Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae had the best vantage point from his spot near the door at Hotel Washington's top-floor lounge Tuesday night. He was at a work event, the "Meet the Coaches Reception" ahead of Thursday's Military Bowl between Virginia and Navy, but everywhere he looked, he saw men he considered to be more than his colleagues in the coaching profession. He saw family.
Over in the corner, Virginia running backs coach Mark Atuaia and Navy defensive line coach Shaun Nua were sharing a laugh. Both worked on Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall's staff when he was at Brigham Young.
Across the room, Mendenhall and Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo were chatting. It was at practice at BYU, where Niumatalolo's eldest son played for Mendenhall, that the Navy coach first spotted Nua as an up-and-coming coach.
Earlier, Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper had come to greet Anae. The two have a shared history at Hawaii, where Anae was a graduate assistant a few years before Jasper played there.
"Oh, yeah," Anae said as his gaze shifted around the room. "I know these guys better than most."
When Navy (6-6) and Virginia (6-6) play Thursday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in the 10th Military Bowl, it will be a meeting of two coaching staffs with deeply rooted relationships. The schools will always be bound by Hall of Fame coach George Welsh, who led Navy for nine seasons before spending 19 at the helm in Charlottesville. But on these staffs, there are connections that have been forged through football, faith and a shared heritage.
Mendenhall, most of his assistants at Virginia, Niumatalolo, Nua and Navy defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are also six coaches of Polynesian descent between the two staffs, counting Niumatalolo, Anae, Atuaia, Nua, Virginia defensive line coach Vic So'oto and graduate assistant Famika Anae, Robert's son.
"We're calling it the Poly Bowl," Nua said with a smile last week.
The connection that lies at the center of the web is perhaps the deepest. Niumatalolo, Anae and Atuaia grew up in the same small community — too small to be designated even as a town or village by the U.S. Census Bureau — called Laie (pronounced lah-EE-ay) on Oahu's North Shore in Hawaii.
It isn't lost on any of them that for three men from a proud community of 6,000 to meet in a football game across the country is significant.
"I think about that all the time," Niumatalolo said last week. "Especially with this game. Just that Robert and Mark and I will be coaching over here, it's kind of cool. Especially if you saw the small town we're from, Laie. Lots of people work at the Polynesian Cultural Center. It's a big sports town, You play basketball and volleyball at the park, and rugby, then you go to the beach and swim."
Nowadays, Laie is a hub for Mormons throughout the Pacific because of the Laie Hawaii Temple, the first LDS temple built outside the contiguous United States. But Anae explained that in traditional Hawaiian culture, Laie was a sanctuary city for those who had broken the ancient Hawaiian laws of "Kapu," a code of conduct for everyday life.
"If you break a Kapu, then it's death, or you chop off an arm," Anae said. "So, the way it worked in pre-missionary times, if you traveled on foot through the mountains and you came to Laie, you were free. It was a safe zone. There was a Kapu, and there was a way to redeem yourself."
"And it had a lot to do with your ability to run," he said.
Funny, then, that Laie children attend Kahuku High, the well-known home base of the Red Raiders football program that is said to have churned out 17 NFL players since 1970. Anae's father was the longtime coach at Kahuku, where both Anae and Atuaia went. Anae became the starting guard on the 1984 BYU team that captured the national title. Atuaia, who played at BYU in the 1990s, was at one point the all-time leading high school rusher in state history.
For Navy and Virginia, Thursday's meeting could serve as a pivot point. The game, the 34th meeting between the two schools but first since 1994, marks the unofficial beginning of the Malcolm Perry era at Navy after a season of tumult at the quarterback position. Niumatalolo named Perry the team's starter "from here on" after the Army-Navy game earlier this month.
For Virginia, the game marks the school's first bowl game since the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl, a promising milestone in Mendenhall's second year heading the team.
But for some of the game's coaches, the bowl is also a cultural milestone. The 2010 Census counted the population of American Samoa at 55,519. It makes the Samoans on both coaching staffs proud that six of them landed in the highest echelon of college football. Niumatalolo is the second person of Polynesian descent to ever coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, after Hawaii's Larry Price.
"It's kind of amazing, because it's not very many of us," Niumatalolo said. "It's a great honor. I think all of us are grateful for this opportunity."