At this time last year, Ken Niumatalolo was an unproven head coach preparing to direct his first preseason camp. Naval Academy football fans had no idea what to expect out of Niumatalolo, who served 16 years as an assistant at three different schools before getting an opportunity to run his own program.
Niumatalolo's head coaching debut was made more difficult by the fact he had to follow the man who resurrected Navy football. Paul Johnson became somewhat of a folk hero while leading the Midshipmen to 43 wins and five bowl berths from 2003-2007.
Niumatalolo needed just one season to escape the long shadow cast by Johnson, his close friend and mentor. The Hawaii native led Navy to an 8-5 record and sixth straight postseason appearance in 2008, providing tangible evidence he was the right choice to succeed Johnson. The Midshipmen continued their dominance of service academy rivals Air Force and Army en route to capturing the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the sixth consecutive year.
One year later, there is no doubt this is now Niumatalolo's program. The memories of Johnson's tenure, while never to be forgotten by appreciative Navy fans, are fading. As year two of the Niumatalolo era kicks off this week, players and assistants alike say the unassuming head coach appears more comfortable in the role.
"I do see Coach Niumat is settling in more and more each day. I think it's inevitable that the longer you are in a position, the more comfortable you become," Navy senior linebacker and co-captain Ross Pospisil said. "At the same time, I think (Niumatalolo) came into this with a lot of confidence. He knew how he wanted to be as a head coach. I thought he did a great job last year. It was a real smooth transition from Coach Johnson to Coach Niumat."
Niumatalolo posted the most wins by a first-year Navy head coach since Tom Hamilton led the team to an 8-1 mark in 1934. He is the first head coach to lead the Midshipmen to a bowl game in his initial season at the helm. He is just the second head coach to capture the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in his inaugural campaign.
There were numerous other milestones last season. Navy's upset of No. 16 Wake Forest marked the program's first victory over a team ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll since 1985. The Midshipmen established a program record by beating four bowl teams.
"Those are all great accomplishments, but the credit goes to a lot of people other than me. We have 13 assistant coaches who bust their butts every day. We have 80-some players wearing helmets who are ultimately responsible for going out on the field and winning games," Niumatalolo said. "Football is truly a team sport. When you win, it's because of the efforts of many, many people."
It is Niumatalolo's nature to downplay his own contributions to Navy's success. The first Samoan collegiate head coach at any level has no ego and is truly humble. He has already put last year behind and is focused on keeping the Midshipmen moving forward.
"Sports is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type of business. As a head coach at the collegiate level, you have to prove yourself every day," he said. "In this position, if you start patting yourself on the back you are asking for trouble."
Niumatalolo reiterated this week that a key component of continuing Navy's unprecedented run of winning seasons and postseason appearances involved maintaining the status quo. Many of the basic elements of how the program operates remain the same as they were under Johnson, who left a blueprint for success.
"From the beginning I said I wasn't going to change much and I didn't. It was a case of: if it isn't broke, don't try to fix it," Niumatalolo said. "As a head coach, I am not trying to be Paul. I learned an awful lot from Paul, but we are different people and thus different coaches. I am who I am. I can't try to be someone else."
There is no question that Niumatalolo has proven to be a different type of head coach than Johnson, both in terms of personality and style. He brings a different demeanor to the table and handles certain situations differently.
"Kenny has his own way of doing things. He has taken ideas and methods from various coaches he has worked with and created his own identity," Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said.
Jasper played at Hawaii while Niumatalolo was an assistant and has worked with him a total of nine years since becoming a coach. Jasper is proud of how his close friend has handled the responsibilities of being a head coach.
"I think Kenny is doing a great job. He does his homework and brings a lot of wisdom to the position," Jasper said.
Niumatalolo has a fiery disposition and can yell at players just as loud and angrily as Johnson did. He was displeased with how some players performed during running tests on Monday and let the entire team know about it afterward.
"I think one of the most impressive things Kenny does as a head coach is get his points across without being negative or nasty," Jasper said on Media Day. "Earlier today, he chewed the team out real good without using one bad word."
Niumatalolo was promoted to head coach on Dec. 8, 2007, one day after Johnson departed for Georgia Tech. He's had plenty of time to put his own stamp on the Navy program while steadily developing as a head coach.
"I've definitely seen Coach Niumat grow over the last year. He certainly seems more confident there's no doubt he has a firm handle on what he wants to do and how he wants this program to run," Navy starting quarterback Ricky Dobbs said. "I'm sure a lot of fans were shaky when (Niumatalolo) first took over. They just didn't know how things would work out. I don't think that's the case anymore. Coach Niumat has proven that he can get the job done."