Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo inherited a potentially thankless assignment when he was hired to replace Paul Johnson, the architect of a dramatic change in fortune for a football program that had languished for decades before his appointment.
Niumatalolo not only picked up where Johnson left off, but he has taken the program even further, defeating Notre Dame twice in his first three years as coach and winning the Commander in Chief's Trophy in two of those three seasons.
What Niumatalolo does not do is promote himself. He's a soft-spoken man who puts faith and family before football but still has been able to win consistently with a program that operates at a tremendous recruiting disadvantage compared with most other Division I teams. He has already secured his third straight eight-win season and has been named a semifinalist for the first annual Joseph V. Paterno Coach of the Year Award.
The Midshipmen will go for their ninth straight victory in the annual Army-Navy Game on Saturday in Philadelphia, so this seemed like a logical time to sit down with Ken and talk about his life and career.
Question: Let's start with the The Game. I'm guessing when you were the quarterback at Hawaii in the 1980s, you didn't envision yourself prowling the sideline at the Army-Navy game. We know what this game means to the two academies, but tell me what it has come to mean to you on a personal level.
Answer: It's a special game, and I feel honored to be a part of it. My first Army game was in 1995, and I really didn't know much about the rivalry or what it stood for. You grew up and you see it on TV and you see the midshipmen and the cadets, and the game looks very cold as you watch it. I've gained a greater appreciation being a part of this game. It's one of those things where you have to be there to truly appreciate it. I always go back to this one event in my first game in 1995, going on our buses and seeing all the corps of cadets in their gray coats marching on and the midshipmen in their black coats getting ready to march on. It gives you goose bumps. It's almost like a war. It's just a special thing to be a part of.
Q: When you were a high school football star in a state [Hawaii] where the U.S. Navy might be more prominent than anywhere else in the country, did you consider the Naval Academy?
A: No, I maybe thought about the Coast Guard Academy because my dad was in the Coast Guard, but I never thought much about the academies.
Q: Then you play at Hawaii, so until you get here — you see the game on TV — but you don't have a real feel for what the thing is all about. I'm sure you knew what it was, since you grew up in the state that's a Navy stronghold. It might be the state that is most associated with the Navy.
A: In Hawaii, generally, there are so many military bases, not just Navy. Hickam Air Force Base. The Schofield Army base. You've got a lot of military installations on there, but I think, for me, growing up on the islands, I was not really familiar with the East Coast, not really familiar with any of it. So coming here was an eye-opener for me, but it's been a great experience.
Q: Navy has beaten Army eight consecutive times, but the Black Knights are no pushover this year. They've averaged more than 28 points per game, and they need this one to guarantee their first winning season since 1996. They've got a lot to play for.
A: This is by far the best Army team that we've played since we've been back here, since 2002, but it doesn't surprise me how well they're doing. Coach Rich Ellerson, in my mind, is as good a football coach as there is in the country. So I know with him going to West Point, their program would change immediately, so some of the results and success of their program doesn't surprise me.
Q: From the outside looking in, I think a lot of football fans would consider a victory over Notre Dame to be much more important to the prestige of the program than a victory over Army. Explain to a football fan with no military connection to the Naval Academy why it's so important to "Beat Army."
A: That's what this place is about. This is the biggest game of the year. You just walk into our weight room and see on the weights — "Beat Army." As a plebe, the first thing that the midshipmen are taught here is that saying, "Go Navy, Beat Army." Besides creating military officers for the Navy and Marine Corps, here at the Naval Academy, anything that we do from an athletic standpoint or a competition standpoint, we want to beat the Black Knights.
Q: Is that about shaping a certain kind of sportsman, a certain kind of military officer, certain kind of person, because it is a civil rivalry? You will go on together to pursue the same goals.
A: I see it more as two institutions that have very similar goals. They are both part of our country to create officers for our country to lead our military, so even though they are attacking in different venues, so to speak, their goal is to produce officers. From a competition standpoint, this is about beating your brother. I kind of look at it as two brothers in the backyard trying to beat each other up or win a basketball game or whatever the case may be. When it's all said and done, you have respect and love for your brother, but while you're competing, you try to beat his brains in.
Q: There's a lot made of the obstacles you face from a recruiting standpoint. How difficult is it to convince a talented high school player to give up any realistic dream of playing professional football to accept a career as a Naval officer instead?
A: We feel like there are enough good football players across the country that are good students, that have the mindset of the military, of coming to the military and being at a military school. Now, we're not going to find too many first-round draft choices or guys that are going to go to the SEC or play in the Big Ten, but we find enough good football players that are great students that understand the great opportunity that it is to come to the Naval Academy. We feel like you get enough of those guys and you build on the positives that the academy has to offer — the great qualities of integrity, character, work ethic … hard workers … all those intangibles we build on to hopefully build a team that maybe will overcome some deficiencies in talent. Maybe we're not as fast as other people, but we build on those other intangibles to help us overcome some of our weaknesses.
Q: Paul Johnson, several times over the years, rebuked me for asking the question about succeeding with these players, with the [non-football] qualities they have, saying that intellection IQ, academic IQ, football IQ are different things. He would bristle when I would say that when you run this intricate offense that you run, the fact that you have highly intelligent players, highly disciplined guys, guys who would welcome that kind of discipline — both personal and athletic — that all works together. Do you feel that all works together?
A: Well, I might agree with him about the intellectual part. Sometimes there are guys who are book smart, but maybe from a football standpoint, some things don't come as fast to people. But I would say the discipline part is definitely a big part of what we do offensively. Being unselfish, what we do offensively and defensively, you can't worry about who gets the credit or the accolades. You've just got to be responsible and accountable for doing your job. I've always said that football is the ultimate team sport and being able to your job regardless of what it is. Not everybody can be the quarterback, and if you can accept your role, whether you're the long snapper or the scout team player, if you can accept your role and do it to the best of your ability, it makes your team stronger. So I'll definitely buy into the fact that having those types of kids at the academy definitely helps us with the football.
Q: It's unusual to have three weeks to prepare for the Army game. It's almost got to be like a bowl game preparationwise.
A: Well, it's the first time we've ever had this. Normally, we have a two-week break. It's the first time we've had three weeks. Last year, we were getting ready to go to Hawaii, so we spent Thanksgiving in Hawaii. Our young men never have had Thanksgiving at home. We've always been here practicing since we've been here. So this will be different for them, having this three-week break, but I think it will be good for our team and for our young men.
Q: Being the head coach at the Naval Academy seems like a pretty cool thing. Great place to work. Great place to live. But when you took the job, it was not necessarily the perfect situation to be a rookie head coach. Paul Johnson had achieved almost legendary status here for turning the program around. Obviously, you were a big part of that, too, but were you worried that those shoes would be too big to fill?
A: I never really worried about filling any shoes because Coach Johnson and I are different people. He, obviously, was very successful. I was just trying to make sure that I could do the best job that I could do. I felt very comfortable in the fact that a lot of the coaches stayed — Coach [Buddy] Green, the defensive coordinator, Coach [Ivin] Jasper, the offensive coordinator, [defensive line] coach [Dale] Pehrson and some other guys stayed, and so, I think the transition …one good [thing] … I wasn't going to a new school trying to learn the lay of the land. I already knew it. I knew the plusses and minuses. I knew our strengths, our weaknesses. I knew I had big shoes to fill, so to speak, but I couldn't worry about that. Coaching and college sports, it's a bottom-line profession. You either win or else. When I was an assistant coach, that pressure was on. Those were the reasons I didn't really worry about it because I felt like I had a great staff and I'm a person of great spiritual belief, so I just relied on the Lord and didn't worry about the rest.
Q: You brought forward the triple-option offense, but you were part of developing the way Navy plays. That was a team effort on the part of the coaching staff. You were with Paul for a long time. Did that make it easier?
A: No doubt. I knew the lay of the land. It's like now. I'm the head coach and we're doing this interview, but I'm not doing everything. I've got two coordinators and all my other assistants and graduate assistants. Everybody in the program, our strength coaches, our athletic director and administration … it's a group effort in trying to be successful. I feel very fortunate that I have people who are very supportive from an administration standpoint and I have coaches here that know what it takes to win here, and I think that's helped the transition, and hopefully I can keep it going.
Q: Did Paul give you any sage advice on the way out the door?
A: I actually didn't see him. I was out recruiting. He had to get going with his job, and he was taking over. He had his own things to worry about starting a new program, and so he just wished me the best of luck.
Q: What do you think is the toughest part of this job?
A: That's a good question. Just trying to be successful. That's kind of a general deal, but people don't understand just how hard it is to win. Being successful because I'd love for our players to be successful because I know this is it for them, so hopefully their last memories of athletic competition will be positive ones. And also, just the thought that there are a ton of people that their livelihoods depend on us being successful — you know, my assistants and their families and their wives. So, when you've got other people relying on you to be successful and the program to be successful in order to feed your family, that's a lot of pressure.
Q: Obviously, there was a lot of focus on Ricky Dobbs early in the season. Obviously, the Army game isn't your last game. You'll have a bowl game also, but how important do you think it is for him to go out real strong against Army?
A: This is a barometer for everything … for your success as a class, as a team, in beating Army. For us, and for him, he knows that — with all the great accolades that he's accomplished and all the great feats that he's done — being able to beat Army as a starting quarterback for the years he was for two years would be the biggest feather in his cap.
Q: Do you think he got too much hype before the season and it might have affected him a little bit?
A: I don't know if it was too much hype. I think it was well-deserved. The kid had a heck of a year as a junior. But I think it affected him. I don't put it all on Ricky. I put it on myself. I don't know if I filtered it enough and helped him to kind of deal with that. But we were all rookies to that. Some of the recognition that he got in preseason, in my time here, we've never had that, so we're kind of novices to that fact. How much do we allow him to talk to people? Will this affect him? What events will we allow him to do? What won't we allow him to do? I think early on, it did affect him, but I think he's gotten over it and done well.
Q: Is there a moment in your three-plus years as coach that you could identify as the high point of that three-year period?
A: Going to the White House twice. That's always a high point, because that's our goal, to win the Commander in Chief's Trophy and take your team and your program and meet President Bush and, later on, President Obama. That's what you shoot for, so those have been great for our team to accomplish.
Q: Is there a particular disappointing moment over the past three years that kind of tugs at you?
A: Our three losses this year. Our first game, I thought we should have won, against Maryland. I felt like I could have done things better. Losing to Air Force. We hadn't lost to them in seven years. That was a huge loss. The Duke game was a big loss from the standpoint that we just came from a huge win versus Notre Dame and we didn't show up. I did a bad job as far as getting us ready, so those three losses stick out to me.
Q: Switch over to the life of a coach. It has to be quite a juggling act for anyone coaching a major college team, but you have a daughter playing major college lacrosse, a son who is going from high school to college and he's being recruited. You have a middle-school-age son. How do you do all that with an unbelievably consuming job?
A: Fortunately, I have a great wife. She takes care of the majority of stuff at home. I have great assistants here. I try to prioritize my life. Even though I'm a football coach and I love coaching here, it's a great place and I look out that window every day and just feel like I'm very blessed to live here, to coach here. It's a great institution. I love living here in Annapolis, but I try to keep things in perspective. Even though I love this job, I always try to remember that my most important titles are that of being a father and a husband, and I just try to prioritize everything. As bad as I want to win, if, worst-case scenario, something happens that way where we don't win and I lose this job, life goes on. I always got to tell myself I have to keep things in perspective and not lose sight of that because football's big business — college football — and sometimes that pressure makes guys do things I don't think they would normally do.
Q: Coaching a college football team is generally considered a 24-7 occupation. You've turned it into a 24-6 proposition by choosing not to work or practice on Sundays. Is that purely a faith-based decision or is it your personal feeling that the football team will be better off with a day to recharge spiritually, physically and emotionally?
A: Both. It's faith-based, and I also think it helps us, especially here at the academy. These kids don't get any downtime. The NCAA requires you to have a day off, but we're human, too, and sometimes the community of coaches, whether in the professional ranks or college ranks, feel like you've got to be old-school, get there at 5 a.m. and leave there at 1 o'clock in the morning. Which might be the case and there are still a lot of guys who work that way and are very successful and so I'm not knocking that, but, like I said, just trying to prioritize, I'm like, how can you be a father and a husband if you're spending all your day at work? How can you? I just want to have our guys have a little bit more balance in life and take some time off. And, for me, it's faith-based because I need that. I need to be able to go to church with my family. I truly believe it helps me be a better coach. I feel better. It helps me stresswise. It helps me as a person to be able to do that. I know that if I didn't do that, I wouldn't be as successful.
Q: Right now, you've got two children who are involved in the college process. I'm curious what it's like to be the dad when your kids are being recruited by college programs, since that's what you do. Do you push some buttons regular parents can't push or do you assume the same role as the parents that you meet with on recruiting visits?
A: I think the one thing, my daughter went through it in lacrosse, and I was able to help her from that standpoint, because it all sounds good. When people came to talk to her, everybody had the nicest facilities, all the coaches are nice, everybody has the best academic services or whatever. I just tried to help. I didn't put any pressure on here. "Just make sure you go with your heart, and whatever you feel comfortable with, I'm going to support you." I didn't want to get too much into her thought process. We allowed her to take her visits. But when she went to Maryland, she knew that was the school for her. She goes, "I know." I said: "Well, if you know, tell everyone else you know where you're going to go. Give them the common courtesy of "Thank you, but this is where I'm going to go to school." It's the same thing with my son. I've tried to help him know the lay of the land. I've been very upfront with him, but I have been a parent. I've helped him put his highlight tape together. We've sent it out. But I've also told him, so-and-so may recruit you or so-and-so might not recruit you. If you get a letter from somebody, it doesn't necessarily mean they are recruiting you. If you get this, it doesn't necessarily mean you're [being] recruited. Just trying to help him with what certain things mean. Just try to be a counselor and an adviser to try to help him, but I've stayed out of his hair, so to speak, and let him make his own decision as I give him advice.
Q: But you do have one extra layer of network, in that if there's a coach out there who doesn't have a great reputation that you might be more likely to know that than a regular parent.
A: And what I've allowed him to do, he tells me, "These are the schools I'm thinking about," and what you've said is exactly right. As soon as he's told me the schools, I've thought about the head coach and what kind of man he was. Fortunately, the schools he's thought about, I know the coaches and I know they are good people, so I will support him in that decision.
Q: So, is he thinking about Navy, too?
A: Well, he said he doesn't want to play for me, so ... (Laughing)
Q: What are the rules about contact when you live in the same house?
A: I'll leave the recruiting part of that to my wife.
Q: I'll give you a head-scratcher. Do you think being the father of student-athletes gives you a better insight into being a coach or does being a coach give you a better insight or perspective on your role as a father of a student-athlete?
A: I think the first. Just being a father to a student-athlete, it makes you as a coach realize that's still somebody's son. If I lose my temper at times, I've got to catch myself, you know what, that's somebody's son. Just treat them with respect. That's definitely helped me because I know how I want my kids treated.
Q: It's pretty unusual for a head coach to spend his entire career in one place. Before you got the opportunity to coach Navy, was there any other coaching job you thought would be perfect for you, and I guess, in my mind, I would think Hawaii, because that's your home?
A: I thought about Hawaii. I thought that would be a cool job. I thought about BYU. You know, I'm Mormon, so I thought that would be cool, but I love this job. Those were jobs, before I got a head job, that I thought would be pretty cool places to coach, but this is a great place to be, a great place to coach.
Q: Last question: Would it be OK with you if you retired someday having only been the head coach of one major college program?
A: I would have thought I had died and gone to heaven. That would be perfect.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun