Shortly after Navy finished the regular season with what has become its annual victory over Army on Dec. 1 at M&T; Bank Stadium, athletic director Chet Gladchuk tapped assistant head coach Ken Niumatalolo on the shoulder.
"I said, 'If anything comes about, I want to talk to you; let's get together,'" Gladchuk said yesterday. "At that point, I wasn't sure if something was going to happen. But it did."
Shortly after Paul Johnson announced Friday that he was leaving Navy to become the coach at Georgia Tech, Gladchuk called Niumatalolo back from a recruiting trip and, in a literal sense, tapped him on the shoulder again.
This time, it was to offer Niumatalolo, 42, the opportunity to be Navy's next coach.
Gladchuk said Niumatalolo signed a five-year contract, terms of which were not announced at a news conference yesterday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
"I couldn't be more elated, more excited, more enthused, more energized as I am right now with Kenny coming aboard as our head football coach," said Gladchuk, who joked that it has taken him six years to pronounce his new coach's name (knee-ah-mata-lolo). "We want to win. We expect to win. Nothing's going to change."
Said Niumatalolo, who attended the news conference with his wife, Barbara, and their three children: "My ultimate goal is to keep Navy football where it's at, to continue to be successful, but always my top priority is to be a great husband and a great father, which overcomes any of them."
Niumatalolo understands that he ultimately will be judged in relation to what Johnson accomplished in six seasons at Navy.
Johnson, who went 2-10 in his first season at Navy, went 43-19 over the past five seasons and was 11-1 against Army and Air Force - including a sweep of their service academy rivals each of the past five seasons. Navy is headed to a bowl game for the fifth straight year.
"It's going to be hard. Those are big shoes to fill," Niumatalolo said. "I'm not Paul. I can only be who I am. I am going to do the best I can. I am going to surround myself with the best assistants, guys who I trust and who will go to work. I can't worry about what happened in the past and what other people did."
Niumatalolo, who has yet to announce changes on the coaching staff, will get his first test as a head coach when the Midshipmen play Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 20. He will meet with his players tomorrow for practice.
"This isn't about me as a coach or us as a system. It's always been about them," Niumatalolo said. "We're going to do all we can to give them the best opportunity to succeed."
Gladchuk said Niumatalolo's role as offensive coordinator running the triple option was beneficial to him getting the job, and he made it clear that Navy will continue to use the offense Johnson brought with him from Georgia Southern and one that contributed to the Midshipmen leading the nation in rushing four of the past five seasons.
"We have won with the triple option, [and] we have lost with the triple option, but at Navy it's going to be the triple option, that's all there is to it," Gladchuk said. "That was something I really felt very strongly about in giving us an edge and giving us that dimension of consistency of how we've been able to run the program."
The players who attended yesterday's news conference seemed happy that the decision on Johnson's successor was reached quickly, and those on the offensive side were ecstatic that the system won't change.
"That's the best thing about this situation. Even though we lost Coach Johnson, who we loved and respect a lot, we got another coach that can step [in] and do just as well," junior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada said.
Kaheaku-Enhada was proud that a Hawaiian was named to the job. In fact, Niumatalolo becomes the first head coach of Polynesian heritage in NCAA football history.
"It's awesome," said Kaheaku-Enhada, a native of Kapolei, Hawaii. "I've always wanted to play for somebody who knows my background and how I grew up."
Having worked at Navy for 10 seasons under Johnson and former coach Charlie Weatherbie, Niumatalolo has a perspective that other coaching candidates likely would not possess.
"More important than being a great football player, this place is about leadership," Niumatalolo said. "There are things that are way more important than winning football games. I will try to keep that in perspective as we continue to dominate the other academies. We look forward to keeping this machine rolling."
Playing career: Reserve quarterback, University of Hawaii (1986-89)
Coaching career: Graduate assistant at Hawaii (1990-92); assistant coach at Hawaii (1992-94); assistant coach at Navy (1995-96); offensive coordinator at Navy (1997-98); assistant coach at UNLV (1999-2001); assistant head coach at Navy (2002-2007).
Family: Wife, Barbara; children Alexcia (17), Va'a (14) and Ali'i (8).