For Ken Niumatalolo, the heartfelt tributes from former players are what meant the most.
Niumatalolo reached a major career milestone Saturday night when Navy defeated Temple — 100 career wins — and he was inundated with text messages, emails and phone calls Saturday night into Sunday.
“It’s been a really cool weekend hearing from a ton of players,” Niumatalolo said Monday. “Hearing from guys from all over the world … it was pretty emotional. I enjoyed that more than anything. You can’t put a price on that bond we share.”
Kevin Slattery, Director of Creative Design for Navy football, compiled a video of congratulatory messages from former Navy football standouts such as Miami Dolphins rookie running back Malcolm Perry and other current or former NFL players.
“We could not have a better leader for Navy football,” Joe Cardona, a 2015 Naval Academy graduate and starting long snapper for the New England Patriots, said in the montage.
“I always remember you said every week it’s hard to win and you found a way to get it done 100 times,” said record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who played for the Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks.
“I want to thank you personally for all your dedication and hard work,” said Ricky Dobbs, starting quarterback for Navy teams that won 19 games in 2009 and 2010.
In the immediate aftermath of the milestone victory, Niumatalolo deflected credit to players, assistants and support staff.
“I’ve never played a down, so I haven’t done anything. It’s all the great players and coaches over the years,” he said. “Football is such a unique game. It takes so many people — so many players, so many staff members. I’m just very proud of our program and very grateful for all the people over the years.”
Niumatalolo has spent a total of 23 years at the Naval Academy, having initially been hired as an assistant by former coach Charlie Weatherbie in 1995. He returned in 2002 with the title of assistant head coach when Paul Johnson replaced Weatherbie.
Niumatalolo was promoted to head coach in 2008 when Johnson, his mentor, left Navy to become head coach at Georgia Tech. Since then, Niumatalolo has led Navy to 11 winning seasons capped by bowl berths and captured six Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy championships.
Achieving such a significant milestone is a by-product of longevity. Niumatalolo is one of only six active coaches to earn all 100 wins at the same school. Johnson, who recommended Niumatalolo for a graduate position at Hawaii and was responsible for bringing him to Navy, expressed pride in his protégé for reaching the century mark.
“That’s a tremendous accomplishment. For one, it means you’ve been able to stay someplace for a long time,” said Johnson, who retired with 189 career wins. “Kenny’s done a remarkable job at Navy. He certainly understands the academy and how it works. He’s kept that program moving forward and that’s impressive.”
During a virtual news conference Monday, Niumatalolo turned his cell phone camera toward an office shelf covered with oversized rings commemorating Navy’s six bowl game victories during his tenure. He called college football coaching “ruthless” and “unforgiving” — saying it will “chew you up and spit you out.”
Niumatalolo celebrated the career milestone for less than 24 hours before turning his attention to East Carolina, which Navy visits Saturday.
“If you sit back, put your feet up and look at your trophies or your bowl rings … that’s when you get into trouble. You have to keep pressing forward,” he said.
“It’s not time to sit back and reflect. I’m still coaching. Maybe when I’m back in Hawaii driving a bus, I can sit back and reflect,” Niumatalolo added. “In this profession, if you start reflecting on stuff, you’ll have a lot of time to reflect because you’ll get fired.”
Paul Johnson’s protégé
Niumatalolo played quarterback at Hawaii while Johnson was offensive coordinator there, receiving a first-hand introduction to the North Carolina native’s patented version of triple-option offense.
It was Johnson who taught the young assistant all the important elements of the unique offense that is based off blocking numbers, angles and misdirection.
When Johnson left Navy to become head coach at Georgia Southern, Weatherbie promoted Niumatalolo to offensive coordinator since he was the only member of the staff that understood the offense.
Niumatalolo got choked up and needed time to compose himself when asked this week what Johnson has meant to his career.
“I definitely wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Paul Johnson. I owe everything to coach Johnson. He changed my life,” Niumatalolo said.
After six years at Navy, Johnson began entertaining other opportunities and athletic director Chet Gladchuk started developing a succession plan. Johnson informed Gladchuk on Dec. 7, 2007 he was leaving Navy for Georgia Tech and one day later Niumatalolo was introduced as the successor.
“Kenny was the most logical person to succeed Paul Johnson,” Gladchuk said. “Having carefully observed Kenny over the years, I felt very comfortable he was up to the task of leading this program.”
Niumatalolo is among many members of the Paul Johnson coaching tree. Jeff Monken at Army West Point and Brian Bohannon at Kennesaw State are other former Johnson assistants that went one to become head coaches. Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper is another leading disciple.
Johnson is not surprised by the success Niumatalolo has enjoyed as his replacement in Annapolis. He pointed out there was a proven template and applauded Niumatalolo for building on that foundation.
“We had established a solid program and a certain way of doing things. Kenny took what was in place and added his own thoughts and ideas,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t like he had to start from scratch. That said, there’s no question the program has evolved under Kenny.”
One of the reasons Gladchuk moved so quickly to replace Johnson was because there was a battle for the assistant coaches. Monken, Bohannon and offensive line coach Todd Spencer went with Johnson to Georgia Tech. Niumatalolo was able to retain several other assistants, most notably Jasper as offensive coordinator and Buddy Green as defensive coordinator.
Jasper followed the same path as Niumatalolo — going from backup quarterback at Hawaii to graduate assistant there to offensive assistant at Navy. The Los Angeles native worked for Johnson at Georgia Southern before coming back to Navy with him.
“Ivin was my first recruit. There was only one other guy I trusted to run the offense and that was Ivin,” Niumatalolo said. “It was hard because I was recruiting against Yoda [Johnson] for the other Jedi Knight [Jasper] .”
Jasper, now in his 21st year at Navy, was thrilled to see his longtime friend and colleague become just the 24th active collegiate coach with 100 career wins.
“I’m truly happy for Kenny from coach to coach and friend to friend. He deserves everything that comes his way,” said Jasper, who praised Niumatalolo for making sure staff members spend time with family and always preaching family first. “When you work for a person that has been so good to you and your family on and off the field, you really appreciate that person.”
Chasing another 100 wins
Niumatalolo is never satisfied with Navy’s success and knows he must incorporate all the latest innovations and developments to keep the program on top. He’s constantly pushing Gladchuk to provide improvements, whether it means hiring a full-time nutritionist or renovating the weight room.
In many ways, Gladchuk and Niumatalolo are business partners; one cannot be successful without the other.
“I feel like I have a great relationship with Chet. I’m able to say anything to him and he does the same,” Niumatalolo said. "Chet has given me everything I needed. All the things I ask for cost money. Chet sometimes grits his teeth a bit, but eventually he gets its done. I’m very grateful for that unwavering support.
“I wouldn’t be where I am if not for Paul Johnson, but I wouldn’t have been successful without Chet Gladchuk."
Danny O’Rourke, in his 19th season on the Navy coaching staff, believes Niumatalolo’s overarching philosophy of love is the key to Niumatalolo’s success as a head coach.
“Players want to play for him, and coaches want to coach for him. That’s because they all know he cares about everyone equally,” O’Rourke said. “Coach Niumat is a phenomenal leader, a great motivator and a man of the highest character. He’s changed the lives of a lot of men who have gone on to become amazing leaders in the Navy and Marine Corps.”
Barbara Niumatalolo works hard to make sure her husband watches his weight, going so far as to bring dishes filled with salad to practice so he will eat healthy while working in the office afterward.
Whenever Navy wins a home game, Ken and Barbara Niumatalolo allow themselves to indulge with a big meal. In normal times, they would stop at Safeway on the way home to pick up food supplies.
However, that was not possible this past Saturday since the couple has been getting groceries delivered during the pandemic. Barbara relented and allowed Ken to get fast food instead, suggesting a Chick-fil-A sandwich. Unfortunately, the Arnold franchise was closed by the time they left Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“I was going to celebrate by eating bad that night, so we went to McDonald’s,” Niumatalolo said with a chuckle. “I haven’t been to McDonald’s in years. It was kind of nice to get a double quarter-pounder with cheese.”
It was somewhat ironic that was the way he chose to celebrate 100 wins as a head coach. That’s because back in 1998, when Navy was on the way to finishing 3-8, Weatherbie fired Niumatalolo over lunch at McDonald’s on West Street.
For a while, Niumatalolo wondered if he would ever get back into coaching. He remembers attending a recruiting seminar to become a salesman that was held in the ballroom of a local hotel. But legendary coach John Robinson gave Niumatalolo a second chance, hiring him as an assistant at UNLV in 1999.
The rest is history.
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Line: Navy by 3