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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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