Navy head coach's playbook of principles

Published: Sunday, Aug. 28 2011 11:28 a.m. MDT

Navy head football coach Ken Niumatalolo talks to his team at halftime of a game.

U.S. Naval Academy

Walk past the football coach’s office Monday around 4 a.m., and you will find him alone, his back to the door, studying a book on his desk. It’s in the quiet solitude of those predawn hours that Navy’s head man, Ken Niumatalolo, becomes immersed in his playbook.

Not his football strategies, his scriptural playbook, the Book of Mormon.

“It’s his personal time. No one will bother him until he turns back forward in his desk,” said Barbara Niumatalolo, the coach’s wife. “If something touches him, he goes back to it during the day. It’s usually something he needs to hear to prepare him for that day.”

Daily scripture study is just one of many key strategies in Niumatalolo’s personal playbook of principles. Devotion to family, church service and living the gospel have helped the Mormon coach endure the rigors and stress of the college coaching lifestyle from Hawaii to Annapolis, Md., for almost two decades. Much of his success can be traced to something he learned at an early age.

“For me, growing up as a member of the church, I always knew as long as you are obedient, the Lord will bless you and everything will work out,” Niumatalolo said. “Gospel principles are universal.”

Putting the Lord first

Niumatalolo was born the fifth of seven children to Simi and Lamala Niumatalolo, who moved to Hawaii from American Samoa. He grew up in a small, tin-roof house on stilts 200 yards off the north shore of Oahu. His father worked for the Coast Guard before retiring to work in food services at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Two grandmothers and an uncle lived with the family, so space was limited. The family held tight to its Samoan roots.

“We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor,” Niumatalolo said.

Niumatalolo led Radford High to a state title as a junior and finished his senior year 22-1 as the starting quarterback, then accepted a scholarship to the University of Hawaii. But even as his college career began, Niumatalolo felt out of place.

“I had accomplished my goal of getting a Division I scholarship but still wasn’t happy, and I knew why,” the coach said. “I was trying to mask the feeling that I needed to go on a mission.”

He submitted his papers and was called to speak Spanish in Ventura, Calif. From many lessons, a theme emerged that would stay with him for the rest of his life: “As you put the Lord first, everything else will work out.”

Listen to the Spirit

The mission also helped Niumatalolo keep life in perspective when he returned to football in Hawaii. Despite his best efforts, he was relegated to the No. 2 quarterback position and rarely saw the field for three years. In the waning games of his senior year in 1989, Niumatalolo knew his playing days were over.

By then he was married and had a young daughter. He needed a job.

Sports broadcasting appealed to him, and he had a communications degree, but opportunities in the Islands were limited.

Then Hawaii offensive coordinator Paul Johnson suggested he apply for a graduate assistant position under coach Bob Wagner. Niumatalolo had seen other graduate assistants work for years without landing a full-time job. The monthly stipend was $350 to $400, and rent for their apartment was twice that, Barbara Niumatalolo recalled.

The couple knew it wouldn’t be easy but decided to give it a shot. Their plan called for Barbara to become the breadwinner, and Ken had two years to get a full-time coaching job or it was back to the real world.

“His dream was to get me home so I could raise our children,” Barbara said.

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