The Navy football program does not have a history of adjusting very well to coaching changes. The team’s success under Wayne Hardin and George Welsh were followed by even longer stretches of futility. That history made Paul Johnson’s 2007 departure for Georgia Tech somewhat frightening, but it was hardly a surprise.
Everyone knew the deal when Johnson was hired. He is fueled by a relentless desire to prove his doubters wrong, to the point that he almost seeks out new people to doubt him. His fans would call it a competitive spirit. His detractors call it ego. However it’s framed, that drive is what makes him the successful coach that he is. It’s what brought him to Navy, and ultimately what caused him to move on to the next challenge.
Ken Niumatalolo has different motivations, although they are every bit as compelling. Don’t get me wrong; he is just as much of a competitor as his predecessor, and detests losing. He is an innovator that never stops looking for ways to improve every aspect of his program. At the same time, he is driven by more than what happens on the field. The winningest coach in Naval Academy history is a family man dedicated to his faith, and those values are reflected in how he runs his football program. He makes sure that his staff has the time to make their families a priority, too. Players want to play for him and coaches want to coach for him. While it’s a different kind of impulse compared to his predecessor’s, it’s no less a part of what makes him successful. And it too was almost the catalyst for his departure.
I very rarely hold it against coaches when they leave for other schools, especially in an era when Mark Richt gets fired and Les Miles is teetering on the edge. We’ve all changed jobs before, and it’s hypocritical for us to say that coaches shouldn’t be able to do the same thing, considering that some guys get sacked even after doing a good job. It just feels different because of the emotional attachments we have to our schools and sports in general that we don’t have with our cubicles. As fans, we take things personally that we probably shouldn’t.
It’s hard not to, though, when it comes to Coach Niumatalolo. We don’t actually know him, it just feels like we do. Part of it comes from watching him every week and admiring his work, but it’s mostly because of who he is. Niumat has the one quality I value most in people, not just coaches: he’s genuine. We feel like we know him because what you see is what you get. He doesn’t have a different persona for the public. He doesn’t hide behind layers of coachspeak. At a school like the Naval Academy, it would be easy to replace coachspeak with over-the-top, look-at-me patriotism instead, but he doesn’t do that either. Instead, he deflects attention from himself and speaks with reverence about what his players do as midshipmen. He is honest with his emotions, and just as honest when talking about football, faith, or life in general.
In fact, it was that honesty that made for so much drama over the last week. Coach Niumatalolo was unusually open (compared to most coaches) about his interest in the head coaching job at Brigham Young, letting his team know after practice that he would listen to what the school had to say. He felt that he had to tell the team for the sake of his own credibility, but I think everyone already figured he would look into the job even before he said anything. Niumat has always made it clear how much he loved coaching at Navy, to the point that I didn’t think he would be interested in any other job but one. That one, of course, was the university that serves his Mormon faith, BYU.
Anticipating this scenario, I had long ago rationalized why Navy would be a better job, even for someone focused on his faith. The Naval Academy is a national school. Its football program has annual spotlight games against Notre Dame and Army. Coach Niumatalolo was inducted into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame and featured in two movies because of the work he has done at Navy. There is a lot of visibility that comes with being Navy’s head coach, and as the country gets to know him better, that also means a lot of visibility for his faith to people who otherwise might not have become familiar with it. In contrast, coaching at BYU would be like preaching to the choir!
Like I said, I was rationalizing.
It’s easy for me to think like that, since I wasn’t the one with the major life decision to make. That’s the folly of trying to rank which schools are “better jobs” and listing their pros and cons. It all depends on the eye of the beholder, and your view looks a lot different when you actually have skin in the game. I’m not sure of the details as to why Coach Niumatalolo decided that Navy was a better place for him. There was no shortage of rumors about salaries, assistant coaches, or whether or not BYU was willing to run the option. When he says that Annapolis is just where he’s supposed to be, sometimes that’s all there is to it. I might never know the story of how it all played out, but I do know one thing: Ken Niumatalolo is a gentleman, a winner, and a better representative of my school than I would ever dare to ask for.
Some Navy fans might be upset over how all of this played out, although I can’t imagine why. Niumatalolo has given our school almost two decades of hard work; I don’t think it’s too much to ask to let him have a couple of days to think things over. In fact, while we waited for his decision, I came to a few realizations of my own.
When Paul Johnson was hired, the superintendent at the time, VADM John Ryan, said, “I believe years from now people will point to December 9, 2001, as the day the Naval Academy turned around its football program.” Well, it’s been 14 years, so I think it’s safe to declare that the supe was right. It didn’t even take that long for it to happen, either, which is part of what made Johnson’s departure so scary. It’s a whole lot easier to get bad in a hurry than it is to get good in a hurry, and nobody knew what it would mean to change a winning formula that took the Navy program two decades to figure out.
As Coach Niumatalolo mulled over his future, I felt a lot of things. I was annoyed to read comments from BYU fans and commentators speaking with complete authority on someone they had been following for all of a week. I was bored with the clichés being repeated about the Navy offense. Most of all, I was saddened at the thought of the Naval Academy losing a good man.
What I wasn’t, however, was afraid.
Navy football is not about one man. It wasn’t under Johnson, and it isn’t now under Niumatalolo. Winners attract winners. Good men attract other good men. If Niumat had decided to move on, I was confident that Ivin Jasper would be able to step in as head coach without missing a beat. Everyone on this staff is part of a winning culture, backed by an athletic department that is dedicated to success on and off the field. They know what it takes to win football games, and they know what it takes to win at the Naval Academy. This is not the Navy program of 20 years ago. Not even close. While I will never take winning for granted, I don’t fear change, either. And that’s a great feeling.
For now, at least, it isn’t something we have to ponder. That time will come, as it does for every program eventually. Until then, I will continue to enjoy this golden age of Navy football, with Ken Niumatalolo leading the way.