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Navy head coach's playbook of principles

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

For two years, the Niumatalolos struggled to get by while other grad assistants slept and showered in the team facilities. In addition to coaching, Niumatalolo carted around the head coach’s exercise bike, brought lunch boxes to the video crew and dropped off the coaches’ kids at school. Friends questioned if his labors were worth it, but his hard work eventually paid off. After the 1991 season, he earned an assistant position at the University of Hawaii. In the years that followed, he also found employment at Navy and UNLV. When Johnson left to coach at Georgia Tech at the end of 2007, Niumatalolo was hired as the head coach at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“(Each time) we tried to listen to the promptings of the Holy Ghost, and the Lord has blessed our family,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m glad we listened."

Coaching and callings

Since taking over the Navy football program, Niumatalolo — the second Polynesian and first Samoan head coach in college football — has led the Midshipmen to 27 wins, 14 losses, including two straight wins over Notre Dame, three bowl appearances and two Commander-in-Chief’s Trophies, an honor that includes a trip to the White House to meet the president.

It’s an impressive rÉsumÉ, considering Navy is a military school with a unique mission and atmosphere. And Niumatalolo has done it while carving out time to serve in church leadership positions and not working on Sundays.

Niumatalolo served as first counselor in the bishopric for about seven years before working in the Primary and being assigned to his current calling as Young Men president.

“It’s tough, (but) I’ve always tried to do the best I can. I am not the only person like this,” the coach said.

For a college football coach, Sundays are “critical … the biggest preparation day of the week,” Niumatalolo said. “I don’t force my beliefs on my staff, but I am who I am, and (keeping the Sabbath day holy) is the best way I know how to get prepared and ready for the game. … It helps me be a better coach. It helps me stresswise. I feel better.”

The coach also believes it’s a benefit for players to have a day off to balance out their busy lives.

It’s fitting, considering that Matthew 6:33 is one of his favorite scriptures: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

Leadership principles

One of Niumatalolo’s favorite sections of the Doctrine and Covenants is 121, which shares insight on how to be an effective priesthood leader.

“The power of the priesthood translates into everything. It’s how the Lord operates, through persuasion, long-suffering and meekness,” he said. “If you exercise unrighteous dominion, even from a worldly standpoint, things don’t work out. I’ve tried to apply those governing principles as a priesthood leader and in my job.”

During the week, he and his staff focus on teaching the Midshipmen to develop qualities such as integrity, character and work ethic, “all those intangibles we build on to hopefully build a team that maybe will overcome some deficiencies in talent,” Niumatalolo said.

Family principles

Niumatalolo’s office is filled with family photos.

“The most important role is being a husband and a father,” he said. “That’s way more important than being a coach."

The Niumatalolos are the parents of three children — Alexcia, Va’a and Ali’i. In a profession where victories determine employment, love and laughter at home help the Niumatalolos survive the wear and tear of each grueling season. Barbara Niumatalolo says Ken is good about not taking out football frustrations on the family.

“After a loss he comes home to be with the family,” Barbara said. “Sometimes you have to count your blessings when something has happened that you feel is the end of the world.”

Niumatalolo credits his “great” wife with being able to manage everything at home.

The Niumatalolos draw strength by eating meals together and participating in family activities. For a personal outlet, Ken Niumatalolo also finds peace in spending hours mowing the lawn in creative diagonal designs.

In addition to their own family, the Niumatalolos also feel the need to watch over their other family — the coaches, players and their families.

“It becomes exponential when you are the head coach, the responsibility is greater,” Barbara said. “Now you have 100-plus-something sons, and we are concerned for everyone. We recruited them. We worry and pray for the players like our own kids.”

Ken tries to remember that when coaching the team.

“It makes you realize that’s still somebody’s son,” he said. “If I lose my temper at times, I’ve got to catch myself, you know what, that’s somebody’s son. Just treat them with respect. I know how I want my kids treated.”

This fall, his son is at BYU. Va’a, a walk on linebacker, is attending BYU for one semester before departing on a mission. He credits his parents with having taught him the essentials.

“Always put the Lord first in whatever you do,” Va’a said. “Then everything else will fall into place.”

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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