PROVO — Avid BYU fans know about Ken Niumatalolo, who spent Monday on BYU's campus touring the football facilities and exploring the Cougars' head coaching vacancy.
They know Niumatalolo is the winningest coach in Navy football history. They know he has defeated archrival Army eight consecutive times as a head coach. They know he was the first Polynesian head coach in NCAA history and has been enshrined in the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame. They know he is a returned missionary who is a Hawaiian native and played quarterback at the University of Hawaii. They know he was named Co-Coach of the Year with Houston’s Tom Herman in the American Athletic Conference this season. They know he's guided the Midshipmen to a 10-2 regular-season record and No. 21 ranking as he’s led Navy in its inaugural season in the AAC after being an independent. They know him from his appearance in the LDS Church documentary, “Meet the Mormons.” They know how much his faith and family mean to him.
But what the Cougar Faithful want to know is, if Niumatalolo, 50, is hired as BYU’s new football coach, would he bring the triple-option offense to Provo?
It’s easy to see how BYU fans would embrace Niumatalolo as a person and as a leader of men. But would they embrace a new style of offense at a place where the forward pass is revered, where throwing the ball is part of the program's identity, tradition and legacy?
Going to the triple-option attack, of course, would dramatically impact the type of athletes BYU recruits.
And what assistant coaches would Niumatalolo hire on his staff, particularly at offensive and defensive coordinator?
Niumatalolo has spent most of his coaching career on the East Coast, running an option attack. His connection with BYU? His son, Va’a, is a sophomore linebacker on the team.
“To be honest, I don’t see myself leaving Navy,” Niumatalolo said in 2014. “I’ve been here for 17 years. It’s a great place to coach and raise my family … If there is an opportunity that comes, and I feel it’s better for my family, it wouldn’t be wise not to take a look, but I’m not actively searching or sending out résumés or anything.”
That potential opportunity to leave Navy came soon after Bronco Mendenhall decided to take the head coaching job at Virginia.
Last weekend, before Niumatalolo arrived in Utah to interview for BYU’s head coaching vacancy, he told ESPN the reason he is interested in BYU is due to his religious convictions.
"... When this (job) opened up, it's different. It is just different for me," he said. "My faith is everything to me. This is the only reason that I feel like I need to listen to what they have to offer."
Niumatalolo has coached the most prolific scorer in college football history, quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Reynolds, the career NCAA touchdown leader, has also rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season. Navy perennially is one of the top rushing teams in the nation. This season, the Midshipmen are No. 3, averaging 319.2 yards per game.
In a 52-31 loss to Houston this season, Reynolds completed 13 of 16 passes for 312 yards. "He can throw the ball,” Niumatalolo said about Reynolds after the game. “We just choose not to."
BYU has freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum, who threw for more than 3,000 yards this season and was named Freshman of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Columbus.
Needless to say, Mangum is not an option quarterback.
Is his system the right fit for BYU? Could Niumatalolo adapt his offense for Mangum, and the rest of the talent already assembled at BYU? Could Niumatalolo run a hybrid approach, blending option concepts with a traditional passing attack?
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said a little more than a week ago that he's looking first at a coach's ability to lead above all else.
“Most importantly is the person, the philosophy, the character and their pattern of success with student-athletes on the football field and off the football field," Holmoe said. "It always comes down to the student-athletes, regardless of what we run or how we play, that would come into play. I’m not going to start with that. I’m going to start with the person.”
Certainly, Niumatalolo understands recruiting limitations, like the ones BYU has, since he's spent 18 years at Navy — where recruiting restrictions are even tougher.
During Niumatalolo’s first stint at the Naval Academy, in 1995-96, he served as running backs coach before replacing Paul Johnson as offensive coordinator under Charlie Weatherbie in 1997. Ultimately, Weatherbie fired Niumatalolo due to differences over the way the offense was being run.
The man affectionately known at Navy as “Coach Ken” returned to Navy after a few seasons at UNLV. By 2007, he was elevated to head coach, replacing Johnson, who left for Georgia Tech.
As Navy’s head coach, Niumatalolo has proven he knows how to win, having surpassed George Welsh to set the record for most career coaching wins in school history. He’s compiled a 67-37 record in eight seasons.
This season, Navy shocked then-No. 13 Memphis 45-20 marking the program’s first win over an opponent ranked in the Associated Press top 15 since 1984 when it upset No. 2 South Carolina. Navy had not beaten any ranked team since knocking off No. 19 Notre Dame in 2009.
Niumatalolo has also established a reputation for being a high-character person and a fiery leader.
“Niumatalolo is the boy next door, the kid you hope your daughter brings home because he will tell you what an honor it is to meet you and will have her home by 11 unless you think that’s too late,” wrote Washington Post columnist John Feinstein. “When Niumatalolo was an assistant coach, practice would often stop because the offensive line coach wasn’t happy with his players and you could hear the screaming all the way to the Bay Bridge. He is every bit as intense now as a head coach.”
That’s the way Niumatalolo knows how to coach. But it's not the most important thing in his life.
"Sometimes in this profession, because you fly first class, or because you're in the suites, or because you make this money, all of a sudden some coaches start to think they're better than people," Niumatalolo told USA Today recently. "And you're not. You're just doing a job … I'm proud to be the head coach of the Naval Academy, but that's not my most important title. Mine is as a father and husband. But with that said, do not be confused: I'm a competitor. I'm going to fight you."
So why else would Niumatalolo be interested in BYU, besides his religious convictions?
Coaching his son, Va’a, could be a big incentive. Meanwhile, his other son, Ali’i, a linebacker, has committed to play at Boise State after he serves a mission. There’s the potential that Niumatalolo could coach both of his sons at BYU.
If he takes the BYU job, what would his staff look like?
Only three assistant coaches from Mendenhall’s regime remain at BYU — receivers coach Guy Holliday, defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi and inside linebackers coach Paul Tidwell. Each of them could be retained.
If Niumatalolo leaves Navy, it is expected that offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper will replace him as head coach. Jasper has been at Navy as an assistant coach for 16 years. It is also expected that most of Niumatalolo's other assistants would remain in Annapolis.
One that could follow him to Provo is Shaun Nua, who has been at Navy for four years as a defensive line coach.
Nua played for the Cougars from 2002-04 before being taken in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL draft. He played for four seasons in the NFL, which included winning a Super Bowl ring with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a rookie. He returned to BYU as a graduate assistant in 2009 and served as a defensive graduate assistant until 2011.
Another possibility is Joe DuPaix, who coached with Niumatalolo from 2008-10 as Navy’s slotbacks coach. He left Navy to be BYU’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator from 2011-2013. He currently lives in Utah County.
When asked last week what he thought about Niumatalolo, former BYU tight end, and current BYU associate athletic director, Chad Lewis said he's been impressed with him.
“I have never met him but I know his son, Va’a, and I loved him in ‘Meet the Mormons,’” Lewis said. “I am very proud of what he has done and how he has done it.”
No doubt Niumatalolo would bring strong leadership to BYU. If he takes the job, it would be fascinating to see what kind of staff he brings with him and the type of offense he runs.
Before arriving in Utah Sunday night, Niumatalolo promised this process of looking at the BYU job would not be dragged out.
"I owe it to the players, the assistants and the administration to get this over with quickly," he said.
Is Niumatalolo BYU's next head coach? Answers should be coming soon.