnson's influence in the way Niumatalolo deals with his offensive linemen, who have developed this season into one of the most effective offensive weapons in the country. He can be sharp-tongued and intense, but there is a purpose behind it.
"He is a fierce competitor who demands perfection from us," says Antron Harper, Navy's senior center. "But he's also the kind of coach who has us over to Thanksgiving at his house every year. He's comfortable kicking back and relaxing when the situation calls for it."
Above all, though, he is someone who loves teaching and the thrill of watching players he has coached take the field each week.
"Regardless of what you do Sunday through Friday, Saturdays are intoxicating," Niumatalolo says.
But would he make a good head coach?
"I know I'd love to play for him," Harper says.
Staying would be ideal because Niumatalolo's daughter, Alexcia, will play lacrosse for the University of Maryland next year.
If that doesn't happen, if the Niumatalolos decide to pick up and follow Johnson, they know that's simply part of the life they've chosen. The life of the Assistant Coach.
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