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‘Game on’: Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo shares how — and why — BYU-Navy game came to be

Cougars and Midshipmen will replace Utah, Notre Dame on their schedules, respectively, after those games were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo reacts during the second half of an NCAA college football game against SMU, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Annapolis, Md. Navy will face BYU in prime-time Labor Day matchup.
AP Photo/Julio Cortez

SALT LAKE CITY — After getting the bitterly disappointing news Wednesday that Notre Dame wouldn’t be traveling to Annapolis Labor Day weekend to meet Navy due to ACC scheduling restraints, Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo and athletic director Chet Gladchuk brainstormed for other possible opponents.

Niumatalolo suggested BYU, a school to which the member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has countless ties. Less than 24 hours later, Niumatalolo said Thursday in a video conference with reporters, it was “game on” with the independent Cougars.

In what may set the unofficial record for quickest nonconference-game scheduling agreement in college football history, BYU and Navy will meet at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Labor Day (Sept. 7) at 6 p.m. MDT in a game to be televised nationally by ESPN.

“I brought up BYU because I felt like they fit everything that we were looking for, and then Chet went to work,” Niumatalolo said. “Lo and behold, I got a text a couple hours later, saying, ‘It is on.’”

For independent BYU, it is the first step toward rebuilding its 2020 college football schedule that has seen six games canceled due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. The Cougars now have seven games on their schedule, and are looking for several more, according to a school news release announcing the series with Navy, a series that will resume at LaVell Edwards Stadium at an undetermined later date.

“The game had to be right for us,” Niumatalolo said. “We wanted to play a really good opponent. Everything that Chet and I were looking for, we felt like we got. Losing Notre Dame, we wanted to play a good program with a national brand.”

The game replaces what was supposed to be BYU’s opener, a Sept. 3 game at rival Utah. But that contest was canceled, along with five others for the Cougars, when the Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC announced conference-games-only plans.

“We are very excited for the opportunity to play the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said. “It’s always an honor and a privilege to play against a service academy, like we did annually for many years with Air Force. We first played the Midshipmen in the inaugural Holiday Bowl in 1978. The opportunity to visit Navy’s hallowed campus will be an amazing experience for our football team.”

There are ties aplenty; Niumatalolo was offered the BYU job to replace Bronco Mendenhall in 2015 when the 11-year BYU coach left for Virginia, but decided to stay in Annapolis, Maryland. The job went to Kalani Sitake, who enters his fifth season with a matchup against a team coming off an 11-2 season.

“Speaking on behalf of our players and coaches, we are extremely excited for this opportunity to play Navy on Labor Day to open the 2020 season and appreciate all the work put in by Tom Holmoe and Navy to schedule this game,” Sitake said in a school news release. “Navy plays great football and we have the utmost appreciation and respect for all of the sacrifices the members of the military academies make on all of our behalf. Ken is a great football coach and a personal friend who I have known since I was young and always admired both as a person and as a coach. We are looking forward to the matchup.”

Niumatalolo’s son, Va’a, played linebacker for BYU and is currently an assistant director of football operations for the Midshipmen. The coach said he was “best friends” with BYU executive director of on-campus recruiting Jack Damuni growing up in Laie, Hawaii, which is also Sitake’s home town.

“I think it is pretty sweet (that two Polynesian head coaches will meet on national television),” Niumatalolo said. “Talk about diversity — to have two Polynesian young men coaching ... is really cool. If anybody has ever been to Laie, that would make it more remarkable to just see how small the town is.”

Niumatalolo said he and Sitake have already exchanged texts and called it “an all-Laie championship game” between “competitive dudes coming from the North Shore.”

Asked by a Maryland-based reporter if Navy was “settling” for BYU, Niumatalolo quickly moved to praise Sitake’s program and avoid giving the Cougars “bulletin board material,” saying BYU is a “national brand” and a worthy opponent.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates a Cougar defensive play on fourth down as BYU and Tennessee play in Knoxville on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019.
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates a Cougar defensive play on fourth down as BYU and Tennessee play in Knoxville on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019.
Scott G Winterton

“They are a really good team,” Niumatalolo said. “Beat USC last year, beat Tennessee on the road, beat Boise State. They have had some pretty big marquee wins over the years. Beat Wisconsin at Wisconsin, beat Michigan State, beat Arizona. I mean, they play anybody and everybody.

“They played LSU. They play Pac-12 teams, Big Ten teams. They travel. They are independent. They are not afraid to play anybody. Their schedule of who they play, their Power Five (opponents), is pretty impressive. They pick up and go play anybody, so they are not afraid to come in and play the Midshipmen. They have been in some pretty tough places. It is going to be a tough game for us.”

Also Thursday, Utah State announced its scheduled game at BYU on Oct. 2 is still on, a day after the Mountain West announced its teams would play an eight-game conference schedule and up to two nonconference games. Another of BYU’s scheduled opponents from the MW, San Diego State, is apparently still planning to come to Provo on Nov. 14.

SDSU athletic director JD Wicker told San Diego sports radio station XTRA 1360 Thursday that “we will keep BYU; BYU is on the schedule after Sept. 26th (which is when MW teams can begin playing games).”

Having also lost games against Michigan State, Minnesota, Arizona State, Stanford and Missouri, BYU said Thursday in its release that it “will continue to announce additional games for the 2020 season as they are finalized.”

The Cougars are reportedly talking to several Big 12 schools, including Iowa State and Oklahoma; as of now, there are no Power Five opponents on BYU’s schedule.

Navy finished the 2019 season as the 2019 Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy champion and was the West Division co-champion of the American Athletic Conference. The Midshipmen won the Liberty Bowl, defeating Kansas State, and finished No. 20 in both national polls.

It will be the third meeting between BYU and Navy; the Midshipmen won the inaugural Holiday Bowl in 1978 (23-16), while BYU avenged that loss with a 31-10 victory in Annapolis in 1989.

Niumatalolo said he suggested BYU to Gladchuk because he knows the school has the resources to test properly for COVID-19.

“We also wanted to play a program that we felt like were doing everything in their power to make sure that their kids are safe, their program is safe, so that we would be safe,” he said. “... You recognize the resources to keep your team safe is pretty expensive. Those are important things for us. So I am grateful Chet was able to work this out this quickly.”

As quickly as humanly possible, it appears.