Ken Niumatalolo doesn’t work on Sundays. He never has. But he makes up for it on a humid Monday morning in August, arriving at Ricketts Hall in Annapolis by 3:30 a.m. With graying sideburns and a receding hairline, he steps out of his black Land Rover and lugs a silent burden up three flights of stairs, passing under a full-sized Blue Angel jet strung up from the high ceiling. 

Outside his office window, boats dot the Severn River, just above the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Moonlight dances across the water’s light chop, offering a kind of serenity, but Ken doesn’t have time to savor the scene. Not with opening kickoff hanging over his head.

Last season was a letdown for the U.S. Naval Academy football team, after an astonishing 11-2 run in 2019. The head coach has much to do before sunrise if he’s going to right the ship this fall. And he’s going to need help.

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, bottom left, walks on the field in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Tulsa, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Annapolis, Md. | AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

He scans a room full of mementos collected over 14 years in a job that’s notoriously hard to hold onto. Nine rings from various bowl games and conference titles — so many, he no longer knows which is which. A kāhili stick adorned with white and red feathers, a Hawaiian royal symbol delivered by the crew of the Hokule’a, a Polynesian voyaging canoe that stopped here a few years back. Three Coach of the Year awards from the American Athletic Conference. All meticulously organized, just like his clutter-free desk, where every item is aligned with another. “I’m a little OCD,” Ken admits. 

He’s relieved to get back to his morning ritual, after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Navy’s athletics facilities in 2020. Like everyone else, he and his staff learned to work in isolation, in a strict lockdown that prevented any meaningful bonding. He’d show up for practice at four in the afternoon, “like a Pop Warner coach.” The players weren’t allowed to tackle, at least in preseason practice, or even to block properly, because of potential contact tracing implications. That didn’t bode well for a team that relies on discipline and brotherhood to compete, often against more talented rosters. Navy finished 3-7. Ken doesn’t blame his players, but he doesn’t want them to live through such mediocrity again.

As long as he’s here, he believes, he’ll give them a chance. And he’s been here a long time, passing on opportunities at bigger programs.

Navy stands on the fringe of today’s college football landscape as a program that exists for the sake of competition itself. Amid an arms race between the sport’s top powers, Navy isn’t sprinting to build a new indoor training facility complete with a slide, a bowling alley and a miniature golf course. The team didn’t even have a nutritionist until 2019.

Navy’s athletes must meet the same rigorous academic requirements as other prospective students — the 8% admission rate is comparable to an Ivy League school — and commit to five years of military service after graduation. And even offensive linemen have to pass the same military fitness tests, which are not designed for the massive bodies required for the modern game. So recruits here tend to be smaller and unheralded.

And while the team plays a few high-profile rivals like Notre Dame and Army each year, the Midshipmen are unlikely to compete for a national championship as the sport’s center of gravity grows increasingly inaccessible, shifting toward mega-conferences and wealthy boosters who can now pay players for their name, image or likeness, per recent legislation.

Still, Ken has managed to keep Navy competitive. He inherited a program in good shape, but his methods have elevated it to new heights, winning six bowl games and six Commander-in-Chief’s trophies, awarded for outdueling Army and Air Force in their three-way competition.

Relying on the program’s trademark triple option offense, Navy thrives on precision and unity. They’re not the biggest or fastest, but they don’t make mistakes, and they take advantage when the other team does. More importantly, Ken believes, those are lessons his players can carry with them beyond the gridiron. Which is why he believes in his system — why he’s always done things his way. 

But first things first. Ken lays a blue towel across the pinkish-orange tile floor of his personal bathroom. At 56, the old quarterback’s knees are starting to go. But Ken is not a man of excuses. He closes the door for solitude, though no one else is likely to come by this early. The smell of stale air freshener fills the room, from cans piled on the toilet tank. He drops to the floor and prays. What he says is between him and God, but he has plenty to worry about — even before starting the season with devastating losses and upheaval on his staff.

But he also has reason to be thankful. As Ken reminds himself, winning football games is a good thing, but it isn’t the only thing.

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Down the hall, ghosts blanket the walls, in plaques and trophies recalling Navy’s proud football tradition. The school won its lone national title in 1926, but it reached the national championship game in 1964, led by Roger “the Dodger” Staubach. His likeness is immortalized in the Staubach Trophy, a fitting tribute to a man who won the Heisman Trophy before becoming a Hall of Famer and two-time Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys. His collegiate exploits arguably mark the high point in Navy football history, but the program stayed strong through much of the 20th century — including a 23-16 victory over Brigham Young University in the first Holiday Bowl. 

Those glory days are long gone. What was once an advantage in amateur competition — recruiting in-house from a pool of physically capable future military officers — has become obsolete. Today, the best prospects use college football foremost as a pathway to a lucrative professional contract.

Meanwhile, the trend toward conference expansion, exemplified by the Southeastern Conference’s offseason additions of Texas and Oklahoma, concentrates both talent and wealth in a few powerful groups, icing out smaller programs like Navy. Increasingly lucrative television contracts and the fallout of the recent barrage of state-level legislation that has allowed players to accept payment for the use of their name, image and likeness are further removing the college game from its amateur roots. But at a military academy, football is still an extracurricular activity.

The school’s academic standards, Ken says, eliminate half of all potential recruits, while the five-year military commitment halves the half. That leaves just 25% of the recruiting pool, and he can’t sell them on perks or campus life.

All students wear crisp uniforms — hats included. They make their beds. In addition to their majors, Midshipmen must take military classes, like naval weapons systems or principles of ship performance. They walk the halls knowing that, at any time, they can be quizzed by upperclassmen on which guns are present on certain naval ships.

And like other students, football players have to pass the academy’s fitness tests, like running a mile and a half in 10 and a half minutes. After the final game of their senior year, the program puts 270-pound offensive linemen on a rigorous diet and exercise plan to slim down and make the cut, sometimes on the very last day.

Ken is straightforward with recruits: This place isn’t for everyone. 

He was never in the military himself, though his family was. His grandfather served in the Navy, his uncle in the Marines, his father in the Coast Guard and his brother in the Army. Ken was born in American Samoa but spent his early years following his father’s job to New York, then to Oregon and finally to Hawaii. There, his dad retired from the Coast Guard and settled the family in Laie. Ken was five years old. He grew up there, playing every sport he could at the local park, then cooling down at the beach 100 yards away.

Ken eventually played quarterback for the University of Hawaii, watching from the bench as the Rainbow Warriors mounted an upset victory over Ty Detmer and the 1989 BYU Cougars to break a 10-year losing streak to their conference rivals. He stayed on for five seasons as an assistant coach before moving to the Naval Academy in 1995 to coach running backs. Since taking the helm in 2007, he has 101 wins and a winning percentage of 60.1 entering the 2021 season.  

Ken has done this by turning the school’s disadvantages into strengths, starting with his offensive system. While most college teams now run pass-heavy offenses that emphasize improvisation, Ken continues Navy’s long tradition, relying on the triple option, which is intentionally different. That makes it hard to prepare for. It empowers its players to react to what the defense does, using the threat of running, pitching, handing off or shoveling the ball to nullify faster athletes and free up more blockers to attack fewer defenders. The system requires consistency and attention to detail; it’s hostile to improvisation because the slightest misstep in timing will almost always kill the play.

But team is more important than scheme. Ken’s staff of coordinators and assistants spend their days searching their opponents’ game tape to identify weaknesses to exploit or planning new, surprising plays. However, their efforts matter little if the players don’t want to fight for each other — a cliche that played out on the field last season. Ken wasn’t surprised when BYU drubbed Navy at home 55-3 to start the year. And yet this year, he’s confident. He proudly shows off videos he took on his phone of the recent team talent show. They’re back to bonding, he explains, and that bodes well for the long season ahead.

In the corner of his office, in a closet where Ken stores a wardrobe of practice clothing, you’ll probably find a T-shirt bearing a cartoon goat. Legend says a beloved pet goat died aboard a naval ship in the 1800s. Rather than bury it, the crew preserved the hide and brought it to a Navy football game shortly thereafter. With the Midshipmen struggling at halftime, one officer donned the goat hide and “romped up and down the sidelines” to fire up the crowd. Navy won, and a mascot was born.

Today, “Old Goat” is also a moniker for the longest-serving Naval Academy graduate on active duty. Though not a military man, Ken is the longest-tenured football coach at a program that dates back to 1879 — Navy football’s very own Old Goat. There’s nowhere, he insists, he’d rather be. This job is a constant mission that starts with football and ends, when done right, with something bigger. 

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo cheers his team on in the first half of the Liberty Bowl NCAA college football game against Kansas State Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. | AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File

The day officially starts at 8 a.m. with a coaches’ meeting. It’s offensive tackles coach Danny O’Rourke’s turn to get things started with what Ken calls “Kool-Aid.” Each day, an assistant coach shares something inspiring. The idea is to inject some spirituality into the building — not so much religious as thoughtful.

O’Rourke talks at considerable length — with the support of a PowerPoint presentation — about a book called “The Dip.” The basic idea is that when people fail, they come to a point when they must decide whether that failure was avoidable and they should try again, or whether they should quit and focus their energy elsewhere. The parallels to their current challenge are unmistakable; they’ve all chosen to give it another shot.

Ken values loyalty, and many of his assistants return the favor. O’Rourke has been at Navy for over 20 years, while running game coordinator Ashley Ingram has been there for 14. When the program fires offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper after Navy’s second loss this season, Ken hires him back with a new title two days later.

Their long relationships are revealed by their candor. During the offensive staff meeting beginning at 9 a.m., one coach spoons through his drum of oatmeal and explains that he accidentally seasoned it with cumin. That prompts Ken to mention how his granddaughter, who’s only allowed to eat one cookie per day, recently called him out for grabbing a couple of handfuls worth. The whole room laughs. They often laugh about food. 

It doesn’t distract from the task before them, though. The season opener against Marshall is only two weeks away, and by 9:30 they’re watching game film. It’s a strange experience to watch game film with football coaches, because they watch the game at a different level than any fan.

“That backside ’backer shows it every time,” Ken says. “Double blood, double run support,” an assistant answers. “In one quarter, they’ve shown us their hand,” Ken adds.

The coaches are trying to gauge the tendencies of the defense they’re about to face in order to come up with the most informed plan of attack. Once the film concludes, Ken approaches the whiteboard at the front of the room and, with a blue Expo marker in his left hand, maps out the five basic defensive looks he believes they’ll see. 

They shift to the plays they’ll use to counter. Ken leans back in his chair, arms up over his head. The leather creaks as he lists them off — 10 Bronco and 312 Bravo; 261 Wham and 322 Monkey. Fatigue looms. He’s already worked an eight-hour day and it’s not even noon.

“I gotta go get a Chipotle update,” he says, walking toward the door. “My brain is starting to fry.”

When the food finally arrives some 20 minutes later, and his secretary tap-tap-taps on the door, the room erupts. “There’s the knock!” someone screams. Ken digs into his bowl of brown rice, chicken, guacamole and salsa. His coaches all thank him for the bounty as they prepare to depart for their position meetings.

“There’s a lot of coaches better than me, but I’m No. 1 in food,” Ken jokes. “I’d even take (Alabama coach Nick) Saban down in eating.” 

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Ken lifts the red plastic lid from the slender jar and cracks the metal tab beneath it. Pfft, the jar hisses. He removes three tennis balls and secures them in his pocket.

“It’s hot,” says Jacob Gregory, a graduate assistant and second lieutenant in the Marine Corps whom everyone around here, Ken included, calls JG. He played for Navy just last season as a 234-pound defensive end, but he’s slimmed down now, and he looks the part of a tennis player, with bright red sneakers and hair buzzed at the sides. Before they even begin their usual lunch matchup, his shirt is soaked through with sweat.

Ken tries to play tennis once a day as a physical outlet. When he’s putting in a 15-hour day, he figures, he needs that to stay sane. But if it sounds like leisure, think again.

“When you’re on the field, and the juices are going, he’s the most competitive guy I’ve ever been around,” says Joe DuPaix, Navy’s slotbacks coach and a former BYU assistant under Bronco Mendenhall. That apparently also applies to tennis as well as anything else where winning and losing are involved. He usually plays a single set, and he usually wins. The one time JG beat him, Ken forced him to play another set and won. 

“Don’t get those going too early,” Ken tells JG after he nails a near-perfect drop shot. As they warm up, students dressed in their all-white or all-black uniforms shuffle off to class past the faded green fence surrounding the tennis courts.

For a while there’s a constant stream of comments, of ooohs and ahhhs for good shots and volleys. Some simply say hello. “Hey coach!” one shouts. “Nice haircut!” Ken replies between serves. “You look handsome!” The young man laughs as Ken raises his racket and delivers a thunderous left-handed serve that thuds against the top of the net. “Come onnn,” he mutters to himself. He’s panting. He rests his hands on his hips between points. JG’s arms, too, are shiny with sweat. It drips off his nose as Ken catches him leaning. “Great shot!” he tells the coach. “You got me stuck in the mud.”

A break in the action means more stretching. Ken presses his toes against the bottom of the net post. “Gotta keep stretching my Achilles,” he says. “Don’t want an old-man injury.”

His wife calls. He promises to call back when the game is over. He hangs up and turns to JG with some advice. “When your wife calls,” he says, “always answer.” “Yessir,” JG says. 

After grabbing a quick protein shake from the team weight room and taking a brief shower in his private bathroom, Ken walks across the hall to director of football operations Brian Blick’s office barefoot. As he pulls on his Under Armour socks, he has questions. About recruiting. About balancing toughness with freshness. He ponders how much his players really need to run. He doesn’t want to hurt their legs.

Still without shoes, he walks down the hall into the offensive staff meeting room for the afternoon assembly. He jokes about running exactly seven plays. “Is that scientific?” he asks rhetorically. “No,” he continues. “It’s just a lucky number.” His assistants laugh. He seems refreshed. Which is helpful. 

Because the day’s most important competition is about to begin. 

Ken starts his prepractice routine by walking down a side staircase rather than taking the main stairs or the elevator. It’s out of the way, but he likes the fact that no one is there. “Just to clear my head,” he says.

Three floors down, he opens the door onto a balmy afternoon of blue skies, fluffy clouds and sailboats gliding past just a few yards away. Once he passes the black gates that mark the entrance to the practice field, he jogs. There’s no walking allowed between the black gates, he explains — coaches included. Although he’s a tad slow today. “The tennis took it out of me,” he admits. 

He’s the first on the team to arrive, which is how he likes it. He likes to see how everyone comes in. It gives him a good sense of what to expect from the day’s practice.

In the meantime he chats with the groundskeeper in Spanish, which he learned on his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in California. “¿Todo bien?” he asks, sounding perfectly fluent. He awaits the team with his hands on his hips, standing near midfield, with the metal goal posts dinging in the wind. A lone seagull caws overhead.

Notice that all the players still have their names taped to the front of their helmets. Any of them will tell you that — for Ken, at least — it’s unnecessary. He’s known them since before he met them. Just ask defensive end Jacob Busic, who first met his future head coach when he arrived for his official visit. “Holy smokes, Big Jake, you’re bigger than I thought,” Ken told him. “He knew my name,” Busic says, “and I’d never even had a conversation with this man.”

Ken makes the rounds during stretches, stopping to chat with random players along the way. In the distance, the school band blasts “Anchors Aweigh.”

It’s apparent up close that Navy does not look like most big-time college football teams. They’re visibly smaller. Ken admits he’s had similar thoughts when playing the likes of Notre Dame, among others. “Holy smokes,” he sometimes tells himself, “we have no business being on the field with these guys.”

But he’s proved, time and time again, that his team does belong. Sometimes, that requires tough love. Like during the scrimmage, when a blocker goes the wrong way and the play gets blown up. “Gosh DANGIT!” he yells, his voice echoing across the three practice fields. The offense follows up with a fumble. “You guys are about to get beat 500-0!” he warns. When receiver Jayden Umbarger lines up in the wrong spot, Ken’s at it again. “Jayden! JAYDEN! Line up! Get your butt lined up! GOSH DANGIT!” 

Whatever his momentary misgivings, few take the critiques personally. Ken is a great competitor, defensive ends coach Kevin Downing says. “But he doesn’t allow that to deflect from his real job here, which is to develop young men of character and leadership.”

“I’m a better father from being around him. I’m a better husband from being around him. I’m a better coach from being around him. Because he loves our guys, and our guys know it,” he continues. “So they come out here and give him everything they’ve got.”

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, left, reacts with safety Emmett Merchant following a turnover by Notre Dame during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009. | AP Photo/Darron Cummings

You’ll rarely — if ever — find Ken on the field without a visor. Like many visor-wearing coaches, he got into the habit because of former Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. “The head ball coach,” Ken says with a reverential smile. “When I started coaching, he was the best.” So Ken imitated his signature headgear as he worked his way up in the profession.

Back when Spurrier was still at South Carolina, they met on a coaches retreat sponsored by Under Armour, which provides uniforms and gear to both the Midshipmen and the Gamecocks. Ken sat behind him on a tour bus and couldn’t resist. He introduced himself, and the two got to chatting. “So,” Spurrier asked in his typically blunt way, in his unique Southern accent, “how long’re ya stayin’ there?” Ken says he told him the truth: He didn’t know. “Lemme offer you some advice,” Spurrier told him. “Don’t stay in one place too long, because they’ll stop appreciatin’ ya.”

Ken knew this to be true. He’s gone 11-2 at the Naval Academy of all places and still can’t please some fans. Yet, years later, he’s never taken Spurrier’s advice. Why would he? That’s the impression you get talking to him, anyway. The money? “I already make more money than I ever thought I would,” he says. The service academies don’t publish coaches’ compensation, but USA Today reported in November 2020 that Ken’s annual salary was $2.316 million — 60th among Football Bowl Subdivision coaches, and well behind top coaches in Power Five conferences. Ken makes about a quarter of Saban’s compensation as the sport’s top-paid coach. The prestige? “I love coming to work every day,” he says.

But what about a different kind of calling — the kind that came with BYU in 2015? 

Ken admits he grew up a BYU fan. He wanted to play there, but former coach LaVell Edwards was blunt in telling him the Cougars didn’t have a scholarship for him. Still, Ken’s son played there, and, as a Latter-day Saint, he admires the program. “I believe in what the school stands for,” he says. “I believe in their mission.”

When Bronco Mendenhall left BYU for Virginia, Ken was well situated to at least have a chance at the job, because BYU’s head football coach traditionally has been a Latter-day Saint. At the time, there were three such head coaches in the college game: Mendenhall; Kyle Whittingham, who was quite successful (and well-paid) at Utah; and Ken. There were also some coordinators, like Kalani Sitake and Morgan Scalley. Regardless, “The pool was pretty small to pick from,” Ken says. 

He doesn’t hide the fact that he was interested. “I was definitely interested in BYU. Definitely very, very interested,” he says. “They’re not a Power Five school, but they’ve got everything.”

But he also had a really great job at Navy. He liked coming to work every day, and he didn’t take that for granted. “I’ve had some opportunities at Power Five schools,” he says. “But I’m not just going to jump to jump or go to go. It has to feel right for me. I have to pray about it. And none of them I felt good about.”

Given his connection to BYU, the Cougars had something extra going for them. Ultimately, though, those advantages couldn’t make up enough ground. “They wanted me to make some concessions, maybe with the things that I do, maybe who I’m gonna hire,” Ken explains. “But I was like, if I’m coming, if I’m leaving this job — because I know how volatile this profession is — either I’m coming and doing it my way, or I’m not coming.”

So, once more, he stayed. 

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

Atop the coffee table Ken sits around with recruits and their parents, a bronze statue of a father and son walking and holding hands rests at its center. “The Bear Bryant Coach of the Year finalists are pretty cool, too,” Ken says. But those trophies are stashed away on a side table, while the trophy of the father and son is the centerpiece of the room. It faces the door, welcoming visitors and familiar faces alike. It’s the Stallings Award, given annually to “an exceptional humanitarian and coach.” He won it for a variety of reasons, including his service to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

That’s on display before practice, when a distressed mother reaches out to him in his capacity as the Annapolis stake president, overseeing multiple congregations in the area. “Hang in there,” he tells her. “You’re a great mother, and you’ve got great sons.” 

The interesting part of the award isn’t so much that Ken won it, but that he seems really proud of it. When asked about the Ray Lewis-signed ukulele resting nearby, he pivots instead to this particular piece of hardware.

Those who know him aren’t surprised. DuPaix recalls that when Navy went to the Liberty Bowl, he noticed Ken step off the team bus and walk across the street. He loves food, but at that moment, he chose to offer his lunch to a person who seemed to need it more. “How many head football coaches, at this level, do you see who really go out of their way to serve other people?” DuPaix says. “I’ve seen one.”

That’s not often the image football coaches present to the world, either because they’re distracted with the work or because the game has a hardcore reputation to uphold. “But that’s not real life. Like, real life,” DuPaix continues. “You can have success on the football field and do great things and be super competitive. But you can also treat people the right way.”

That’s the constant tension of coaching at Navy: balancing doing the right thing with winning when it often feels like the two are mutually exclusive. Ken’s goal, year after year, is to have it both ways. To win as much as possible, without forgetting the bigger picture.

“When you win, it means everything. But all that euphoria eventually fades. And you were there thinking it was the most important thing in the world, but you realize it’s not really that important. It’s the other stuff,” Ken says. “Who they become as fathers and husbands. And I’ve been here 24 years. I’ve seen them come back. So that’s why I’m sold on it. On this place.”

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The longer he stays, the less likely he is to leave. He always picks up the phone when someone wants to talk, he says. He feels like he owes his family that much. But any interested programs will have to make a convincing case to pull him from Annapolis, from the bonds he’s forged over a coaching lifetime.

Some might look at his long tenure as a waning opportunity to try to go big, to go for a national title. He doesn’t see it that way. There’s plenty of opportunity, he insists, right here. He isn’t getting left behind by the system; he’s found his niche within it. 

At the end of practice, he tells his Midshipmen they need to step it up tomorrow. That they just aren’t where they need to be. But he also doesn’t seem too worried as the whole team drops to the floor for pushups. To win here, remember, requires closeness. Requires bonding. So Ken drops to the floor along with them. 

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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