Coaching Our Nation’s Warriors
Navy football coach Ken Niumatololo is already back to work for the new season
Few coaches in major-college football have had the success Ken Niumatololo has had in his first six years as head coach of Navy’s Midshipmen.
Since taking over in 2008 from former head coach Paul Johnson, Niumatololo has piled up 49 wins. That’s more wins than any other coach in Academy history has accumulated in his first six seasons. It puts him on the brink of history this season as Navy’s all-time winningest coach.
Niumatololo (NEE-you-MAH-tow-LO-lo), 49, is in a job that found him as much as he found it. He credits his high school coach, John Velasco of Hawaii’s Radford High, as being the biggest influence on his own coaching philosophy.
“He taught us more than just the game of football. He taught us about life,” Niumatololo said. You can hear echoes of his mentor today, when Navy football players describe their own soft-spoken coach.
“He really cares about us as people; it’s not just a business to him,” said senior fullback Noah Copeland, a team co-captain.
Copeland and fellow senior co-captain Parrish Gaines said they were impressed how Niumatololo held the team together in a crisis last spring. Teammate Will McKamey, 19, had collapsed on the practice field with a brain injury. He died three days later, never recovering consciousness from a coma.
“When Will died, Coach came to the hospital and just talked to every one of us and really helped us get through that,” Copeland said. “That was really bad.”
Practices today are more upbeat, focused on the team’s daunting August 30 opening game with fifth-ranked Ohio State.
Position coaches do all the yelling, while Niumatololo calmly observes from midfield. When offensive, defensive and special-team drills conclude, all 100-plus players and coaches swarm around Niumatololo, who has them drop for 10 more pushups on his count before retiring to a shady spot for a quiet but intense pep talk.
That’s Niumatololo’s style: leading by expectation, not coercion.
“First of all, these are great kids to begin with. They are already highly motivated,” Niumatololo said. “We don’t need to get on them to play hard.”
Niumatololo grew up in tiny La’ie, on Oahu’s northeastern shore. He starred as quarterback at the University of Hawaii, taking the Rainbow Warriors to their first bowl game in 1989. He was hired by his alma mater as a graduate assistant in 1992, coaching there three years before joining the Naval Academy’s staff as an assistant coach in 1995.
He has averaged almost nine wins per season as Navy’s head coach, taking the Midshipmen to bowl games every year but 2011, his only losing season. If Navy wins six games this season and becomes bowl-eligible again, Niumatololo will tie former coach George Welsh’s record for all-time wins (55) at the Academy. This is just Niumatololo’s seventh season. Welsh took nine seasons to win that many.
Niumatololo’s teams have dominated the other service academies, and he has never lost to arch-rival Army. He has already beaten Notre Dame twice, in 2009 and 2010, and came within a whisker of beating Ohio State in Columbus in 2009, when Navy’s game-tying, two-point conversion attempt failed in the game’s last second.
The Ohio State rematch is at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium. The Buckeyes just lost their star quarterback to a season-ending injury.
Niumatololo has his Midshipmen primed for an upset.
“We don’t look at these games [against ranked opponents] any differently,” he said. “Any W is great, whether it’s Notre Dame or Ohio State.”
With success comes opportunity. After Navy beat Notre Dame in 2007 for the first time since 1963 — when Roger Staubach was the quarterback — Niumatololo’s predecessor, Johnson, was lured away to become head coach at Georgia Tech.
Niumatololo says he isn’t tempted to look elsewhere, even if recruited.
“Those big schools don’t want to run the triple option,” he said, referring to the grinding offense that has Navy among the nation’s leaders in rushing yards year after year.
“The grass isn’t always greener,” Niumatololo said. “I work at a special place.”