By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun
3:45 PM EDT, August 25, 2012
Ken Niumatalolo's life changed dramatically the day he was named to succeed Paul Johnson as Navy's football coach after the 2007 season.
Niumatalolo went from being a relatively unknown offensive-line coach to a first-time head coach following the man who had revived the program. He and his family went from living in a modest home near the academy into a grander residence that once housed a number of his predecessors.
Something else happened that few outside his own family knew.
Niumatalolo, the first coach of Samoan descent in charge of a major college football program, stopped sleeping soundly.
"I don't think he's ever slept through the night since he became head coach," Barbara Niumatalolo said of her husband of 24 years and the father of their three children.
That doesn't mean Niumatalolo's sleep-deprived nights are unproductive.
"I think he does a lot of really good work at that time. Everything's quiet; there's no distractions," Barbara Niumatalolo said. "He prays a lot about things he's going to do, so oftentimes he gets answers then, too, in the quiet of the night or the early morning."
Even when the family takes its annual summer vacation to visit Niumatalolo's parents in Laie, Hawaii, a town on Oahu's north shore, the 47-year-old coach doesn't completely relax.
Niumatalolo spent most of his adolescence there after his father, Simi — who like his mother, Lamala, was born in American Samoa — retired from the Coast Guard after stops on the coast of Oregon and on New York's Staten Island.
"It's a great place for me to get away from things," Niumatalolo said of Laie. "When my son Va'a played [football] at Broadneck or my daughter Alexcia played [lacrosse] at Maryland, we'd go there and train on the beach. Just go home and be a dad and get away. The grind of this job, it's a demanding job and there's a lot of stress involved. It's a results-driven job, I understand that. I'm compensated very well. Besides that, I'm a competitor, I want to win. I hated last year."
Said his wife: "He'll have something on his mind, I can see him checking his iPad or his phone, you're like the father to a hundred and something young men. You hope they're safe, they're training right, they're making good choices."
Niumatalolo has much to be concerned with as Navy gets ready to open the 2012 season Saturday against Notre Dame in Dublin.
The Midshipmen are coming off their first losing season in a decade. Niumatalolo said he is still bothered by a 5-7 campaign that included five losses by a total of 11 points. There is tougher competition looming once the Midshipmen join the Big East starting in 2015.
One more thing to keep Niumatalolo up nights: the offseason has also been one of the most tumultuous for Navy in a while.
A number of players, including two prominent seniors on last year's team and the two players elected captain by their peers for this season, committed infractions that led to sanctions by the academy. Defensive end Jabaree Tuani, a captain last year and a four-year starter, had his graduation delayed until recently for having an off-campus residence. Kriss Proctor, who started last year at quarterback, resigned from the academy after being caught cheating on a quiz.
Elected senior captains Brye French and Bo Snelson were stripped of their titles by academy officials this summer for unspecified infractions. Projected starting cornerback David Sperry was dismissed from the academy this spring after failing a drug test, linebacker Matt Brewer was suspended from the team for breaking unspecified rules and senior defensive end Joshua Jones opted to concentrate on finishing his academic and academy requirements.
Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said Niumatalolo has good reason to be resilient.
"There's no sense in belaboring the difficult times. There's no sense in trying to second-guess situations. It's a matter of fact here that if someone is out of order, you're going to deal with it and move on," Gladchuk said. "There's no sense in looking for gray. It certainly brings anxiety to all of us, but unlike a lot of civilian schools where it's primarily the coach's problem ... this is much broader involvement than just the team and the coach."
Still, Gladuck said Niumatalolo gets more emotionally involved with his players than nearly any any other he has worked with in 35 years of athletic administration.
"Kenny is just a genuine, sincere, caring family man that understands the dynamics of being not only a hard-nosed football coach and setting the bar, holding people accountable, [but] he has a sensitivity about him that's something special," Gladchuk said. "He reaches out to everybody."
It's not only with the stars of the team, but also with those who don't even get onto the field.
"He's one of the most committed men I've ever met," said Matt Shibata, a senior wide receiver who has yet to play a down. "He's like our father figure. Outside of his own family, we're all he thinks about."
Shibata is one of a handful of Hawaiian-raised players on the Navy roster who have a better understanding about Niumatalolo's trips home. Though he remained in Annapolis this summer, Shibata went back to Oahu the previous three years.
"You go home, spend time with the family and think about things you have to do to get ready for the upcoming season," said Shibata, who was raised on the island's south shore outside Honolulu but has relatives who live in the next town over from where Niumatalolo grew up. "I know Coach says he does the same thing. He tries to find ways to get better and he comes back with new tactics to get us ready for the season."
Shibata said knowing where his coach grew up gives him an appreciation for how far Niumatalolo has come.
"It definitely makes you think that he was not some rich kid growing up with big houses and nice cars. He now lives in a big house and drives a nice car, but where he's from is very rural, a small town where everyone knows each other. It just shows you how hard he's worked to get where he is now," Shibata said. "It's pretty humbling to know that he has that background. He's kept the same work ethic his entire life. It's apparent."
When asked about the town where he grew up, Niumatalolo goes to a computer in a conference room at Ricketts Hall to show pictures he has downloaded. There are shots of the white sandy beach, the lush foliage and sunsets that seem to jump off the screen. As picturesque a setting as his team's practice location is — looking out onto the Chesapeake Bay — it's not the paradise Niumatalolo leaves behind.
"People hear I'm going to Hawaii and ask me, 'What do you guys do, go on a dinner cruise or go hiking?' I don't do anything, I stay in with my parents," Niumatalolo said. "It's a great place for me to reflect and rewind. It's a reminder for me of where I started from. That makes me feel very fortunate to be coaching at the Naval Academy, knowing where I came from."
Niumatalolo isn't thinking about how long he will continue to coach at Navy, where he has more wins in his first four years (32, with 21 defeats) than any of his predecessors. Though the speculation about Niumatalolo's commitment to staying in Annapolis quieted after he signed a long-term extension in 2009, Niumatalolo knows he will be scrutinized even more after his first losing season.
There has been chatter, particularly after Niumatalolo's first couple of seasons at Navy, that he would at some point return to Hawaii and coach his alma mater. Niumatalolo said he once thought about it, too — before he succeeded Johnson. The two met when Johnson was the offensive coordinator at Hawaii, where Niumatalolo was a backup quarterback and later a graduate assistant coach.
"Before I got this job, when I was an assistant, I would have loved that opportunity," said Niumatalolo, who has spent 14 of his 23 years in coaching at Navy. "But I realize having been in this job for nearly five years, I have a great job. I coach great kids, I live in a great town. I couldn't ask for anything else. The administration has been very good to me and my family. I have no complaints."
Barbara Niumatalolo has one.
She wishes her husband could sleep through the night just once.
But for now, and for the foreseeable future, she also knows that is probably not going to happen.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun