In first year, coach kept Mids afloat

Niumatalolo, Navy charted winning course after 1-2 start

December 18, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

Every college football team has a turning point in its season, and for Navy, it came after the Midshipmen lost at Duke on Sept. 13. Along with the typical concerns about the team's injury-hampered offense and its mistake-prone defense, there were legitimate questions about the readiness of first-year head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

"I was fortunate to have been here with Paul [Johnson], but I knew that I was stepping into a pressure cooker and people were doubting that we could get it done," Niumatalolo said.

So when Niumatalolo returned to his third-floor office at Ricketts Hall two days after the Duke game, with his team's record at 1-2, he knew that the approach he would take with his assistants at their regular 6 a.m. meeting and later with his players might affect the kind of season Navy would have.

"I didn't come in and throw chairs around," Niumatalolo recalled this week. "I had been through the fire with these guys. I knew we'd get it done. The biggest thing I had to show them as a staff and as a team: There's a sense of urgency, but we weren't going to panic."

Niumatalolo's approach worked. The Midshipmen won three straight games in the toughest stretch of their schedule - beating Rutgers at home, as well as No. 16 Wake Forest and Air Force on the road - to fortify what would become an 8-4 regular season.

When Navy plays the 7-5 Demon Deacons again in Saturday's inaugural EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium in Washington, Niumatalolo, 43, will have gone from doubted to distinguished, becoming the first Navy coach to lead his team to a bowl game in his first season.

With a victory over the Demon Deacons, now unranked but still favored, Niumatalolo can become only the fourth Navy coach to win at least nine games in his first year and the first to do it since the Midshipmen went 9-0-1 under Bill Ingram in 1926.

Paul Johnson, who was 2-10 in his first season at Navy before turning the program around, said what Niumatalolo, who was assistant head coach and offensive line coach under Johnson, has accomplished is praiseworthy despite the fact that he was left an experienced team and a program that had put together five straight winning seasons under Johnson.

"I think anytime you can win [at least] nine games at Navy, it's a remarkable achievement," said Johnson, who did it twice in six years in Annapolis.

Johnson, the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coach of the Year after leading Georgia Tech to a 9-3 record in his first season, was not surprised knowing how competitive Niumatalolo can be despite a calm demeanor and a compassionate side that comes from his strong faith.

"I don't know if I've ever been around a guy any more competitive than he is, whether it's playing basketball or coaching football," Johnson said.

The compassionate side was also put to use by Niumatalolo the past four months, most recently right before the Army-Navy game two weeks ago. Switching quarterbacks three or four times was simple compared with telling two players that their fathers had passed away.

"When Andre Byrd sat in front of me [during the preseason] and the look on Rashawn King's face when we told him [when his father died the day before the Army game], those are the hardest things I had to do," Niumatalolo said.

Niumatalolo acknowledges that there was some uncertainty going into last season's Poinsettia Bowl against Utah, his first as a head coach after Johnson left. Niumatalolo recalled asking Utah coach Kyle Whittingham where to stand during warm-ups.

The conversation turned to the pressure Niumatalolo might have felt replacing Johnson.

"He said, 'I went after a guy [Urban Meyer] who went to a BCS bowl game,' " recalled Niumatalolo, whose Midshipmen would lose, 35-32.

That performance, as well as the way Navy recovered from its slow 2008 start despite playing much of the season without senior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, showed athletic director Chet Gladchuk that he had made the right choice when he selected Niumatalolo within hours of Johnson's departure last December.

Gladchuk said the selection process had actually taken about a year because he knew 2007 would likely be Johnson's last in Annapolis.

Niumatalolo still appears uncomfortable being mentioned in the same vein as Johnson, the man who shaped his career and ultimately his life, first as his coach and later as his boss.

Niumatalolo didn't even move into Johnson's office until after last year's bowl game.

"It took me awhile to move in here," Niumatalolo said. "It felt weird."

It doesn't anymore.

NAVY (8-4) vs. WAKE FOREST (7-5)

EagleBank Bowl, Washington

Saturday, 11 a.m.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Wake Forest by 3

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