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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Niumatalolo's wait is over as he takes charge of Navy

From Sunday's Honolulu Advertiser.

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

When acquaintances from La'ie spied him lugging bag after bag to the University of Hawai'i football team's bus following a loss at Brigham Young in 1991, they hooted and razzed Ken Niumatalolo.

So much for getting your foot in the door of the coaching profession, they snickered.

Nothing that probably hadn't crossed his own mind when, as a 26-year-old graduate assistant with a family, Niumatalolo found himself delivering boxes of chicken to the video crew, dropping off the assistant coaches' children at school in the morning or hauling the head coach's exercise bike to the team hotel.

But the payoff on those — and a multitude of other — dues paid in sweat and long hours came yesterday when the 42-year-old Niumatalolo was named the head coach at the U.S. Naval Academy.

On a day when a current Warrior quarterback, Colt Brennan, was making a breakthrough appearance at the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York, a former UH backup (1987-89) was reaching another chicken-skin milestone in Annapolis, Md. The Radford High graduate is believed to be the first major college coach of Samoan ancestry and only the second UH graduate and former player (after Larry Price) to be a head coach at the Football Bowl Subdivision (NCAA Division I-A) level.

"That's fantastic, a wonderful story," said Bob Wagner, who gave Niumatalolo that first job after graduation.

Indeed, it is an inspiring tale of perseverance and diesel-driven tenacity and, you would hope, a road map for a generation of coaches to follow. "I'm humbled and proud to represent my heritage," Niumatalolo said. "There are a lot of guys who I have known who are working hard, too, and hopefully this will open doors for them. To be among the first to do it is a daunting task but I'm grateful for the opportunity I have."

For all the times he would go into the coaches' offices at UH, beseeching them to let him run the offense, here Niumatalolo is being handed the reins of America's Team. Or, one of them, anyway. It was during one of those visits to then-offensive coordinator Paul Johnson's office in 1989 that the suggestion of a future in coaching first came up and grabbed Niumatalolo's imagination.

Still, who knew that he would follow Johnson to Navy in 1995 and succeed his mentor at the hands of the nation's top rushing offense (351 yards per game) yesterday? Not Niumatalolo who, because he had an understanding wife and daughter, said he planned to give the graduate coaching stint two years and move on if nothing opened up. "It (being a graduate assistant) was hard work but I embraced it, determined to do the best I could," Niumatalolo recalled. "And my wife (Barbara) agreed to give me the chance."

It was not unlike his all-out approach to being a quarterback, whether it was helping Radford to the O'ahu Prep Bowl or being the backup quarterback behind Garrett Gabriel and Warren Jones at UH. Twice in UH's inaugural bowl season of 1989 Niumatalolo came off the bench to help propel the team. He engineered a last-minute touchdown drive to beat San Diego State, 31-24, and took UH to 12 points to carry Hawai'i past Texas-El Paso, 26-7.

If his playing time was limited, Niumatalolo's quick, resourceful mind and relentless approach to work made him a fast study as a coach. His honesty and humility winning him points with players and recruits. His competitiveness and painstaking attention to detail providing an edge. Borrowing from the late John Velasco at Radford, Wagner, Johnson and John Robinson, whom he worked under briefly at Nevada-Las Vegas, Niumatalolo climbed the ladder, becoming an offensive coordinator and assistant head coach in a decade-long stay at Navy.

They might not all know how to pronounce his name but even those who called him "Coach 'Mat" understood he knew his business. So, when Johnson left for Georgia Tech last week, Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk didn't have to look far or think long and hard about a replacement. When speculation about Johnson leaving heated up, Gladchuk tapped Niumatalolo on the shoulder and said they needed to talk.

The time has long since passed when Niumatalolo's job has involved carrying bags and delivering chicken. Now, he's entrusted with carrying a whole football program and delivering Commander and Chief's trophies and bowl games.

In La'ie, especially, that is now cause for rejoicing.

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