When Ken Niumatalolo was elevated to Navy head coach in December 2007, he realized quickly he needed to find someone to recruit the West Coast. That’s because Niumatalolo had been handling that territory under predecessor Paul Johnson.
Niumatalolo also had to identify a special teams’ coordinator to replace Jeff Monken, who went with Johnson to Georgia Tech.
Niumatalolo immediately thought of a coach he had worked with at UNLV.
The potential candidate was a southern California native who had spent his entire coaching career recruiting in the west and also had particular expertise with special teams.
So it was that Steve Johns showed up at a Navy practice prior to the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl. During a conversation with a reporter at California-San Diego, Johns mentioned that he would probably be joining the Midshipmen’s coaching staff.
Niumatalolo’s first hire turned out to be a good one as Johns has excelled in all three areas he has been assigned — coaching inside linebackers, directing the specialty units and recruiting the western portion of the country.
“Steve was really the perfect fit for what I was looking for at the time,” Niumatalolo said last week. “When I worked with Steve at UNLV I was impressed with the job he did. I thought he was a really smart guy and a very good football coach.”
Johns, the son of a career football coach, was an all-conference linebacker and team captain at Division III Occidental College. After playing professionally in Australia for a year, Johns was hired as an assistant at his alma mater by head coach Dale Widolff.
“Coach Widolff is the one who got me into coaching. I don’t know whether to thank him or curse him out,” joked Johns, who had just been accepted to law school at the time.
While coaching at Occidental from 1993-95, Johns earned a Master’s degree in education. While coaching at San Diego in 1996, he received a Master’s in sports science from the United States Sports Academy.
— Steve Johns
Edward Johns coached at San Diego State, Oregon and Utah and used his relationship with College Football Hall of Fame head coach John Robinson to help his son get a graduate assistant’s job at UNLV. Steve Johns performed so well in that role that he was hired full-time by Robinson and wound up coaching linebackers, overseeing special teams and serving as recruiting coordinator during a five-year tenure with the Rebels.
“I was very fortunate to work for a great man and a great coach in John Robinson, who ranks right up there with my father and Dale Widolff as an important mentor in my life,” Johns said. “Coach Robinson has an incredible knowledge of the game, but what I remember most was the way he treated people. He showed everyone respect, whether it was players, assistants or support staff.”
Johns, who moved to San Diego at age 12 and was a standout athlete at Point Loma High, also has been an assistant at Division III La Verne College in Los Angeles County and Grossmont Junior College in San Diego.
Johns was working as defensive coordinator at Grossmont when Niumatalolo called. Johns, a lifelong West Coast resident, said he had to think long and hard about moving across the country. It proved a fortuitous time for Niumatalolo to make contact since Johns had recently lost his father to cancer and was also single.
“I had never planned on leaving the San Diego area, but I thought coaching at the Naval Academy would be really unique. I’ve always had great respect for the service academies and knew the kids that played football at those institutions were special,” Johns said. “I got to know Kenny real well at UNLV and thought highly of him as a person. What Kenny was looking for in an assistant was right in my wheelhouse so I thought I could help him out.”
During his seven-year tenure in Annapolis, Johns has tutored some outstanding inside linebackers with Ross Pospisil (2008, 2009), Tyler Simmons (2010), Matt Warrick (2011, 2012), Cody Peterson (2013) and Jordan Drake (2014) all leading the team in tackles. The 46-year-old Johns has proven quite adept at converting players into inside linebackers as Warrick, Peterson, Drake and D.J. Sargenti, the second-leading tackler in 2013, all began their careers at other positions.
“You have to give all those guys credit for being sharp enough and talented enough to learn a new position,” Johns said. “At inside linebacker, you need to be tough, physical and smart. We’ve been fortunate to find guys that possess those characteristics and the result has been a nice run of very productive players at the position.”
Niumatalolo points out that Johns worked as a professor in the exercise science department at Grossmont.
“I think what makes Steve a good football coach is that he’s a teacher first and foremost. He does a great job of making things simple,” Niumatalolo said.
Johns also earns Niumatalolo’s praise for his performance as special teams coordinator, as the Midshipmen have annually been sound in the punting, kicking and receiving games. This marks the third time he has held that title.
“I’ve always been heavily involved with special teams ever since I was the coordinator at San Diego in 1996,” he said. “It’s an important part of the game and I like the challenge of pulling together all the moving parts.”
On the recruiting front, Johns has firmly established himself as a critical member of the staff in terms of identifying and procuring top talent. He has landed multiple players from the greater Las Vegas and Phoenix, Arizona, regions, opening pipelines that did not previously exist to Navy. He has also gotten the Midshipmen into Washington while signing prospects from all parts of California.
“Steve has done an absolutely phenomenal job of recruiting. We’re getting more kids from the West Coast than ever before,” Niumatalolo said. “That is the toughest recruiting area we have because of the distance. Steve has done a great job of convincing some really good players to come all the way to the East Coast. He goes against Air Force all the time and has won his fair share of battles despite the geographical disadvantage.”
Quarterback Kriss Proctor (Big Bear, California), offensive guard Josh Cabral (Rancho Santa Margarita, California), wide receiver Brandon Turner (Renton, Washington), defensive end Evan Palelei (Las Vegas), offensive tackle Graham Vickers (Diamond Bar, California), wide receiver Casey Bolena (Phoenix), Peterson (Olympia, Washington), defensive end Paul Quessenberry (Carlsbad, California) and wide receiver Jamir Tillman (Las Vegas) are some of the starters Johns has recruited.
“Looking back, it has turned out to be a great hire. Steve has been an integral part of our success and I’m very grateful that he agreed to join our staff,” Niumatalolo said.