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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Niumatalolo's homecoming

At Aloha Stadium, Navy football coach has done it all

Every stage of Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo's football life can be chronicled in snapshots from Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.

As an elementary school student, he sold programs there. As a high school quarterback, he won a state championship there. As a college quarterback, he played for the University of Hawaii there. As a graduate assistant he coached his first game there. As a full-bird assistant at UNLV, he coached against his alma mater for the first time there.

Saturday night, when Niumatalolo returns to Aloha Stadium, 20 miles from his childhood home on the North Shore of Oahu, it will be as a successful head coach, the first Polynesian in charge of a Division I-A football program, and the first Samoan to head up a program at any level.

Anyone who has seen the face of Niumatalolo after a big win knows how emotional the Mids coach will be Saturday night with his parents, friends and thousands of home-state admirers in the stands as Navy (8-3) takes on Hawaii (5-6).

"Ultimately, it's not about me. It's about our team and our program," said Niumatalolo. "But I am excited to go back. This will be a fun game."

With a 16-9 career record, Niumatalolo, 44, is a rising star. But in a profession that breeds self-importance, Niumatalolo shies from attention. Getting him to talk about his feelings on his homecoming might be more difficult than stopping his triple-option offense, which ranks No. 3 in the nation in rushing (282.2 yards per game).

"We're getting ready for a football game," said Niumatalolo. "Hawaii right now is playing for a bowl berth. They're going to be highly motivated."

The significance of Niumatalolo's homecoming is not lost on his players.

"We definitely want to represent him well. He's a man of great character and he's done a lot for the school, for this program," said senior linebacker Ross Pospisil. "It's true for anyone, when you go back to your home turf, there's some extra motivation."

Navy will leave for Honolulu on Wednesday and will not depart the islands until Sunday night, allowing for some beach time. But aside from a tour of the Arizona Memorial, this will be a business trip, according to Niumatalolo.

"We gotta make sure from a schedule standpoint, we're not taking this as a bowl game," said Niumatalolo. "We don't have much time -- just making sure we have a normal week as we would any Saturday."

Niumatalolo was a basketball and football star at Admiral Arthur Radford High, which has many students from military families. Just to the west are Hickam Air Force Base and Pearl Harbor. A mile north is Aloha Stadium.

In his junior year, Niumatalolo quarterbacked Radford to a 14-2 victory over St. Louis in the Oahu Prep Bowl Championship. Seven years later (including a two-year religious mission as a Mormon), Niumatalolo played in the first bowl game in University of Hawaii history.

"I got hit by Percy Snow (Michigan State) on an interception, so it's something I try not to think about," said Niumatalolo. "I went in toward the end, threw a pick and got KO'd. I didn't play very long, but I had a headache for a long time."

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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