Navy coach thankful for second chances
For a brief moment, President Bush hesitated.
On a glorious spring day outside the White House last April, the Navy football team was being honored for winning another Commander-in-Chief trophy.
President Bush came to head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who was promoted after the 2007 season and was a different head coach from Navy’s previous four visits to the Rose Garden.
Bush paused trying to pronounce the new coach’s tongue-tying surname, before reaching a diplomatic solution.
“You can call me George,” he said to hearty laughs, “and I’ll call you Ken.”
Niumatalolo has gone from an assistant coach who could barely afford to eat to being on a first-name basis with the leader of the free world.
But did he take up the President on the informal greeting?
“I definitely didn’t do that,” Niumatalolo said. “I saw all the Secret Service guys.”
The first-year head coach at Navy is one of the chief architects of the triple-option flexbone attack that No. 23 Pitt (4-1) will try to stop when the Panthers visit the Midshipmen (4-2) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in Annapolis, Md.
The Navy rushing attack ranks second in the nation this year at 313.5 yards per game. Navy led the nation in rushing four of the past five years, including an NCAA-record three years in a row.
Thanks to its rushing attack, Navy has won five consecutive Commander-in-Chief trophies, which goes annually to the top service academy football program.
Niumatalolo (pronounced nee-uh-mah-tuh-lo’-loh) has provided a seamless transition since he took over his first head coaching job last December, one day after Paul Johnson departed for Georgia Tech.
“We’re hitting our stride now,” senior fullback Eric Kettani said. “I think it was a great hire.”
Niumatalolo, 43, is also a unique hire. He is the first Polynesian head coach in Division I football — and the first since Larry Price left Hawaii in 1976 — and the first Samoan coach at any level of college football.
Niumatalolo, who attended high school a couple of miles from Pearl Harbor and was a backup quarterback at Hawaii for three years, was an offensive line coach and assistant head coach under Johnson from 2002-07. With Johnson, he has perfected the subtleties of the offense since his days as a graduate assistant at Hawaii in the early 1990s. And his players have embraced him.
“Coach Johnson was an old-school coach,” Kettani said. “He was rough. Coach Numat is tough, too, but he’s a player’s coach.”
For a while, Niumatalolo wasn’t a coach at all. His first stay at Navy, from 1995-98, ended when he was fired by coach Charlie Weatherbie because of a “personality difference.” Now, Niumatalolo is living in the house of the man who canned him.
“It was disappointing because it wasn’t about X’s and O’s,” Niumatalolo said. “I had to learn it’s not always what you do on the field. It was humbling for me, but it made me a better person and a better coach. It was a good learning experience.”
He’s had a lot of lessons. His first job as a graduate assistant in 1991-92 at Hawaii paid him $400 a month. His wife, Barbara, worked as a receptionist at a doctor’s office. With a baby girl and living in high-cost Hawaii, they could barely make ends meet.
“I don’t know how we made it,” he said. “I made a pact with my wife that if I didn’t get a full-time job after two years, I would go out and get a real job.”
When a job opened up after the 1991 season, Niumatalolo was hired as a full-time assistant under Johnson.
He left for Navy with Johnson in 1995, but Johnson left, and he was fired in 1998, going from a hot shot 32-year-old offensive coordinator to the unemployment line.
After three years with Hall of Famer John Robinson at UNLV, he was rehired at Navy, again under Johnson.
“My story is not different from a lot of coaches,” Niumatalolo said. “You pay your dues.”