After tough loss, Niumatalolo shows tough side

Players-only meeting Tuesday is followed by suspension of leading rusher Wednesday

October 07, 2011|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

He has gone from being a virtual unknown outside the walls of the Naval Academy to a respected, if still hard to pronounce name, in the coaching community. He has won more games in his first four years than any coach in the program's history.

But don't tell that to Ken Niumatalolo, especially this week.

He has a lot more important matters to figure out.

Like keeping his team from unraveling after last week's 35-34 overtime loss to Air Force that cost the Midshipmen a shot at getting back the coveted Commander in Chief's Trophy after losing it last season for the first time since 2002.

Like helping the Midshipmen avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2002 — the year the team finished a dismal 2-10 under then first-year coach Paul Johnson — when Navy (2-2) plays Southern Mississippi (4-1) on Saturday in Annapolis.

Niumatalolo, in his fourth season since taking over when Johnson left for Georgia Tech, has endured what was one of his more challenging weeks as a head coach.

"The thing that has been challenging to me is that I don't like the way we played," Niumatalolo said in his office Thursday afternoon. "Not how we tackled or blocked, but too much [talking], which has never been us, things after the game, the way we handled ourselves, the things that happened at practice. I don't want that to be us. That's a thing I had to put an end to this week."

What started last Saturday with the loss to the Falcons escalated Tuesday when Niumatalolo held an emotional 20-minute meeting with his players after practice. Things reached another boiling point Wednesday when he announced that senior co-captain Alexander Teich would likely not play in the team's next game. Niumatalolo had kicked Teich out of practice the previous day after the team's leading rusher had continued to behave in a way that Niumatalolo said "was detrimental to us getting ready for this week."

Along with Teich, the player who most disappointed Niumatalolo was senior quarterback Kriss Proctor, whose unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty after scoring the go-ahead touchdown in overtime contributed to Jon Teague's 35-yard extra-point attempt being blocked.

"It's not like we have bad kids, but we still have to remember who were are," Niumatalolo said. "The thing I've always told myself is to never forget who I am. I want to win, I hate to lose, but I want to win in the right way. Right is right and wrong is wrong. It doesn't matter who you are, there's no player or no coach who's bigger than this program. I never want to tarnish that image. If I ever get to a point where winning supersedes doing what's right, I need to get out. Then I know the game has engulfed me and changed my values."

The way Niumatalolo (pronounced nee-uh-mah-tuh-LOH-loh) reacted did not come as a surprise to those who know college football's first Samoan coach.

Proctor, in his first season as a full-time starter, said he thought Niumatalolo's tirade during practice Tuesday and subsequent team meeting were well-timed.

"I think he was trying to get this team focused, and I think he did," Proctor said Wednesday. "Whenever he gets wound up like that, it's for a good reason. He's a laid-back coach, but he has a fiery side, too, and as a player you respect that. When he gets on us players, you know he means business. You don't want that to happen but it did [Tuesday] and it was for the betterment of the team."

Said defensive coodinator Buddy Green, who has worked for both Niumatalolo and Johnson over his 10 years at Navy: "Kenny is as good as any coach I've been around having his thumb on the pulse and the heartbeat of his team, whether it's special teams, offense, defense, the training staff, the managers, anything that has to do with this program. Everybody going in the same direction is the bottom line. That's what he believes."

Green, who along with the other assistants were not in the room for the meeting at Ricketts Hall on Tuesday, said Niumatalolo's emotions are genuine.

"Our program and these guys that come to this program understand how hard he fights for them," Green said. "He has one rule — do the right thing. At the same time they understand how much he cares about everything they do. Not just on the field, but off the field, in their personal life, in the classroom and the numbers speak for themselves as to how well they do in the classroom. They understand that he has his heart, his entire body and his family, that's the energy he brings to this team. When he becomes emotional, they know how much he cares about each one of them."

As calm as Niumatalolo seemed in the aftermath of Saturday's loss, expressing his anger in a soft but direct tone, Niumatalolo was anything but when he emerged early Tuesday evening after the meeting with his players. It appeared as if he had shed tears, something his players have seen before.

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