ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Ken Niumatalolo has made Navy the football king of service academies.
Niumatalolo is the first coach in the history of the Army-Navy rivalry to win his first eight games. He has grounded Air Force in four of the last six years and is 14-5 lifetime against his two biggest rivals.
If those were his only accomplishments, it would be quite enough. Now in his 10th season at Navy, Niumatalolo has beaten Notre Dame three times, guided Navy into the Top 25 in each of the last three seasons and walked the sideline in nine bowl games (winning four).
“His success speaks for itself,” senior co-captain Darryl Bonner said. “He tells us he knows how to win, and he’s proven it. We just follow his lead.”
Niumatalolo didn’t invent the triple option. He merely perfected it. The unique offensive weapon, along with his hands-on leadership, make Niumatalolo attractive to schools with much more money and better facilities than Navy. He receives around $2 million annually, far more than Jeff Monken at Army and Air Force’s Troy Calhoun.
“I’ve always told this to people: If there’s an offer, I’ll listen,” Niumatalolo said. “This is America. You listen for opportunities. If there’s an offer that’s better for me and my family, well, my family comes first. I’ve listened to these offers, but I have a great job. You look at these other places, and you realize that coaching at the United States Naval Academy is a great blessing. I coach great kids. I love living in Annapolis. The grass isn’t always greener.”
His predecessor, Paul Johnson, left for Georgia Tech. Niumatalolo had an interview with Brigham Young in 2015, but ultimately decided to stay put.
“I told him that I didn’t think BYU was a better job than Navy,” athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. “The United States Naval Academy is one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. We have unparalleled support in the area in which we exist. And you’re dealing with the highest quality of human beings on the planet Earth.”
At a school designed to breed leaders, Niumatalolo is right up there with the best of them.
“The most important thing coach Niumatalolo has done is teach us to be better men,” linebacker and co-captain D.J. Palmore said. “He always emphasizes our life outside of football and after football. He makes sure we do the right thing, and he’s always got our back. I appreciate that, because I don’t think I would have gotten that at another school.”
Bonner was recruited by North Carolina State, but chose Navy. After playing under Niumatalolo for four years, the slot back knows he made the right decision.
“Football is a rough sport. You’re hitting all the time,” Bonner said. “But what is really deep-rooted in this team, the foundation, is love. Just being out there with your brothers. You don’t get that at other schools.”
It’s tough to recruit at Navy, mainly because life after football means fulfilling a military commitment. Niumatalolo understands this , and uses it in his pitch to prospective athletes.
“Our biggest selling point is not about the next four years, but the next 40 years,” he said. “It’s about career opportunities. It’s about getting one of the best educations in the world at the premier leadership institution in the world, and also playing big-time football. That’s our sell: Prepare yourself for the future.”
Niumatalolo, 52, is 83-47 at Navy. With another victory over Army on Saturday, he will earn his sixth Commander in Chief’s Trophy, presented annually to the winner of the football competition between the country’s three major service academies. No one has ever won more games with the Midshipmen, and it’s safe to say Niumatalolo will have the opportunity to add to that total as long as he cares to stick around.
Niumatalolo’s assistants, many of whom have been with him since he took over, are paid handsomely as well.
“One of the things that we’ve been able to do to retain him is be competitive, and provide him with resources that go beyond the other two academies,” Gladchuk said. “Part of that is maintaining and sustaining the quality and continuity of the coaching staff all these years.”
If Gladchuk has his way, Niumatalolo and Navy will remain the class of the service academies for years to come.
“I told Kenny that if he finishes his career at the United States Naval Academy, he will be a Hall of Fame coach,” Gladchuk said. “If he were to subject himself to what I call the meat grinder, he would just be another coach in the mix. He really stands out here. It’s a perfect situation for him. And it’s mutual, because the institution could not appreciate him more.”