Friday, September 4, 2009

Rude Awakening Helped Mold Coach

Ken Niumatalolo grew up 2 miles from Pearl Harbor with a father who served in the Coast Guard.

He is now the football coach at the Naval Academy. A perfect fit, it seems. Last year, Niumatalolo became the first Navy coach to take the Midshipmen to a bowl game in his debut season.

And his background does give him a deep pride in his school's mission.

"When you see the (USS) Arizona Memorial from where you grew up, it does bring a lot of appreciation for the service academies and the military," Niumatalolo said as he prepared for the season opener Saturday against Ohio State in Ohio Stadium.

It can be tempting to view Niumatalolo's career arc as almost predestined. But that is far from the truth. Niumatalolo, 44, did not grow up dreaming of becoming a coach, not surprising given the dearth of Polynesian coaches. He is the first head coach of Samoan ancestry at any level of college football.

Even when he was a backup quarterback at Hawaii, he figured any career he'd have in sports would be in broadcasting, not coaching. But Newark, Ohio, native Bob Wagner, then Hawaii's coach, offered Niumatalolo a job as a graduate assistant.

"He was just a great team guy," Wagner said. "An outstanding person. That was a slam dunk."

Married with a baby daughter, Niumatalolo (pronounced Nee-ooh-mah-tah-LO-lo) thought about turning down the job because of the meager pay, but decided to give coaching a shot.

He moved up the ladder at Hawaii and then went with Paul Johnson to Navy in 1995 to coach under Charlie Weatherbie. Two years later, when Johnson left to become coach at Georgia Southern, Niumatalolo became the Midshipmen's offensive coordinator.

After his second season in that job, Weatherbie asked him to meet for breakfast at a McDonald's near the team's facility in Annapolis, Md. Niumatalolo figured they would discuss offseason plans. Instead, Weatherbie fired him.

"I was a young offensive coordinator," Niumatalolo said. "I probably thought I had all the answers. It was probably more a personality difference. I'm kind of a fiery guy. It humbled me and helped me to appreciate things."

He had gone from hotshot coordinator to unemployed with a wife and now three children to support.

"It was a rude awakening," he said. "When I got fired, I realized I'm not very talented. There aren't many things I can do."

Fortunately, he latched on at UNLV working for John Robinson, the former Southern California and NFL coach. When Johnson was hired as the Midshipmen's coach in 2002, he brought back Niumatalolo as his offensive line coach and eventually coordinator to help run the triple-option offense.

When Johnson left to coach Georgia Tech at the end of the 2007 season, Navy quickly anointed Niumatalolo as successor.

He took over a good thing and has kept it rolling. Navy has won 13 straight games against Army and Air Force, the longest streak ever by one service academy over the others.

Niumatalolo is as competitive as any coach, and he realizes everyone in his profession is judged by his record. But he also knows -- and appreciates -- that a coach at a service academy has a greater mission.

"The one thing I think about is that this place is about leadership," he said. "Yeah, we're all competitors. We want to win football games. But I know that eventually these young men will serve our country in a leadership role as an officer.

"They're going to make decisions that will put others in harm's way, along with themselves. Hopefully, some of the things they learn from myself and our coaching staff will help them become better leaders and help them in the future, not just with serving but as husbands and fathers. There is a great sense of responsibility."

He feels a similar sense of responsibility to succeed because of his heritage.

"I know there are many Samoans or Polynesian players who are doing well in college or the NFL," he said. "To be the first football coach is a great honor. Hopefully, if I do well, I can open doors for others.

"(But) I don't want to be remembered as the first Samoan football coach. I want to be remembered as one who is successful."

As impressive as Niumatalolo's first season was, nothing would put Navy football in the nation's consciousness as much as a victory over Ohio State.

Niumatalolo said it will require a Herculean effort just to have a chance. Then again, he's used to improbable stories, mainly his own.

He frequently passes the McDonald's where he was fired. Each time, the memory comes back.

"My son and I ate there the other night and I was kind of joking about that," Niumatalolo said. "I told my son, 'Ten years ago, I got fired here and in a couple weeks we'll be playing at the Horseshoe.' "

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