After tough loss, Niumatalolo shows tough side

He has gone from being a virtual unknown outside the walls of the Naval Academy to a respected, if still hard to pronounce name, in the coaching community. He has won more games in his first four years than any coach in the program's history.

But don't tell that to Ken Niumatalolo, especially this week.

He has a lot more important matters to figure out.

Like keeping his team from unraveling after last week's 35-34 overtime loss to Air Force that cost the Midshipmen a shot at getting back the coveted Commander in Chief's Trophy after losing it last season for the first time since 2002.

Like helping the Midshipmen avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2002 — the year the team finished a dismal 2-10 under then first-year coach Paul Johnson — when Navy (2-2) plays Southern Mississippi (4-1) on Saturday in Annapolis.

Niumatalolo, in his fourth season since taking over when Johnson left for Georgia Tech, has endured what was one of his more challenging weeks as a head coach.

"The thing that has been challenging to me is that I don't like the way we played," Niumatalolo said in his office Thursday afternoon. "Not how we tackled or blocked, but too much [talking], which has never been us, things after the game, the way we handled ourselves, the things that happened at practice. I don't want that to be us. That's a thing I had to put an end to this week."

What started last Saturday with the loss to the Falcons escalated Tuesday when Niumatalolo held an emotional 20-minute meeting with his players after practice. Things reached another boiling point Wednesday when he announced that senior co-captain Alexander Teich would likely not play in the team's next game. Niumatalolo had kicked Teich out of practice the previous day after the team's leading rusher had continued to behave in a way that Niumatalolo said "was detrimental to us getting ready for this week."

Along with Teich, the player who most disappointed Niumatalolo was senior quarterback Kriss Proctor, whose unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty after scoring the go-ahead touchdown in overtime contributed to Jon Teague's 35-yard extra-point attempt being blocked.

"It's not like we have bad kids, but we still have to remember who were are," Niumatalolo said. "The thing I've always told myself is to never forget who I am. I want to win, I hate to lose, but I want to win in the right way. Right is right and wrong is wrong. It doesn't matter who you are, there's no player or no coach who's bigger than this program. I never want to tarnish that image. If I ever get to a point where winning supersedes doing what's right, I need to get out. Then I know the game has engulfed me and changed my values."

The way Niumatalolo (pronounced nee-uh-mah-tuh-LOH-loh) reacted did not come as a surprise to those who know college football's first Samoan coach.

Proctor, in his first season as a full-time starter, said he thought Niumatalolo's tirade during practice Tuesday and subsequent team meeting were well-timed.

"I think he was trying to get this team focused, and I think he did," Proctor said Wednesday. "Whenever he gets wound up like that, it's for a good reason. He's a laid-back coach, but he has a fiery side, too, and as a player you respect that. When he gets on us players, you know he means business. You don't want that to happen but it did [Tuesday] and it was for the betterment of the team."

Said defensive coodinator Buddy Green, who has worked for both Niumatalolo and Johnson over his 10 years at Navy: "Kenny is as good as any coach I've been around having his thumb on the pulse and the heartbeat of his team, whether it's special teams, offense, defense, the training staff, the managers, anything that has to do with this program. Everybody going in the same direction is the bottom line. That's what he believes."

Green, who along with the other assistants were not in the room for the meeting at Ricketts Hall on Tuesday, said Niumatalolo's emotions are genuine.

"Our program and these guys that come to this program understand how hard he fights for them," Green said. "He has one rule — do the right thing. At the same time they understand how much he cares about everything they do. Not just on the field, but off the field, in their personal life, in the classroom and the numbers speak for themselves as to how well they do in the classroom. They understand that he has his heart, his entire body and his family, that's the energy he brings to this team. When he becomes emotional, they know how much he cares about each one of them."

As calm as Niumatalolo seemed in the aftermath of Saturday's loss, expressing his anger in a soft but direct tone, Niumatalolo was anything but when he emerged early Tuesday evening after the meeting with his players. It appeared as if he had shed tears, something his players have seen before.

"This is the Naval Academy, it's more than wins and losses to me," said Niumatalolo, who is 29-16. "To me, our program is about doing it right. It's way more than between the white lines. Yeah, we're trying to win games. The bottom line is that we're trying to produce leaders for our country."

Asked about his tirade at practice Tuesday, Niumatalolo half-joked, "I tend to go off the deep end sometimes."

Niumatalolo talked about the coming stretch of games — after Saturday, the Midshipmen are at Rutgers next week and at Notre Dame in three weeks — as one of the toughest he has encountered. What has to be comforting to Niumatalolo is that he has been there — last year. After Navy dropped to 2-2 after losing to Air Force, 14-6, in Colorado Springs, Colo., the team faced a similar three-game stretch that began with a game at Wake Forest, continued with a home game against Southern Methodist and concluded with a game against Notre Dame in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Midshipmen won close games over the Demon Deacons and Mustangs, then blew out the Fighting Irish en route to a 9-4 season — the third straight for Niumatalolo with at least eight victories.

"We took the same approach last year that we're taking this year — a must-win game for us," Niumatalolo said. "We have to find a way to beat these guys. A lot of guys don't like to say that, because what if you lose? But it's a reality, we have to find a way to get this game."


Today's game


Time: 3:30 p.m.

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Series: First meeting


Navy offense vs. Southern Mississippi defense: Ranked fourth in the country in rushing (352.2 yards a game), the Midshipmen will go into the game without their leading rusher, senior fullback Alexander Teich. It's likely that Navy will rely more on quarterback Kriss Proctor and slotbacks Gee Gee Greene and John Howell than on new starting fullback Delvin Diggs. Proctor and Teich combined to carry the ball 72 times for 269 yards against Air Force, but Howell carried just once and Greene caught a 5-yard touchdown pass but otherwise was more of a decoy and blocker. The Golden Eagles are 11th in the country against the rush (81.6) and 21st in total defense (302.2).

Navy defense vs. Southern Mississippi offense: The Midshipmen came out flat last week against Air Force, allowing the Falcons to score the first three times they had the ball. Navy has to get more pressure on Southern Mississippi quarterback Austin Davis than they did last week against Tim Jefferson, but the Mids have been sporadic with the pass rush all season, with only four sacks. Davis, whose passing prowess in Hattiesburg has surpassed that of even Brett Favre, had three touchdown passes in his team's most recent game, a 30-24 win at Virginia on Sept. 24. Navy is healthier than it had been on defense, but the Midshipmen ranked 106th in rushing yards allowed (205.2).

Don Markus