BALTIMORE — Ken Niumatalolo learned the X’s and O’s of college football from a variety of mentors, most notably Paul Johnson, his predecessor at Navy.
But what most separates Niumatalolo from his peers was a life lesson provided by his father.
With a victory against Army on Saturday, the 49-year-old Niumatalolo will become the winningest coach in Navy history. Now in his seventh season at the Academy, Niumatalolo (55-35) passed Johnson on the win list last year and is currently tied with George Welsh, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame who went 55-46-1 from 1973-81.
“I guess the word I think about is honored, just honored to be mentioned with those guys,” Niumatalolo said. “There have been a lot of great football coaches that have come through here and helped build this program.”
Niumatalolo’s preparation extends far beyond watching film, drawing up game plans and adjusting to his players’ hectic schedules.
“One thing about coach Ken, he’s so personable. He knows everybody on the team,” senior co-captain Parrish Gaines said. “We have 150-some odd guys and he knows all of my teammates, all of the freshmen by name — as soon as they get here.”
It is a trait Niumatalolo inherited from his father, who served as a cook in the Coast Guard for 23 years before becoming a restaurant manager.
“I remember as a boy going to the restaurant, Dad would be in the kitchen cooking. He didn’t sit up in his manager’s office and say, ‘Hey, I need more of this.’ He was cooking,” Niumatalolo recalled. “He knew all the cooks’ names, knew all the bakers’ names, knew all the waiters’ names. I didn’t realize it, but I think it had an effect on me. I wanted to be the same way.
“Just because I was an assistant for 18 years, when I became the head coach I didn’t want to get up on the tower. I just wanted to be the same person.”
As a backup quarterback at Hawaii, Niumatalolo lettered three years and was part of the Rainbows’ first bowl team in 1989. His recollection of that time includes that treatment he received from the coaching staff.
“Being a guy that wasn’t always in the limelight, when the coach knew your name or said hello to you, it meant a lot. So I wanted to be that guy, not someone who says, ‘Hey, No. 87,’ or ‘Hey, you, 22,'” Niumatalolo said. “You need to know who the backup holder is or the backup snapper. I don’t see how people can follow you if you don’t care about them or know who they are.”
Niumatalolo, is now poised to become the first at Navy to go 7-0 against Army. With a win, he will stand alone as the winningest coach of a program that played its first game in 1879.
“I don’t look at it as a record for me,” he said. “Whether you’re a head coach or the CEO of a company, there are so many people involved. In sports, players win games. I’ve been fortunate in that a lot of good players and a lot of great assistants have helped us be successful over the years.”
Niumatalolo was an assistant at Navy before becoming college football’s first Samoan head coach in 2008 after Johnson went to Georgia Tech. Johnson left Niumatalolo the blueprint for the esteemed triple-option attack, which Navy has used brilliantly to compensate for its lack of size and weight against such foes as Notre Dame and Ohio State.
“They give everybody fits,” Army coach Jeff Monken said. “They’re doing such a great job not only against the other academies, but everybody they face.”
Niumatalolo beat Notre Dame in 2009 and 2010, and he also owns wins against Missouri, Rutgers and Indiana. He will guide Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State later this month.
“I know how well coached they are and how well prepared their teams are,” Monken said. “I have great respect for Ken.”
The Midshipmen feel the same way.
“He’s really personable, he loves his players,” senior fullback Noah Copeland said. “We’re not just football players, we’re actually like his kids. He takes care of us and loves us.”