Less than a week after directing the Navy football team to a 14th straight win against Army amid speculation it could be his final game as Mids coach, Ken Niumatalolo announced Wednesday he would be staying in Annapolis despite interviewing for the impending vacancy at Brigham Young.
Niumatalolo traveled to Provo, Utah, on Sunday night with his wife Barbara to meet with BYU officials the next day about the job that opened when Bronco Mendenhall announced last week he was leaving for Virginia. The winningest coach in Navy history then spent what he called two of the most agonizing days of his life weighing his decision, speaking only with his family and those among his closest inner circle.
“It was hard going back and forth,” Niumatalolo said in a telephone conversation late Wednesday night. “I just think ultimately this is where I’m supposed to be. Nothing against BYU. They have a great program. They’re really wonderful people, but there are wonderful people at the Naval Academy.”
The decision means Niumatalolo can begin preparing for what could be another milestone in Navy’s final game this season. The No. 21 Midshipmen (10-2) face Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl Dec. 28 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium seeking to set the single-season school record for victories.
The news came shortly after Niumatalolo was named a finalist for national coach of the year. The other nominees are Mark Dantonio of Michigan State, Kirk Ferentz of Iowa, Jim McElwain of Florida, David Shaw of Stanford and Dabo Swinney of Clemson.
“We’re all relieved,” Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said. “It was a stressful exercise, but something he felt was important that he explore, and everyone respects that and appreciates his position on it. In the final analysis, we were all on edge because we know how important he is to the program and how inspirational he’s been to Navy football.”
Niumamatalo’s interest in the BYU opening in large part stemmed from his Mormon faith. He is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, having gone on mission for two years while attending Hawaii and playing football in his home state. In addition, his family was featured in last year’s documentary “Meet the Mormons,” and Niumatalolo has held leadership positions with the Broadneck chapter of LDS.
Niumatalolo first told players Thursday after practice about his plan to interview at BYU, where his son, Va’a, is a sophomore linebacker. Some Navy officials bristled at the timing of his announcement less than 48 hours before the Midshipmen’s most meaningful game of the year. Niumatalolo addressed that criticism after the game, saying he wanted to be transparent with his team.
Navy wound up rallying to victory behind senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries and passed for 113 yards and another touchdown to complete his career 4-0 against the Black Knights. The Mids defense contributed with a second-half shutout while collecting three turnovers, all in the fourth quarter.
“I agonized, ‘Do I tell the team before the biggest game of the year?’ ” Niumatalolo said. “But I didn’t want to go [to visit BYU], and something comes out, and my players see that. I had no idea when I got there the media would be waiting for me at the airport. If that would have happened, and I decided like I did now that I’m not going, and I hadn’t told my players, my players wouldn’t look at me the same way right now. I would lose some trust.”
Niumatalolo has spent eight full seasons in Annapolis, where he owns a 67-37 record, seven bowl appearances and five Commander-in-Chief’s trophies, including reclaiming the hardware for service academy football supremacy this year. Among his other notable accomplishments are becoming the first coach to lead Navy to a bowl game in each of his first three years and the first coach to win the CIC Trophy in each of his first two years.
Niumatalolo guided Navy within one win of a spot in the American Athletic Conference championship game this season. The Midshipmen, playing in a conference for the first time in 135 years of football at the academy, finished 7-1 in the AAC West Division, tied with Houston. Navy fell to the No. 18 Cougars, 52-31, in the final regular season game Nov. 27 to lose the tiebreaker.
Niumatalolo officially took over in 2007 for the Poinsettia Bowl after Paul Johnson announced he would be leaving for Georgia Tech. Johnson was responsible for jump-starting Navy’s resurgence by installing the triple-option offense, and Niumatalolo has kept that attack rolling in part by recruiting several of best quarterbacks in school history.
In April 2011, Niumatalolo signed a contract extension that has four years remaining and is scheduled to play him roughly $1.6 million per year. There is a buyout clause, according to Niumatalolo’s agent, Evan Beard, who declined to disclose the terms. Virginia paid nearly $1.2 million to buy out Mendenhall, who will coach BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday against rival Utah before taking over in Charlottesville.
“Kenny is back driving the ship and where he needs to be and where he should be,” Gladchuk said. “We got a great Christmas present, and that being that the coach reinforces again his commitment to an institution that appreciates his leadership.”