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Navy coach stays the course

Niumatalolo isn't looking to reshape the Midshipmen, who play Utah in Poinsettia Bowl.

December 20, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer


On the football field, Navy is known for its triple-option offense, giving the quarterback a variety of alternatives to run, pass or give the ball to his backs.

But when Navy coach Paul Johnson announced two weeks ago that he was leaving for Georgia Tech after one of the most successful tenures in academy history, Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk didn't need any options.

Gladchuk knew who he wanted to succeed Johnson, who was 45-29 in six seasons, including 11-1 against Army and Air Force. Within hours, he had phoned Navy assistant coach Ken Niumatalolo, who was on a recruiting trip to Washington.

The next day, Gladchuk announced that Niumatalolo, 42, a onetime reserve quarterback at Hawaii who has spent 10 seasons at Navy in two stretches, would be the next coach of the Midshipmen.

For Navy football these days, continuity is king.

To keep Niumatalolo from looking elsewhere, a five-year contract is part of the deal.

Niumatalolo quickly announced that defensive coordinator Buddy Green and quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper would be staying.

Now, the Middies are in San Diego for tonight's Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium against Utah. Both teams are 8-4 and postseason perennials: The game is the fifth straight bowl appearance for each.

If Niumatalolo is nervous about the prospect of being compared to Johnson, whose southern drawl and skills as an on-field tactician and off-field motivator are legend, he's not letting on.

"This has never been about me," he said. "If something isn't broken, I don't see any reason to fix it. . . . I'm not going to be one of those guys who say, 'This is my program now, I'm going to put my stamp on it.' "

Nor is he overly concerned that he is considered the first big-college football coach of Polynesian descent (he's Samoan). "Hopefully I can do well for others to have the same opportunities," he said.

On a practice field at UC San Diego, Niumatalolo prowled the sidelines as quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and the offensive line went through their paces.

"Do your job, do your job," Niumatalolo told the linemen. The voice was urgent but not angry or panicky.

Navy-Utah matches up as offense versus defense. Navy led the nation in rushing, averaging 351 yards. But Utah held its opponents to an average of 84.3 yards rushing in its last eight games. The Utes also played well in a losing game against Air Force, which uses a variant of the triple option.

Niumatalolo said Navy has no bowl surprises. "We're going to do what we do. We never get tired of doing what's right," he said.

In interviews, Niumatalolo is relentlessly humble, offloading all praise to his players, showing respect for all opponents, past and future. Compare that to his predecessor who, soon after being hired, set the Georgia Tech student body aflame at a pep rally when he shouted, "To hell with Georgia," Georgia Tech's arch-rival.

If Johnson and Niumatalolo have differing temperaments, their approach to football is similar, possibly because they spent 17 seasons together. Run a lot, pass a little, teach linemen to poke holes in the defense.

A native of Hawaii, Niumatalolo played for the Rainbow Warriors from 1986 to 1989 and then was a graduate assistant (1990-92) and assistant coach (1992-94). Johnson was offensive coordinator in Hawaii from 1987 to 1994.

In 1995, the pair left for Navy, Johnson as offensive coordinator and Niumatalolo as an assistant. In 1997, Johnson became coach at Georgia Southern, with Niumatalolo taking over as Navy's offensive coordinator.

From 1999 to 2001, Niumatalolo was an assistant coach under John Robinson at Nevada Las Vegas. Then in 2002, Johnson and Niumatalolo both returned to Navy, the former as coach, the latter as an assistant.

In interviews this week, Niumatalolo has talked about what he sees as the special nature of the Naval Academy and its student-athletes, many of whom he recruited.

Upon graduation, each will go on active duty in the Navy or Marine Corps. Take junior Kaheaku-Enhada, the team leader in rushing. After graduation, he wants to go with the Marine Corps and fly F/A-18s.

"Whatever freedoms we have in the United States of America, these kids are the kids who will go out and sacrifice for us," Niumatalolo said. "We've got great kids.

"For me, the football is the easy part."

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