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‘It’s in our culture’: Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, BYU’s Kalani Sitake draw on love when it comes to coaching young men

It may not show while Navy and BYU get physical on the field in Monday’s football game, but both head coaches with Polynesian heritage base everything on love

SHARE ‘It’s in our culture’: Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, BYU’s Kalani Sitake draw on love when it comes to coaching young men
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Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo walks down the sideline in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Tulsa, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Annapolis, Md.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

PROVO — One big Aloha.

The nation’s first major college football head coaches from Samoan and Tongan heritage face off on ESPN when Navy hosts BYU the night of Labor Day in Annapolis, Maryland.

The very successful Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s roots go back to the beautiful Samoan islands, although he was born in Laie, Hawaii. BYU’s coach Kalani Sitake was born in Tonga before moving to Laie, then to St. Louis.

Niumatalolo has risen to become the most successful Navy coach in academy history with a couple of 11-win seasons and national rankings. Sitake led a 2019 team that beat USC, Tennessee and Boise State but lost to Toledo, San Diego and Hawaii. He is looking for program consistency.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t coach our kids hard, because we do. But we love our players.” — Navy football Ken Niumatalolo

Niumatalolo’s feared triple option and deliberate ball-hogging execution go against a BYU passing game led by a promising and experienced junior quarterback, Zach Wilson, along with a big, experienced offensive line. It will be size versus finesse and execution.

Some things that are the same, however, are their core religious beliefs, their experience growing up on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, and their approach to coaching athletes and leading a team.

“It’s love,” said Niumatalolo, when asked about his No. 1 core value as a head coach.

“It’s all about the players,” Sitake has repeated to reporters and fans since becoming BYU’s head coach in 2015.

“It’s in our culture,” Niumatalolo said of the Polynesian heritage of the two men.

Indeed, a close inspection of their respective backgrounds and football culture shows an innate intensity of love, loyalty, friendship, bridge-building and personal touch.  

You saw that two years ago with Sitake when a troubled player, Francis Bernard, transferred to rival Utah. Sitake encouraged him to move toward a situation and place where he could move forward with less drama.

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BYU coach Kalani Sitake, center, watches during the first half of the team’s Hawaii Bowl NCAA college football game against Hawaii, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019, in Honolulu.

AP Photo/Eugene Tanner

“Our culture is based on the culture of love,” said Niumatalolo.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t coach our kids hard, because we do. But we love our players.

“We’re demanding, but not demeaning. ... Don’t get me wrong, we’re gonna coach them hard and be demanding. We love our kids, our players love each other, you know there’s a brotherhood of love in our program,” said the Navy coach.

“And we always talk about how our love for each other supersedes our hate for another and our opponent. And that’s the thing that we preach in our team, just love, just love each other. There might be teams that might be bigger than us, might be faster or stronger than us. But we believe that there’s no team closer than we are, that has as much love for each other. It’s stronger than anything we feel and that’s our promise when we go out. We’re always about this.

“We fight together as a tribe. We eat together as a tribe and as a family, and those are the things I am talking about, the foundation of love.”

Sitake is 44, Niumatalolo is 55, but their internal compasses are set on the same course.

Both men served two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ultimately adding perspective to their lives about people and relationships. Sitake spent his missionary time in Oakland, California. Niumatalolo’s mission was to Ventura, California.

When BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe interviewed both Niumatalolo and Sitake to replace Bronco Mendenhall, who left for Virginia, he knew both liked the personal touch.

In explaining BYU’s offer to Sitake, Holmoe explained, “Kalani has a very unique culture. He has this incredible ‘Aloha’ spirit that you can’t miss when you come around him. He’s a football coach. He loves people. He loves his players. And he’s assembled a coaching staff right now where this relationship between the coaches and the players is strong.”

BYU’s pass-game coordinator Aaron Roderick told the Deseret News shortly after Sitake was named head coach that Sitake’s innate personal touch stood out to him before when both worked at Utah.

“When he became a defensive coordinator (at Utah), that’s when I saw the leadership side of him take off,” said Roderick.

“His ability to stand in front of a group of people and lead is pretty awesome. He’s such a genuine person. People want to win for him because they know he cares for them,” Roderick said. “He goes out of his way to help people. He’s an amazing guy. I pinch myself every day that I get to work for him. I’m really glad he trusted me to have this job.

“I do my best every day to not let him down. He’s a great leader and a great human being. Every person in our building loves him and they know that he genuinely loves them. That motivates everyone to work hard for him. I want to win for him as much as anything. I think we all do.”

Indeed, the Niumatalolo match up against Sitake is like a battle between an older and younger brother.

“The first time I met Kalani was when he was at Utah. He was a very good coach and a great recruiter,” said Niumatalolo. He called Monday’s game the “all-Laie championship” between “competitive dudes” from the North Shore.

“I think it is pretty sweet. Talk about diversity. To have two Polynesians coaching against each other is really cool,” declared Niumatalolo. “If anybody has ever been to Laie, that would make it more remarkable to just see how small the town is.”