Ken Niumatalolo had plans this week to hit the recruiting trail this week to bolster his roster for upcoming seasons. He never got the chance.
Niumatalolo, who will not return after 15 seasons as the head football coach at the Naval Academy, the school announced Sunday, told The Capital that he did not expect to get fired and had already begun strategizing ways to get Navy back on a winning path.
Instead, Niumatalolo met with Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk on Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia following the Mids’ heartbreaking 20-17 double-overtime loss to Army. Gladchuk indicated what direction he intended to go and Niumatalolo asked that he think about the decision for a day.
“It was a great run, but I wasn’t ready for it to be over. I’m still healthy, I’m still strong, I wanted to finish this up, but Chet had other plans,” said Niumatalolo, who turned 57 in May.
“I’m a grown man and have been in this profession a long time. I understand this type of thing is part of it. I didn’t think my run was over, but I guess Chet obviously thought otherwise and he’s the boss.”
Former Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo spoke to the Capital hours after it as announced he would not return as head coach.
“It’s been a great honor and a great blessing to serve as the head football coach of the Naval Academy.”
Navy largely outplayed Army on the field Saturday night, but the scoreboard told a different story. A blocked punt that led directly to a Black Knights touchdown and a fumble that prevented a potential touchdown for the Midshipmen ultimately proved decisive.
On the first possession of the second overtime, fullback Anton Hall Jr. was lunging to get over the goal line when the ball got jarred loose and Army recovered. Moments later, kicker Quinn Maretzki booted the game-winning field goal.
“We were a couple inches away from winning that game last night. I guess that will be even harder to swallow now,” Niumatalolo said. “We felt like we should have beaten Army yesterday, so it’s tough to go out this way. Who knows, maybe if we win that game we might not be having this conversation.”
Gladchuk told The Capital that results on the field forced his hand. Navy suffered losing records in four of the last five seasons and is 3-7 against service academy rivals Air Force and Army since 2018.
Niumatalolo, who was promoted to head coach in December 2007, led Navy to winning records in eight of the previous nine seasons.
“I wish we were going out under different circumstances,” he said. “I worked very hard, along with many others, to build this program. I had hoped to be able to turn things around. I’m a competitor, so obviously I wanted to finish this thing out.”
Navy suffered just its second losing season under Niumatalolo in 2018, going 3-10 overall and 2-6 in the American Athletic Conference. After much contemplation, Niumatalolo let go of most of his defensive assistants and Brian Newberry, who was named interim head coach on Sunday, was hired as defensive coordinator, bringing in many of his own assistants.
That move paid dividends and quarterback Malcolm Perry revived the struggling offense as Navy compiled an 11-2 overall record and 7-1 conference record in 2019. The Midshipmen swept Army and Air Force to capture the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and upset Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl.
Niumatalolo blamed the struggles of the past three seasons on the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Navy football did not do any live hitting during the 2020 preseason as Niumatalolo tried to limit losing players due to positive coronavirus tests and subsequent contact tracing. That decision proved a mistake as the Midshipmen got blown out by BYU, 55-3, in the opener and wound up finishing 3-7 in a season marred by game cancellations and postponements.
Coronavirus restrictions at the Naval Academy continued into the 2021 season and members of the Brigade of Midshipmen were confined to the Bancroft Hall dormitory for weeks and months at a time.
“During the pandemic, we had the most restrictions of any college football program in the country. Our players were isolated in their dorm rooms. We could barely practice,” Niumatalolo said. “I definitely feel like the pandemic set us back big time.”
Those conditions led to widespread transfers among football players and wiped out the senior classes in both 2021 and 2022.
Navy only had five senior starters this season and a handful of other contributors from the senior class. On the bright side, all the young players that were forced to grow up in a hurry would be returning in 2023, which gave Niumatalolo hope for dramatic improvement.
“Some of the things that happened because of COVID affected our program more than anybody. We’ve been hamstrung for the last few years, but I feel like we were just starting to get through that,” Niumatalolo said. “I feel really good about this program going forward. We have a ton of good players coming back and the schedule lightens up next season.”
Niumatalolo also felt Navy was not playing on a level playing field with service academy rivals Army and Air Force over the past decade or so. The administrations at West Point and Colorado Springs had allowed their respective football programs to basically redshirt players who suffered season-ending injuries.
Air Force famously sent the majority of its football players home for the 2020 fall semester to preserve their eligibility. Those so-called “turnbacks” resulted in the Falcons having fifth-year seniors in 2021, 2022 and 2023.
“I felt like we were handcuffed as compared to the other two service academies as far as stretching players. Obviously, Air Force basically redshirted its entire team in 2020. Army has been stretching guys ever since [coach Jeff Monken] got there and they made a major commitment to football,” Niumatalolo said.
“The Naval Academy was not willing to do that and it was definitely a disadvantage. There were some other fundamental changes I wanted to make and our leadership wouldn’t budge, which I understand.”
Niumatalolo was also hamstrung on the recruiting trail after Supreme Court sided with a group of current and former athletes who said the NCAA was violating federal antitrust law by limiting student-athlete compensation to the value of a basic scholarship, which struck at the NCAA’s definition of amateurism. Maryland, among many other states, also passed laws granting college athletes the right to profit off their names, images and likenesses.
Service academy athletes could not participate in NIL, however, because the Department of Defense considers student-athletes at Army, Air Force and Navy government employees and does not allow them to seek outside employment.
“If your goal is just to win, then you sell your soul and do whatever it takes to win. I never did that. I never compromised the institution. I never even considered breaking any NCAA rules,” Niumatalolo said. “I was going to do everything in my power to make sure everyone involved with our program operated with honesty and integrity.”
Niumatalolo got into coaching as a graduate assistant at Hawaii under the tutelage of Paul Johnson. Niumatalolo played quarterback for the Rainbow Warriors when Johnson was the offensive coordinator.
When Johnson was hired as Navy offensive coordinator, he brought Niumatalolo and another graduate assistant, Ivin Jasper, along with him to help install the triple-option offense.
“I came here 25 years ago, basically as a kid from Hawaii. My wife and I raised our family here,” said Niumatalolo, getting choked up.
Niumatalolo was promoted to offensive coordinator under head coach Charlie Weatherbie after Johnson left Navy to become head coach at Georgia Southern in 1997. However, Weatherbie wound up firing Niumatalolo a few years later after the two had disagreements about the direction of the offense.
Niumatalolo remained in coaching as an assistant at UNLV under legendary coach John Robinson. He returned to Annapolis with the title of associate head coach after Johnson was hired to replace Weatherbie in 2002.
A dramatic coaching comeback took another surprising turn when Gladchuk promoted Niumatalolo to head coach to succeed Johnson after the latter left for Georgia Tech in 2007.
“I’m grateful that Chet took a chance on me. He didn’t really know me that well,” Niumatalolo said. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t have a ton of conversations with Chet while I was an assistant. He mostly talked to Paul and Buddy. I was kind of surprised that he even gave me an interview. I’m grateful that Chet believed in me.”
Navy football enjoyed tremendous success under Niumatalolo, posting 10 winning seasons that ended with bowl games, capturing the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy six times, knocking off six top 25 opponents and beating Notre Dame three times.
Through it all, Niumatalolo never lost sight of the primary job of any coach at the Naval Academy.
“My bottom line goal has always been to develop young men of character and leadership. I’m at the Naval Academy and that is the mission,” he said. “I have always wanted to do my part to further the mission. I leave here with my head high knowing that I did that, and won a ton of games in the process.”
Niumatalolo said he’s not ready to ride off into the sunset and enjoy retirement at his home in Hawaii. He still has the desire to coach and will see what opportunities arise.
“I’m still going to do something. I’ve still got a lot left in the tank. My adrenaline is still flowing from last night,” he said.
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