Two days after directing the Navy football team to a 14th straight win against Army amid speculation it could be his final game with the Midshipmen, Coach Ken Niumatalolo met with Brigham Young athletic officials about the school’s impending coaching vacancy but had not decided as of late Monday whether to leave Annapolis, several people close to Niumatalolo indicated.
“I suspect it will be a few days, but we shall see,” Niumatalolo’s agent, Evan Beard, said when reached by telephone. “It could happen in the next 10 minutes, but look, he’s not going to make a hurried decision.”
Niumatalolo traveled to Provo, Utah, Sunday night to meet Monday with BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe, among others, about the job that opened when Bronco Mendenhall announced last week he was leaving for Virginia. Niumatalolo declined to comment to reporters at Salt Lake City International Airport shortly after landing with his wife, Barbara.
But in the moments after beating Army, 21-17, early Saturday evening in Philadelphia, an emotional Niumatalolo said with regard to the BYU job: “My heart says go. My head says stay. I tend to lead with my heart.”
Those comments led to reports suggesting the departure of the winningest coach in Navy football history was imminent, but Beard said: “It’s premature.”
Niumatalolo’s interest in the BYU position in large part stems 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 the University of Hawaii and playing football in his home state. In addition, his family was featured in last year’s documentary “Meet the Mormons.”
BYU supporters, meanwhile, took to social media in waves Monday, attempting to sway Niumatalolo with a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #KenWatch2015.
“He was not going to make any decisions until he came back to Annapolis,” Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said Monday night. “So it’s going to be at least another full day or so. I haven’t heard a word at all.”
Niumatalolo first told players Thursday after practice about his intention of interviewing with 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.
No. 21 Navy (10-2) wound up rallying to victory behind senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns and threw for another score against the Black Knights. The Midshipmen defense contributed with a second-half shutout while collecting three turnovers, all in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t let it affect us because regardless of what coach’s decision is going to be, he loves us, we love him,” Navy senior safety Lorentez Barbour said. “We play for our teammates. We play for each other, no matter what. The coaches are there to get us in the right place, get us in the right position, but between those white lines, it’s on us.”
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. 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.
A semifinalist for national coach of the year, 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 then-coach 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 by recruiting several of the best quarterbacks in school history.
In April 2011, Niumatalolo signed a contract extension that has four years remaining and is scheduled to pay him roughly $1.6 million per year. There is a buyout clause, but terms were unavailable. Virginia paid nearly $1.2 million to buy out Mendenhall, who will coach BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl Saturday against rival Utah.