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Mormon coaches and callings: How they balance serving in the church with pressure-filled profession

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, left, reacts with safety Emmett Merchant following a turnover by Notre Dame during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009.

Darron Cummings, AP

Editor's note: This week, the Deseret News takes an in-depth look at how football coaches balance the demands of their profession with commitments to their faith.

Monday: Justin Anderson, Nicholls State

Tuesday: Ed Lamb, Southern Utah University

Wednesday: Steve Kaufusi, BYU

Today: Coaches and callings — serving in the LDS Church

Friday: Coaches and Christianity

Ken Niumatalolo is not a fan of camping. The Navy head football coach prefers nice hotels when away from home.

Yet when duty called a few years ago, he endured the outdoors for a week at a lake near Cumberland, Maryland.

Coach Niumatalolo is also the Young Men president of his LDS ward. For several days, the coach encouraged 15 teenagers to pass off Duty to God requirements and earn Boy Scout merit badges while attending Aaronic Priesthood camp. Game preparation for opponents like Notre Dame and Pittsburgh would have to wait.

“When I come to church, I am Brother Niumatalolo. I’m nobody special," Niumatalolo said in a recent Deseret News interview. "When I’m at camp, they don’t care that I’m the head coach. I guarantee there is not another Division I coach chasing around Boys Scouts, saying, ‘Put that knife down’ or ‘Don’t throw that rock.’”

Perhaps not. But there are many coaches like Niumatalolo who are dedicated to serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints despite the rigors of their profession.

Coaching football at the college and professional level is stressful, competitive and high-profile. Yet these men serve in their own unique ways. BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall is like the roving free safety of high councilors in his stake, speaking and filling in where needed. Steve Kaufusi, the Cougars’ defensive line coach, is the bishop of a young single adult ward in Provo. Utah assistant Morgan Scalley and Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell both serve as advisers to priest quorums. Weber State head coach Jay Hill was an elders quorum president for four years while an assistant at Utah. And Nicholls State head coach Charlie Stubbs has filled a number of church positions over his 30-year coaching career.

These coaches love the game of football, but they also love their families and the gospel — which is why they make it a priority to serve where and when they can.

“As long as you honor God and do your best to take care of your commitments and responsibilities, he will bless you,” Scalley said.

Juggling act

Mark Atuaia has returned from road games as late as 2 a.m., knowing full well that he has early-morning church responsibilities. In those instances, he gets "a quick nap on the couch" before he's off for a 5 a.m. high council meeting.

Atuaia, BYU’s second-year running backs coach, is in his third year of serving on the high council of the Utah Tongan Wasatch Stake, which extends from Lehi to Nephi. He also attends the Provo 10th Ward, where he and his wife — the Relief Society president — take their seven children, ranging from a senior in high school to 2 years old.

No matter how you look at it, balancing home life with work and a church calling can be a daunting task sometimes, Atuaia said.

“It’s very, very tough," he said. "We’re brought up in an LDS culture (where) no calling is too small or too big, and your diligence in that calling in some aspect shows your love for the Savior. That’s not something you take lightly, even with a demanding job like coaching.

“It's tough. I’m not going to sit here and lie,” Atuaia continued. “You’ve got to set your alarm and know that you have got to get out of bed and go do something that's essentially voluntary. Your motivation stems not from repercussions of sorts, but from your own personal relationship with your Heavenly Father. So balancing that and finding that grit to continue is a tough deal, but you just manage it and do it.”

Like with many professions, the long hours and travel involved with coaching present challenges to fulfilling church callings, and the commitments overlap from time to time.

Paul Tidwell, another BYU assistant who serves on his stake high council, sometimes needs some flexibility in his responsibility over baptisms. The stake baptism services are held on Saturdays — some of which happen to be game days.

“There are times I can’t do that. We all have them,” said Tidwell, BYU’s inside linebackers coach. “But this is a volunteer calling. I work with awesome people and we find a substitute.”

During his time as an assistant at Utah when the Utes were enjoying 10-win seasons and making a Sugar Bowl appearance after an undefeated 2008 season, Hill was the elders quorum president in his Murray LDS ward. His Sunday schedule involved studying game film from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m., attending church and returning to the football office. Monday and Tuesday were full days, so Hill had to split his family time on Wednesday and Thursday with making visits to ward members. During bye weeks, Hill was able to assist in a service project or with moving a ward member. He often relied on his counselors to carry the load.

“That was crazy,” said Hill, now a first-year head coach at Weber State and whose new church assignment is teaching teenagers in Sunday School. “The stake president told me to rely on good counselors, but I also didn’t want it to look like I was slacking off. I tried to make up for it in the offseason.”

The transient nature of coaching can also present challenges to church service. Firings and staff changes are part of the job. Justin Ena, Weber State's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach who also currently team teaches a Primary class with his wife in their new Syracuse ward, joked about how that reality could be used to avoid responsibility.

“I know how to get out of a calling — by moving,” he said with a laugh.

Having coached at 13 different colleges since the early 1980s, Stubbs has lived all over the country and served in various capacities. One of his more memorable callings came when he was an assistant at Alabama from 1998 to 2000. While the Crimson Tide was competing for Southeastern Conference titles, Stubbs was doing his best to serve as a counselor in a bishopric.

“It was a challenge, to say the least,” said Stubbs, who is currently a high priest group instructor in his Louisiana ward. “It worked thanks to an understanding bishop.”

Over the years, Mendenhall has served as a gospel doctrine teacher, a member of the Sunday School presidency, a ward mission leader and a Primary teacher, among other callings. His current church calling is high councilor, and he is quick to acknowledge he has the fewest responsibilities in the stake.

“I love the calling,” he said. “I contribute where I can.”

Sundays

After several years of experiencing Sunday conflicts as an assistant coach, Mendenhall put not working on Sundays as one of his conditions for coming to BYU from the University of New Mexico.

“We would not come unless not working on Sunday was a guaranteed part of my contract,” Mendenhall said. “I had reached a point in my career where a positive balance among football, faith and spirituality was needed.”

Fortunately, the coach said, he was later selected as the head coach and able to design his own program. In this aspect, BYU has been a dream job for Mendenhall.

Kaufusi feels fortunate to work in such an environment. The BYU defensive line coach is currently serving as bishop of the Provo 226th Young Single Adult Ward. When he was called, “Everybody looked at me like, ‘What? How are you going to do that?’ ” Kaufusi said.

The longtime assistant coach, who played at BYU and started his coaching career at the University of Utah, explained that at most schools, particularly outside of the state of Utah, Sunday is a full day of preparation for the upcoming week. Coaches break down and grade film from the previous game and then break down film of the next opponent.

"They get a lot done," Kaufusi said.

Having Sundays off allows him to to serve in such a time-intensive calling. He's learned that it is possible to balance work and church responsibilities.

"Coach Mendenhall has an understanding of what we do here and what this place is all about," Kaufusi said. "It’s just been amazing how it all works. You find the time to do it all. And that’s what I tell other people: ‘Hey, you’re next. You’ve got to do it. You can do it.’ ”

Another exception to the typical coaching Sunday is Nicholls State in Thibodaux, Louisiana, where Stubbs gives his players and coaches Sunday completely off. This policy has at times scored points with recruits and their parents, Stubbs said. One of his assistant coaches, Justin Anderson, is the bishop of the ward that they both attend in the Houma-Thibodaux area.

Aside from required NCAA compliance meetings, the Weber State staff and players don't meet on Sundays, Hill said. Staff and players at the University of Utah gather for meetings each Sunday at 5 p.m., Scalley said.

Ed Lamb, the head coach of Southern Utah University and who is not an LDS Church member but attends services regularly and serves in his family's ward, also limits team activities on Sunday. Giving the team a chance to physically and mentally recuperate is beneficial, Lamb said.

“In addition to taking care of church commitments, it gives the players a chance to purge the game, which is so important in their lives,” Lamb said.

Recently, Tidwell attended his church meetings and spent the afternoon visiting his father on his 90th birthday.

“It’s nice to have the Sabbath for what it was meant to be — a day of rest,” Tidwell said.

Mission factor

Bevell is coming off a Super Bowl victory and entering his third year with the Seahawks. He said his mission to Cleveland helped him grow up and learn to handle difficult situations. Playing at Wisconsin after his mission also provided plenty of unique missionary opportunities. Bevell occasionally relates mission experiences and football-related life lessons when speaking at firesides and when interacting with the priest quorum in his ward as part of his calling.

“When I got to Wisconsin, I wasn’t in awe of the massive stadium crowds or scared of being chased by huge defensive linemen because I’d had dogs sicced on me in Cleveland,” said Bevell, whose wife, Tammy, served in the same mission. “I was the only married player on the team and every (news) article mentioned my mission. It was great to be in Wisconsin and generate some publicity for the church.”

Missionary service can be a powerful experience to build on in both coaching and church service.

It was in the streets of Puerto Rico that Hill learned the meaning of sacrifice, hard work and how to handle adversity. He also learned how to get along with people and help them through their problems.

“You learn to give your all to one cause," Hill said. "You wake up early, go to bed late and work your butt off. And there is rejection, and you have to learn how to overcome those tough times. You help couples through marital problems and other issues. All those lessons carry over into football.”

Fesi Sitake, Weber State’s wide receiver coach, said serving a mission in Riverside, California, helped him learn to speak in front of large groups with greater confidence.

“I would have never done this before my mission," Sitake said. "It was a real strong experience for me."

Sitake recently moved to Ogden and didn't have a calling when he was interviewed for this article, but he most recently taught 4-year-olds in Primary with his wife, an experience he said strengthened their relationship.

During Stubbs' 1999 season at Alabama, his son Jay was a member of the team. That year, the Tide went 10-3, were ranked in the top 10 nationally and defeated Florida in The Swamp to win the conference title. In spite of that success, Stubbs was most proud when his son addressed the team and announced he was leaving after the season to serve a mission. Another son, Troy, also played Division I football and served a mission.

“The players didn’t understand why he would leave at that point," Stubbs said. "But the decision wasn’t just made recently, it was made years ago."

Scalley, Utah’s safeties coach and recruiting coordinator, estimates the University of Utah has about 35 returned missionaries (counting players and coaches) in the program and around 10 who are currently serving. He loves every player regardless but feels extra joy when one decides to serve a mission. It's a message he eagerly shares with the young men in his ward when the topic comes up.

"There are opportunities for me to bear my testimony to them. I’m not their stake president or bishop, but every opportunity I get to bear my testimony about serving a mission and getting out in the field and serving God, I love that opportunity because my time in the (mission) field was so good to me," Scalley said. "I want to make sure the young men out there know how great that is."

Being an example

Prior to joining Hill’s staff at Weber State, Sitake was the wide receivers coach at SUU. He said there were two players, both from California, who approached him with questions about the church. One was eventually baptized. It was a reminder of the power of example.

Other coaches have had similar experiences. Both Scalley and Hill interacted with former Utah player and current San Diego Charger Eric Weddle leading up to his baptism.

“There are opportunities all the time to stand up and be an example for your faith, what you believe in,” Scalley said. “It’s also great to learn from people who aren’t of your faith who are good people.”

Bevell gets questions from people all the time, he said.

“My standards are different," he said. "I’m not standing up in front of everyone and swearing. They bring (the church) up all the time. They ask how I carry myself, the things I do and don’t do. I’m willing to answer the questions when I get them.”

Profanity is prevalent in the world of football. But like Bevell, Stubbs tries to hold himself — and his team — to a higher standard. When he took over the Nicholls State program in 2010, Stubbs instituted a no-vulgarity policy. There was a learning curve the first year, but Stubbs believes it has had a positive impact on the culture of the program.

“It doesn’t happen here," Stubbs said. "People are human. If something slips, they apologize immediately. There are ways of coaching, of getting the message across, without doing that.”

Ena admits words slip, but he isn’t shy about telling players: “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say it.”

“Your language speaks volumes about who you are and what you do,” said the former BYU and NFL linebacker. “If you want that kind of representation upon yourself, don’t do it around me.

“Football takes care of itself. We just want our players to look back at their time at Weber State and say, 'You know what, I felt I progressed to be a better human being.' The X's and O's are great, but the satisfaction you get from kids progressing and becoming better men, that is the real benefit.”

Sustaining faith

When asked how his faith has helped him in his coaching career, Mendenhall closed his eyes and thought for a moment before explaining the unique challenges associated with being BYU’s head football coach, including the fact that people who see him at church and even in the temple feel they have a free pass to talk football.

In dealing with these dynamics, his faith has made all the difference.

“It’s the only sustainable force that would allow me to have been at BYU for going on 10 seasons," he said. "It’s a very difficult job. It’s a very visible job. Without faith and my relationship with my Father in heaven, I would have left this job years ago.”

The pressures in coaching are pretty high, and too many grind themselves the ground, Ena said. That’s why having a spiritual balance is so important.

“It’s huge," Ena said. "It’s everything. It’s the foundation of who I am and what I’m about. It makes me a better husband and father. God, family and football: Take care of those priorities, and football will take care of itself.”

Email: ttoone@deseretnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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