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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Navy continues success under third-year coach Niumatalolo

BY GARY HYVONEN - For the North County Times North County Times - Californian |

SAN DIEGO ---- The United States Naval Academy is located in Annapolis, Md., nestled along the banks of the Severn River. It's a mere 30 miles from the White House. The trees are bare, the wind is cold, and the ground is white this time of year.
So don't be fooled by the sailboats in picturesque Chesapeake Bay. This is one of the last places in the country you would expect to hear the word "aloha.''
But that's exactly what you get if you reach the recording at the school's football office.
"Aloha, and welcome to Navy football.''
"My secretary did that,'' says head coach Ken Niumatalolo. "She wants to make sure I don't get too homesick.''
Niumatalolo was born and raised in Hawaii. That he has ended up 5,000 miles away as one of the rising stars among college football coaches is a story of inspiration and trailblazing.
Niumatalolo still visits the islands every summer, but the truth is he and his family have adapted nicely to East Coast living. In fact, the youngest of his and wife Barbara's three children was born in Maryland, where he has resided for 12 of the last 15 years while serving in a variety of coaching roles for Navy.
When Paul Johnson, who lifted the Midshipmen program out of the doldrums, left three years ago for Georgia Tech, Navy promptly made Niumatalolo the first Samoan head coach in college football history ---- and only the second Polynesian at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
"It's a great honor,'' Niumatalolo said. "I actually look at it from a standpoint that if I can be successful, I hope I can open doors for other Polynesian coaches. Polynesians have had a lot of success as players and I know there are a lot of them in coaching positions so hopefully more of them will get a chance to be head coaches.''
The 45-year-old Niumatalolo already seems to have his hand on the doorknob for them.
He has guided Navy to a 27-13 record and extended its bowl-appearance streak to eight years, the latest being Thursday's Poinsettia Bowl here against San Diego State.
Niumatalolo actually made his head coaching debut in the inaugural Poinsettia Bowl three years ago. The Mids fell to Utah 35-32 just two weeks after Johnson's departure. Since then, Niumatalolo has established a record for most wins by a coach in his first three years at Navy.
"We haven't missed a beat,'' says Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk. "In fact, we're a better program now than we were three years ago when we promoted Ken. He's perfect for us and we're perfect for him.''
Niumatalolo recently was linked to openings at Minnesota and Vanderbilt. But he says he feels at home in Annapolis, where he is widely recognized.
"That's because there aren't many 275-pound brown guys walking around,'' he says laughing.
Niumatalolo says he is well aware of the strong Samoan presence in San Diego, particularly in North County. It's a recruiting base for the University of Hawaii, where Niumatalolo once served as a quarterback and assistant coach.
He vividly recalls the recruiting war in the early 1990s over prized Oceanside High star Joe Salave'a, who went to Arizona before enjoying a strong NFL career. He knows, of course, about Junior Seau, although he has never met the most accomplished of Samoan football players.
"I would love to meet him,'' Niumatalolo said. "I have been to his restaurant a few times. Good food.''
Seau likely is headed for the Hall of Fame. Niumatalolo seems headed for some high places of his own.
He is hailed for extending Navy's winning streak over Army to nine games.
Chalking up a pair of victories over Notre Dame along the way hasn't hurt. And, under his watch, the Mids have twice claimed the Commander-in-Chief Trophy ---- the prize for success in the annual Navy-Army-Air Force round-robin series.
Niumatalolo personally accepted the trophies at the White House, the first from George W. Bush, the second from Barrack Obama. Pretty heady stuff for a kid from the islands who simply wanted to be a sportscaster growing up.
"It's surreal, you almost have to pinch yourself,'' Niumatalolo said. " I feel very blessed to be in a position where I can influence young men and help develop leaders for our country.''
That Niumatalolo would find comfort at a military institute should not be surprising. For one, the high school he attended, Radford, sits just a few miles from Pearl Harbor.
"When you grow up in Hawaii, you're used to seeing military bases,'' he said.
Then there are the family ties. His father served in the Coast Guard and his brother James is a lieutenant colonel in the Army. And his mother, Lamala, is the real drill sergeant of the clan.
"We didn't have the most expensive home in the islands, but our home was immaculate,'' Niumatalolo said. "My mom would scrub every inch of the floor with Ajax. It was so clean you could eat off it. She was very meticulous. I think that's where my attention to detail comes from.''
Niumatalolo is involved in virtually every aspect of his program, from deciding what time his players eat to seating charts on road trips.
"If someone has a sore right leg,'' he says, "I want to make sure he has an aisle seat on the left side of the plane so his right leg can get some extension.''
Niumatalolo is a finalist for the inaugural Joseph V. Paterno coach of the year award, which will annually recognize dedication to developing student athletes.
He understands that coaching at Navy is more than X's and O's. Students there are required to serve in the military upon graduation. It makes recruiting difficult, but it hasn't stopped him from producing some impressive results.
"His heart and his spirit are why he is successful,'' says quarterback Ricky Dobbs." God is the focal point in his life. He doesn't do this for himself.''
Niumatalolo, a devout Mormon, is soft-spoken and constantly encouraging. His own children are star athletes and he approaches his job with the understanding that "all my players are somebody's kids.''
"My brother was spoiled growing up because he always played on teams with great athletes,'' James Niumatalolo said." And he's been very fortunate as a coach to have had some outstanding mentors, guys like Bob Wagner (Hawaii), John Robinson (UNLV) and Paul Johnson.''
It was Johnson who convinced Niumatalolo to get into coaching when he mentored him as Hawaii's offensive coordinator during the 1980s. It also was Johnson who brought Niumatalolo to Navy ---- twice.
Before the 2007 season began, Gladchuk knew that Johnson's days at the Academy were numbered as bigger schools began targeting him. The AD began thinking about the future and his thoughts kept turning to the loyal offensive line coach.
For nearly a year, Niumatalolo was auditioning for the job as Navy's head coach without even realizing it. Gladchuk paraded him in front of alumni groups, talked to people about him, monitored him closely.
"It basically gave me some time to observe Ken in some situations,'' he said.
"Two things came to mind for me. First, was Ken's character, his values, his leadership qualities. The other thing was keeping the infrastructure of the program together, and Ken was the one who could do that.
"He's been the glue that has kept this thing together.''

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