PROVO — For a couple of wild weeks last December, BYU was searching for a new football coach to replace Bronco Mendenhall.
At the time, Cougar reserve linebacker Va'a Niumatalolo found himself in an unusual situation. That's because one of the top candidates for the job was his dad, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo.
Ken Niumatalolo flew to Utah from Annapolis, Maryland, to interview for the job. In the end, Niumatalolo remained with the Midshipmen and BYU hired Kalani Sitake.
A few months removed from that coaching search, Va’a is participating in spring drills and he said Tuesday he's at peace with the way things ended up.
“It was definitely crazy at the beginning. I’m glad things settled down,” Va’a said. “It’s good to have coach Sitake here and everything become routine and get adjusted to that. I’m happy that coach Sitake is here. Whoever the new coach was, I was excited for. I’m just here to play football.”
Ken Niumatalolo involved his family in the process of exploring the opportunity to coach at BYU.
“He definitely talked to me. He talked to the whole family about it because it was a big decision, whatever decision he made,” Va’a said. “It just came down to praying and whatever worked out.”
Does Va'a ever wish his dad were coaching at BYU?
“It would have been cool to have home-cooked meals,” Va’a said with a smile. "Coach Sitake's a great coach and I was really excited to have him."
Ken Niumatalolo, the all-time winningest coach in Navy history, opted to talk to BYU about its head coaching vacancy in large part because he is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“It was tough. While head football coach at BYU is not a church position, that individual is a very public figure within the faith,” he said after deciding to stay at Navy. “My faith and the Mormon church are very, very important to me so that was very powerful.”
Another aspect of the BYU job that was attractive to him was the prospect of coaching Va’a and perhaps another son, Ali’i, who at the time was verbally committed to Boise State.
“The opportunity to possibly coach both of my sons was also a strong consideration,” Ken Niumatalolo said. “At the same time, being the head football coach at the United States Naval Academy is also a huge responsibility because you are representing the country.”
Va’a said his relationship with his dad has had a big influence on his football career.
“It’s helped a lot because we’re both very passionate about it so we have something to talk about,” Va’a said. “He definitely understands the struggles with things — the grind, what the season’s like. He never forces anything on me. He always waits for me to approach him to ask him questions. He was never a dad that watched my film and then rips me. He was always patient, loving and he's helped me.”
The Niumatalolo family was thrust into the spotlight in 2014 when it appeared in the LDS Church-produced movie “Meet the Mormons.”
“It was cool,” Va'a said. “It was weird that people recognized me because I was in the movie for, like, five seconds.”
A 6-foot-2, 231-pound junior from Annapolis, Va'a Niumatalolo has been on scholarship since returning from his mission to St. George. He played in three games last season and recorded his first career sack against Wagner.
Va'a Niumatalolo was about 12 years old when he first met Sitake. Now, with a new coaching staff in place at BYU, Va'a Niumatalolo is adjusting to the new defense.
“It’s a lot of fun. We’re really aggressive,” he said. “I feel like we’re getting into a groove as a defense, the linebackers and the D-line. We’re all coming together.”
Va'a Niumatalolo is trying to earn more action on the field this fall.
"I'm always working to get more playing time. That's always the goal," he said. "But whatever the team needs me for, I'll do."
No, Va'a Niumatalolo is not playing for his dad, but he's looking to make a name for himself at BYU.