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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Army, Navy coaches friendly enemies

By Joe Juliano

Inquirer Staff Writer
Rich Ellerson wanted to do everything right when he headed to the north shore of Oahu to visit the home of a high school quarterback he was trying to recruit for the University of Hawaii.

What he eventually learned was that the quarterback, Ken Niumatalolo, liked Hawaii and wanted so badly for Ellerson to offer him a scholarship that his father, a professional chef, prepared a lavish feast of Samoan food for dinner.
"I'm trying to be polite," Ellerson said last week. "I made the mistake that I finished, because as soon as you finish, there's more. At the time, I couldn't maybe appreciate all the culinary delights they were putting in front of me. Ken's sisters made sure that I had plenty."

Niumatalolo recalled: "I don't think that was his favorite food. I know my family brought a ton of it to him. I think my parents realized that they probably couldn't pay for me to go through college, so if we could kind of butter him up, I'd get a scholarship offer."

The dinner, which indeed led to an offer, sparked a friendship that has endured for more than 20 years. But it will be suspended for a few hours today when Ellerson and Niumatalolo, both head coaches, lead their teams from Army (5-6) and Navy (8-4), respectively, into their 110th meeting, at Lincoln Financial Field.

Niumatalolo said he would not have been in his position without Ellerson's help. After he finished playing at Hawaii, he became a graduate assistant there, then was promoted to a full-time assistant after Ellerson left to join Arizona's coaching staff.

When he heard last December that Army had hired Ellerson, Niumatalolo remembered thinking, "I'm happy for him, not so happy for us."

"He's a great family man, a great person, and a great football coach," he said. "Army is a better football team, and it's because of Coach Ellerson. He knows what he wants. He has a vision and he's as smart as they come."

Ellerson, Army's third head coach in the last four seasons, has the Black Knights on the doorstep of their first bowl appearance since 1996. However, to get to a matchup against Temple in the EagleBank Bowl on Dec. 29, Army must break its seven-game losing streak in games against the Midshipmen.

Ellerson has followed Niumatalolo's rise since day one and appreciates what he has done.

"I can't help but be so proud as to what he's accomplished in his professional career and, first and foremost, the man he has grown to be," he said. "That's not my doing; that's his parents and his family. But I'm proud of who he is and the success that he's had."

Ellerson is trying to do something Niumatalolo achieved last year - win an Army-Navy game in his first season as head coach. The Midshipmen rolled to a 34-0 win at the Linc in 2008.

That could be a tall order. During their winning streak in the series, the Midshipmen have outscored the Black Knights by an average score of 39-10. Navy, which is headed to the Texas Bowl, comes in again with an outstanding rushing attack, ranking third nationally at nearly 280 yards per game.

Army, which like Navy uses the triple option, has a fine running game of its own, averaging 212 yards to stand 14th in the country.

Ellerson realizes that Army men and women, both at the Linc and around the world, will be focused on today's game and breaking the long losing streak.

"There will be a lot of people here to watch us play, but we have to make sure we're 100 percent focused on the challenge between the white lines," he said. "We've got to make sure we don't watch them watch us play. The focus has to be on the next play."

As for how he feels about his coaching rival today, Ellerson said it mirrored the relationship among the players for both academies, all of whom will be serving their country side by side someday.

"I think it's entirely appropriate that the coach at Army and the coach at Navy have a deep respect for one another, because the institutions do," he said. "I think every one of our players feels the same way about the man across from them, because we have respect for them."

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