No excuses

college football navy preview

New coach says he has the players and staff needed to win

August 27, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,

Most college football coaches can point to the moment their careers turned, to a game or a play or even an official's call that might have altered their path.

Navy's new coach, Ken Niumatalolo, can point to a place - a McDonald's near the academy.

It was there, shortly after the 1998 season ended, that Niumatalolo, finishing his fourth year as an assistant coach and second year as Navy's offensive coordinator, was fired by then-head coach Charlie Weatherbie.

"Looking back on it, I made a lot of mistakes," Niumatalolo recalled recently. "I was young, brash. I thought I had all the answers."

At 32, with a wife and three children at home, Niumatalolo was out of a job.

"It was very humbling for me," Niumatalolo said. "I went from being touted as the youngest coordinator in the country to being fired. I know that things have also come full circle for me. I'm living in the house of the guy who fired me. It's weird."

Niumatalolo is aware of something else: If his record turns out to be closer to Weatherbie's (33-48) than Paul Johnson's (45-29), the first Samoan head coach in Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) history will be out of a job again.

Those who know Niumatalolo - Coach Niumat or just plain Kenny to nearly everyone - believe that will not happen.

Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk certainly doesn't, having promoted Niumatalolo, now 43, the day after Johnson left in December for Georgia Tech.

Neither do Niumatalolo's assistants, eight of whom stayed on after the coaching move was made.

Or his players, who have embraced Niumatalolo's style, which is a little more personal but no less demanding than Johnson's.

"Coach Johnson, you would see him, but he sat back and let the coaches coach the individual positions," senior offensive guard Anthony Gaskins said. "Coach Niumat does that, but he's real hands-on, he runs around and wants to see everything. Even all summer, you'd be lifting and he's right behind you while you're squatting, asking you how are you doing."

Asked about being different from his former boss and longtime mentor in a relationship that dated to when Johnson was the offensive coordinator at Hawaii and Niumatalolo was mostly a backup quarterback, Niumatalolo said: "I can't worry about the way Paul coached or what he did. I'm just going to be who I am. A phenomenal coach had a phenomenal run. Hopefully, we can continue on with what he did and what he established."

Niumatalolo is brutally honest when it comes to how he should be judged.

"There are no excuses," said Niumatalolo, whose coaching debut actually came when the Midshipmen lost to Utah, 35-32, in last season's Poinsettia Bowl. "Whether this comes back to bite me, that's the truth.

"All that we [need] to be successful is in place. We've got great kids; we've got a great coaching staff. If I don't get it done, it's nobody's fault but mine."

Not that the transition has been totally seamless as the Midshipmen head into their season opener Saturday against Towson in Annapolis.

The first potential pothole appeared two weeks ago, when senior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada went down with a hamstring injury, forcing fellow senior Jarod Bryant to leave his starting slotback spot to play quarterback again.

Kaheaku-Enhada returned to practice last week, but his status for the season opener remains a question. What isn't in doubt are the expectations that follow Navy - and Niumatalolo - after an 8-5 season highlighted by the program's fifth straight Commander in Chief's Trophy and its first win over Notre Dame since 1963.

"I've always put my own pressures on myself; this profession is a bottom-line profession," Niumatalolo said. "The pressure to win, to beat Towson and all the people we play, it's like that every year.

"Obviously, I'm involved with a lot more decisions and stuff, but I've always been a competitor. I hate to lose."

The advantage that Niumatalolo has over other first-time head coaches is that he has been in Annapolis for 10 years - the past six as assistant head coach - since returning from a two-year stint at Nevada-Las Vegas working for John Robinson.

"It was a blessing in disguise," Niumatalolo said of working for the former Southern California coach. "It was a great learning experience for me to be around a guy like that. Tremendous class. It was great preparation for me. I knew that if I ever had a chance to be a head coach, I wanted to be like him. He treated everyone with respect, no matter if you were the janitor or the president of the university."

Sitting in his office at the start of preseason camp, Niumatalolo could look back at what happened a decade ago and smile.

"It's kind of funny looking back on it; it wasn't funny back then," Niumatalolo said of his not-so-happy meal with Weatherbie. "I tell the story to my kids every time I pass the McDonald's. I say, 'Remember when I got fired there?' "

Season opener: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.,

vs. Towson

Where: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis

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