On June 29, 2009, I had open-heart surgery — seven blockages. I made a full recovery and was able to go to Ohio State with Navy’s football team during the first week of September. While walking from the field to the press box, I ran into Ken Niumatalolo.
“You have too many people in the world counting on you,” he said, “starting with your family and friends — like me. We all need you. You have to start taking better care of yourself.”
Before I could answer, the ESPN guy came up behind Niumatalolo and said, “Coach, we need you on the field right now.”
Niumatalolo is one of the most mild-mannered people I have met in sports. He whirled around on the ESPN guy and said: “Listen, I’m willing to do this, but I’m going to talk to my friend first. If you’re not okay with that, that’s fine.” The look in his eye told the producer that he better not mess with him.
That story should make it clear that this will be anything but an unbiased column. I couldn’t be more biased when it comes to Ken Niumatalolo.
That’s why, when I heard Sunday that Navy had fired Niumatalolo after 15 years as its coach and 25 years at the school, I was stunned. I know how college sports work; a bunch of people, even at Navy, will pressure college presidents and the athletic director to win more and more.
Navy went to 10 bowl games in Niumatalolo’s first 12 years as coach. The past three years were not as good. After Saturday’s 20-17 double-overtime loss to Army on Saturday in Philadelphia, Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk walked into Niumatalolo’s office at Lincoln Financial Field and told him Navy was making a change, the coach said after meeting with his team Sunday.
Gladchuk’s visit came after a heartbreaking loss that had everyone on Navy’s side in shock. When Gladchuk walked in, Niumatalolo said he thought he was going to make changes on the offensive side. But then Gladchuk said, “We’re going to make a change.” Niumatalolo was stunned. He has been the face of Navy athletics for the past 15 years. He graduated his players, he had 10 winning seasons, and he won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy six times.
This is my question whenever anyone says a change should be made: “Who are you going to get that is better?” Brian Newberry, the defensive coordinator, was named the interim coach. Whether he will be the next full-time coach or someone else will take over, no one knows at this point. Here’s what I do know: Navy is not going to do better than Niumatalolo.
Putting the numbers aside, Niumatalolo is the perfect representative for Navy. Although this season ended with a 4-8 record, the next is in line to be better. Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston are leaving the American Athletic Conference, and the teams replacing them aren’t going to be nearly as good. Additionally, 18 of 22 Navy starters are in line to return.
Niumatalolo, at the least, should have gotten a chance to coach that team. In fact, he said he told Gladchuk: “Calm down. If we don’t have a winning season next year, you won’t have to fire me. I’ll resign.”
The higher-ups at Navy have been spoiled by the football team’s success, and there has been a lot of complaining over the past two years about the team’s losing records. Plus, Niumatalolo has been pressuring the higher-ups to give him a level playing field with service academy rivals Army and Air Force. That would include letting seniors who have eligibility left play a fifth fall. Army and Air Force allow their seniors to do that. Navy does not.
When you’re playing your archrivals in games that almost always are decided by one possession, little advantages make a big difference. Navy could not have come closer to beating Army on Saturday without winning. The most heartbreaking thing about fullback Anton Hall Jr.’s fumble at the goal line in the second overtime is what the kid will have to deal with going forward. One play didn’t decide that game, but many will believe that one player decided it. Had Hall scored, Army probably would have struggled to match. Instead, all the Black Knights needed was a 39-yard Quinn Maretzki field goal to win.
If Navy had prevailed, Niumatalolo would still be its coach. At Navy, you don’t fire the coach after he wins the Army-Navy game. And you shouldn’t fire a class act such as Niumatalolo after a loss like that — especially when the team had shown marked improvement in the season’s final weeks, even after it lost its starting quarterback.
With a much easier schedule, the Mids will win more games next year. But the man who was the heart and soul of the program for the past 15 years will be gone.
Niumatalolo will coach again. He’s only 57, and the desire that always has burned inside him is still there. He’s an excellent football coach but a much better person. Navy will not be the same without him.