Ken Niumatalolo

Ken Niumatalolo after Hawaii played in the 1988 Aloha Bowl. (Handout photo courtesy of the Niumatalolo family)

If Navy's game last week at Notre Dame was about the history of one of college football's longest series, Saturday's home game against Hawaii is about the heart. Specifically, it is about Ken Niumatalolo's heart.

Hawaii is more than just another opponent for the Navy football coach. It is where he went to college to play football after being a star quarterback on Honolulu's North Shore, where he met his future wife, and where he started his family and his coaching career. Some of those memories are bound to return Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

"It's going to be weird seeing them across on the other side of the field," Niumatalolo said this week.

As was the case in 2009, when the Midshipmen lost to the Rainbow Warriors, 24-17, at Aloha Stadium, sentiment quickly will be replaced by stark reality for Navy (4-4) and Hawaii (0-8).


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"We're trying to win a game, just like they are," Niumatalolo said.

With Navy coming off a down-to-the-wire 38-34 defeat in South Bend, Ind., quarterback Keenan Reynolds said it's hard to tell that either Niumatalolo or offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, who also played and coached at Hawaii, has any sort of emotional attachment to Hawaii.

"Every week is an intense week as far as preparation is concerned," the sophomore said. "They both coach us hard, and I really don't see a difference. They both let us just know we've got to go play and give these guys the respect they deserve and get ready."

Niumatalolo concedes that it is different this week because of his friendship with many of the Hawaii coaches, including head coach Norm Chow, and his familiarity with many of the Rainbow Warriors. Hawaii's winless season doesn't change Niumatalolo's opinion.

"Their coaches are as good as any coaches in the country. They've had opportunities [to win] in a lot of games, a play here or there — it's just a matter of breaking through," he said. "I know a lot of their players — I played with their fathers. They're tough, hard-nosed kids. We better be ready to go."

Recruited to play in a pro-style Hawaii offense, Niumatalolo spent much of his college career as a backup after Georgia Southern's Paul Johnson was hired as offensive coordinator in his junior year to run something called the triple-option.

Bob Wagner, who was the defensive coordinator when Niumatalolo arrived and finished his first season as head coach a few months before Niumatalolo graduated in 1989, said recently of the Navy coach: "If he ever complained or had a problem, I never heard about it. He was just a team guy, a solid person."

Wagner, who moved to Annapolis a couple of years ago with his wife to live closer to their daughter, a Washington resident, said Johnson's arrival at Hawaii was not good for Niumatalolo's playing career. But it has ultimately been beneficial to his coaching career.

"Being exposed to a very good offensive system, especially as a quarterback, nobody understands that offense better than a quarterback," Wagner said.

Said Niumatalolo: "In 1986, we had some pretty good players on offense, but we weren't really an explosive offense. When [Johnson] came in, we averaged 30-something points a game. It made me realize that there's something special about this offense."

When graduation loomed the following year, Niumatalolo recalled being uncertain about how he was going to support his wife, Barbara, and their baby daughter, Alexcia. Niumatalolo thought about becoming a sportscaster.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do," said Niumatalolo, who on Saturday can tie Johnson with his 45th victory at Navy, third on the school's all-time list behind George Welsh (55) and Eddie Erdelatz (50). "I was a backup quarterback wondering what I was going to do when I got done playing."

At Johnson's urging, Niumatalolo was hired as a graduate assistant and later as a full-time assistant by Wagner. Niumatalolo encouraged another Hawaii quarterback, Navy's Jasper, to follow him into the coaching ranks.

Niumatalolo wasn't sure how things were going to work out.

"My wife gave me a two-year limit," Niumatalolo said with a smile. "She said, 'OK, you can try this dream for two years, and if it doesn't work, you have to get a real job.' I was very fortunate after that."

Niumatalolo is respected back in Hawaii for what he has done since coming to what is called "the mainland." Bobby Curran, a radio host for Honolulu's ESPN affiliate and play-by-play voice on the team's broadcasts, said this week that he had Niumatalolo on his show Wednesday when the subject of what the 48-year-old coach has accomplished came up.