Squad Leader

Raised in Hawaii, Ken Niumatalolo has found a home in Annapolis.

Randy McKamey still keeps a recording of the phone call. On it, his son Will, then a plebe at the United States Naval Academy, is discussing his new coach, Ken Niumatalolo. “The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Dad, he gets it,’” McKamey recalls. “He said, ‘He doesn’t just know my name, he knows everybody’s name. He’s the real deal.’ At that moment, I was so relieved that he had a father figure coaching him. A guy that cared.” Just how invested Niumatalolo was is something McKamey would tragically learn firsthand months later when Will, the oldest of his four children—“the heavenly one,” as his wife, Kara, now calls him—lay dying in a hospital room.

On March 22, 2014, their short, slight, but iron-willed son collapsed from an unusual brain hemorrhage—not linked to a bad hit or severe contact—during a practice in Annapolis. A day later, Niumatalolo, a devout Mormon, joined Randy and Kara by 19-year-old Will’s bedside at R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, where they prayed.

“We had a little bit of a ceremonial event with just me, Kara, and Kenny,” says Randy McKamey, a high school football coach in Tennessee. “It [reinforced] to me that Will had been in the right place the entire time, with a God-fearing man. Things don’t begin and end with football; there’s more to life than that.”

This, Ken Niumatalolo has always known.

Lots of coaches throw around terms like “family” and “student-athlete” as casually as they drop f-bombs, but few have established a track record of backing them up like Niumatalolo. With a record of 77-42, he is Navy’s all-time winningest coach. Scan the list of finalists for The Dodd Trophy, given to the national college coach of the year, for the past two seasons and you’ll find his name is the only one to appear twice. All of which makes his perspective on his famously life-consuming profession that much more intriguing.  

“I’m very grateful to be the head football coach here, but this job isn’t everything to me,” he says. “It doesn’t define who I am.”

First and foremost, Niumatalolo says, his life is built around his relationships with his wife, his three children, and his faith. But his legacy also can be found in the character of his players, who, after finishing their collegiate careers, graduate not to fame and fortune in the NFL, but to military service around the world.

“What Coach Ken does is hard,” says J.D. Gainey, commanding officer of USS Hopper, a guided-missile destroyer. Niumatalolo was an assistant coach at Navy when Gainey played offensive line in the mid-1990s. “Coaching 18- to 22-year-olds whose performance directly impacts your life and family, getting them to choose right in the face of adversity, hardship, and fatigue, is hard to do. Motivating these kids to bring it as hard as they can daily, as well as asking for unconditional trust in all decisions made for the program, is really tough. I didn’t realize it until I was in the same situation with 300 sailors and a 9,000-ton destroyer under my care.”

It has been an unlikely journey for a man born in American Samoa and raised in Laie, on the northeastern shore of Oahu, Hawaii’s third-largest island, where the waves break high and the stress stays low. Niumatalolo never aspired to lead a big-time college football program. But fate—or a higher power—had other plans for him.

From his earliest days as a not-quite-good-enough quarterback at the University of Hawai’i, Niumatalolo has been an analytical kind of guy. Basketball was his first love, but he was a bit too short and a step too slow for the sport. As a backup QB in college, he grew frustrated with his lack of playing time.

“I decided that instead of coming to meetings with a bad attitude, I might as well learn something,” he says.

So he dedicated himself to understanding the intricacies of the game, and the offensive coordinator at UH, Paul Johnson, took note. After Niumatalolo earned his degree in communications, Johnson offered him a low-paying position as a graduate assistant. Already married to his college sweetheart Barbara, Niumatalolo took it, and vowed to get a “real job” in two years if it didn’t work out. He has been coaching ever since.

“He was always a smart guy, and he grasped the concepts of the offense,” says Johnson, who brought Niumatalolo with him to Annapolis when he became Navy’s offensive coordinator. “When you’re looking for coaches, you want good people. He’s got a self-confidence, he is a man of strong faith, and I think that leads him in most of everything he does.”

When Johnson left Navy in 1997, Niumatalolo was elevated to offensive coordinator under Charlie Weatherbie. It was not a smooth transition.

“Charlie and I didn’t see eye-to-eye,” he says. Then, with a typically blunt assessment he adds, “I got fired from here because I opened my mouth too much. I needed to learn to shut my mouth.”

Where else could Niumatalolo have an impact on the lives of young men—not just their football careers—like he can at Navy?

Niumatalolo landed at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he saw how the rest of the college football world lived.

“Maybe the guys are a little bigger and faster, but there are different character kids,” he says. “Not to say that all the kids at UNLV are bad, that would be wrong, because there are a lot of good kids there. But here, just the military part—shining your shoes, shaving every day [is a significant difference]. You’re not taking Mickey Mouse courses so you can stay eligible. You’re taking what everybody else is taking, and the workload is grueling. If you’ve got a paper due on Thursday and we’re playing Notre Dame, guess what, you’ve got to turn in your paper. It’s not like that everywhere.”

Johnson came back to Annapolis as head coach in 2002, and he hired Niumatalolo to direct the offensive line. Six years later, Johnson wanted to see how his vaunted triple option offense (which Niumatalolo still employs) would work at a larger program with more resources and less anchors—so to speak—than Navy, so he departed for Georgia Tech. Niumatalolo was named head coach.

Now, almost a decade later, the question arises: Is moving to a football program in a bigger conference an interest that dogs Niumatalolo?

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it,” he says. “That’s why I tell parents and recruits that if there’s a job opportunity that I feel is better for my family, I feel I owe it to my family to listen. Last year, I talked to Cal. I’m from Hawaii, so I thought I’d be interested in the West Coast, but it wasn’t the right fit for either one of us, so it didn’t work out. It’s going to take something really special for me to leave here because this is a special place.”

Navy fans feared that opportunity presented itself after the 2015 season, when Niumatalolo was courted by Brigham Young University. Coaching at the Mormon school would be not just a job, but a calling.

“I was very interested,” he says. “It came down to some technicalities. It wasn’t formally offered because there were some things I wasn’t willing to budge on. I’ve got a great job. I love it here. I’m not looking to just jump to jump. The grass isn’t always greener.”

Where else could Niumatalolo have an impact on the lives of young men—not just their football careers—like he can at Navy? Consider not just the comfort he provided to the McKameys in the wake of their son’s unimaginable death, but the impact he has had on people like his former player and newest assistant coach, Bryce McDonald.

“I actually took some of the stuff he did as a coach and employed it in the way I taught marine tactics,” says McDonald, who retired from the Marines Corps in 2012 as a captain. “He always used to do walk-throughs, and he wouldn’t go onto the next coaching point until everyone understood. Some teachers will just talk and talk and hope you absorb something. The way he taught was a two-way dialogue. He made people think. I used that to teach ambush and patrol tactics. You’d be in a classroom environment but no one’s sitting down, they’re actually standing in formation and giving feedback.”

During spring practice, Niumatalolo’s days begin in the same place where so many of ours do: the bathroom. When he gets to work around 5 a.m., his first stop is the private one inside his office suite on the third floor of Ricketts Hall. There, he kneels on the floor, prays, and reads scripture.

As part of his faith, he doesn’t come in on Sundays, and his staff stays home as well—a rarity in college football. (That said, between his church obligations, family time, and an occasional nap, he generally finds time to watch film of his team on weekends during the season. He’s usually at the office by 3:30 a.m. on Mondays.) He has never had as much as a sip of alcohol, and although he can’t say he has never cursed—“I’m human”—when he’s angry the worst thing you’ll hear coming out of his mouth is a torrent of “dadgummits.”

“I just don’t believe that you need to ‘MF’ a kid to motivate him,” he says. “You can be firm and demanding and get after him, but I don’t think you need to belittle people. I have two sons that are playing college football, and a lot of our coaches have sons. I tell my guys, ‘Would you want your son being talked to like that by another coach?’”

But don’t let the outwardly laid-back Pacific-island vibe he exudes fool you—Niumatalolo is an intense competitor. Ask anyone who has played pick-up basketball or tennis with him. At a meeting in April, he sits at the head of a conference table watching video of the previous day’s practice surrounded by his coaching staff. His voice is calm, even understated, but his authority unquestionable.  

“Jiminy Christmas,” he grumbles when a quarterback throws an errant pass.

“Holy smokes, look at his hips,” he says of an offensive lineman. “He’s probably the worst tackle we have. I’d be petrified if I was a quarterback and he was protecting me.”

Coaches tend to see the football as half-deflated when they watch their own teams, and especially during spring ball, warts are plainly visible on film. But the criticism being bandied about is offered in pursuit of one objective: making each individual on his team better.

And not just as players.

“In a meeting we’ll go from talking about ‘John Smith’s’ play on the field to his grade in physics to where he’s at with his [Naval Academy] swim qualification,” says McDonald. “He sees the whole picture. He knows a parent has entrusted him with their son, so he is responsible for them.”

This has been a particularly intense off-season for Niumatalolo, in part because of the way last year ended. Navy dropped its final three games, and he’s working to understand why. The team was ravaged by injuries, so he’s focused on details as minute as practice surfaces, equipment, and shoes. At the meeting, he stresses to his position coaches to push hydration. Answers have been elusive thus far, but he won’t stop searching for them.

At a practice later that afternoon, Niumatalolo strolls around one of Navy’s fields as his team runs through meticulously calibrated drills. Wearing a Navy visor, a whistle hanging where his signature lei does during Army-Navy games, he’s greeting visiting coaches with hugs and a wide grin. In nearby Spa Creek, sailboats harness the perfect breeze; there’s not a cloud in the deep blue sky, and the grass under Niumatalolo’s feet is a rich shade of green.

Right now, there’s no place he’d rather be.