Two years ago, two LDS head coaches faced off in a bowl matchup.
It’s happening again in 2017. While 2015 featured Utah’s Kyle Whittingham going up against BYU’s Bronco Mendenhall in the then-Cougar coach’s final game at the school, this year’s Mormon matchup involves two teams from the East coast.
One is Mendenhall’s Virginia Cavaliers squad, the other is Ken Niumatalolo's Navy Midshipmen program.
Virginia (6-6) vs. Navy (6-5), Military Bowl
Dec. 28, 11:30 a.m. MST
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Md.
(NOTE: Navy still has its regular-season finale to play, against service academy rival Army on Saturday.)
What they had to say about each other
“I’ve known Bronco for many years. My son played for him at BYU. He’s a really good football coach and has won a ton of games. I’m not surprised at what he’s done at Virginia,” Niumatalolo said, according to Navy.
“I am thankful to the @MilitaryBowl for its invitation and the opportunity to bring our team to the Nation’s Capital. I am an admirer of Coach Niumatalolo and the Navy football program.” Mendenhall, on Twitter.
The BYU angle
Mendenhall is the former BYU coach who went 99-43 during 11 years at the helm of the Cougars, from 2005-2015, before leaving for Virginia of the Athletic Coast Conference. Niumatalolo was one of the serious candidates to replace Mendenhall at BYU before ultimately deciding to stay at Navy.
Niumatalolo at Navy
Niumamaloto’s head coaching career at Navy, ironically enough, started when he was the named the team’s head coach, replacing Paul Johnson, prior to the Midshipmen’s 2007 Poinsettia Bowl matchup against Utah. Johnson left to coach Georgia Tech, and Niumatalolo was named his replacement before the bowl game. The Utes won, 35-32, after outscoring Navy 28-15 after the Midshipmen went up 17-7 in the opening minutes of the third quarter.
That was Kyle Whittingham’s fourth bowl game as head coach at Utah —and his fourth straight win.
Niumatalolo is 4-5 as head coach in bowl games, including a 44-28 victory over Pittsburgh in the 2015 Military Bowl. That year, he led the Midshipmen to an 11-2 mark, the best of his time at Navy, and the Midshipmen finished the year ranked No. 18 in bowl polls.
He was led Navy to double-digit wins twice, including the 2015 mark and a 10-4 record in 2009.
This year has been more of a struggle for Navy, which goes into its regular-season finale against Army on Saturday having lost five of its past six games. The Midshipmen started the year 5-0 and jumped to No. 24 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and No. 24 in the AP poll following a 48-45 victory over Air Force. The next week, though, the Midshipmen lost to Memphis, starting their losing streak, and haven’t been in the polls since.
Mendenhall at Virginia
Mendenhall's first season as coach of a Power 5 program did not go well, as the Cavaliers went 2-10, with only victories over Duke and Central Michigan in back-to-back games. Virginia lost its final seven games of the year, all ACC contests.
The results improved by bounds in 2017, as the Cavaliers went 6-6 during the regular season. At one point, Virginia was 5-1 and that included a convincing 42-23 victory at Boise State.
League play, however, again proved difficult, as Virginia went 3-5 in ACC action and enters the bowl game losers of five of its past six games. Still, the Cavaliers became bowl eligible with a 40-36 win over Georgia Tech on Nov. 4. Virginia also led for good portions of the game against then-No. 2 Miami before falling to the Hurricanes 44-28 on Nov. 18.
Mendenhall has an 8-16 record and 4-12 ACC mark through his first two regular seasons in Virginia. This is the Cavaliers' first bowl appearance since 2011.
A coach-son connection
Niumatalolo's son, Va’a, played for BYU through the 2017 season (2011, 2014-17). That included three years total under Mendenhall's regime, with a redshirt season prior to his LDS Church mission to St. George.
"My son, Va’a, who plays at BYU, will be able to attend the game and he’s excited about the matchup. My son learned a lot from Bronco and his staff. Hopefully he’s rooting for his dad, though," Ken Niumatalolo said, according to Navy.
Mendenhall, too, believes Va'a's support will be with Navy.
“He’d better be rooting for his dad. It’s family first. I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t,” Mendenhall said, according to SB Nation's Streak the Lawn.
“[Va’a] is the ideal, in terms of behavior, work ethic, discipline, kindness, unselfishness,” Mendenhall continued. “And if you know his parents, they’re amazing people. We share the same faith, we share the same values, and when Va’a came to BYU, it was evident not only who he was, but why he was that way, and that’s because of his parents. He was an absolute joy to coach.”
Other coaching connections
Shaun Nua, a former BYU defensive lineman, joined Niumatalolo’s staff in 2012 and is the Midshipmen’s defensive line coach. He was a graduate assistant under Mendenhall at BYU from 2010-11 and Mendenhall was his defensive coordinator at BYU from 2003-04.
One consistent stat
Their levels of success are strikingly similar. During his 11 years at BYU, Mendenhall had nine seasons of eight or more wins with the Cougars. During his 10 years at Navy, Niumatalolo has eight seasons of eight or more wins.