For Navy, a Distinct Heritage And a Familiar Game Plan

Navy's Ken Niumatalolo is the first head coach of Polynesian descent in division I-A football.
Navy's Ken Niumatalolo is the first head coach of Polynesian descent in division I-A football. (Navy Photo)
By Christian Swezey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

SAN DIEGO, Dec. 18 -- Then-Hawaii football coach Bob Wagner was speaking at a Rotary Club meeting in the late 1980s when he was asked who would be his starting quarterback. Wagner named six of the seven quarterbacks on the roster and said all six were good and had a chance at playing time.

After the meeting, the mother of the seventh quarterback approached him. She told Wagner he had forgotten to mention her son, sophomore Ken Niumatalolo.

"What are the chances of that?" Wagner said.

Wagner learned that day that Niumatalolo has quite a following in Hawaii. Niumatalolo earned his reputation as a three-sport athlete at Radford High, a school one mile from Pearl Harbor, and as a backup quarterback who led Hawaii to two comeback victories in 1989.

And people in his native Hawaii were among those who celebrated Dec. 8 after Niumatalolo, 42, was named Navy's head football coach. He is the first person of Polynesian descent to be named head coach of a division I-A football team.

Niumatalolo was promoted one day after Paul Johnson resigned to become the head coach at Georgia Tech.

"When I found out Paul Johnson's name was going around, I hoped and prayed that Kenny would get an opportunity," said Joe Seumalo, the defensive line coach at Oregon State, who played at Hawaii while Niumatalolo was an assistant there. "I'm excited for a lot of us in this profession.

"A bunch of us aspire to be head coaches, and if anything, this may create a few windows of opportunity for people who are Polynesian. . . . Now, we've got someone to look up to."

The people at Navy were pleased with Niumatalolo's hiring as well. Niumatalolo had been the assistant head coach and offensive line coach for six years under Johnson, the past five of which featured a 43-19 record and five straight Commander-in-Chief's trophies. Thursday's Poinsettia Bowl against Utah (8-4) marks the fifth straight bowl game for the Midshipmen (8-4).

"There's something about offensive line coaches," said David Lillefloren, an offensive lineman at Navy in the 1990s who has known Niumatalolo for 10 years. "You have to be a special person to coach the line. . . . If you're an offensive lineman, your badge of honor is not being recognized. That the team respects what you do, that's all the reward you want."

In his first meeting with the players after being named head coach, Niumatalolo asked them to leave the comfort of an auditorium and walk outside on a blustery December day. He led them to the practice field.

"He said he wanted us to meet there because that's where we're going to do most of our work," senior slotback Zerbin Singleton said. "He also wanted us to see the academy, to see Bancroft Hall [the academy's dormitory] and the new facilities and the school buildings. He wanted us to remember who we play for and why we're here."

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