There were nights when Ken Niumatalolo turned on the small television in his cramped Makiki apartment to catch a glimpse of Monday Night Football while wondering if his dogged pursuit of a coaching job would ever pay off.
There he was a 26-year old graduate student coach running errands for full-time University of Hawai’i coaches and counting on wife Barbara’s job to help pay the bills.
Today the Radford High graduate will be on Monday football, or a collegiate version of it, anyway, when the Navy team he coaches plays Maryland.
"It has," Niumatalolo acknowledges, "been quite a journey."
He’s gone from fetching the head coach’s exercise bike and delivering assistant coaches’ lunches to helping resurrect the Navy program, where he is in his third season as head coach.
And, now, he’s climbing out of the considerable shadow of Paul Johnson, architect of the Navy revival and his mentor as the Midshipmen take aim at a national ranking.
"I owe Coach Johnson a lot," Niumatalolo said. "He thought I might have what it took to be a coach at this level and he helped me along the way."
Niumatalolo was a backup quarterback at Hawaii when Johnson, then UH’s offensive coordinator, and head coach Bob Wagner gave him a shot in 1990. Through dint of hard work and long hours, Niumatalolo eventually earned a full-time job, spending three seasons at UH before stops at Navy and Nevada-Las Vegas. Then, he reunited with Johnson at Annapolis in 2002.
When Johnson left to become head coach at Georgia Tech after the 2007 season, Niumatalolo was the pick for successor, if a closely watched one.
As the New York Times reported, "many critics will point to Johnson leaving for Georgia Tech as a sign of impending doom for the Navy program …" that had five consecutive winning seasons.
But the dour forecasts have not materialized. Heading into tonight’s season opener, the 44-year old Niumatalolo’s 18 wins (against 10 losses) are the most in school history by a coach in his first two seasons. And Navy’s 10-4 finish in 2009 tied the program record for the most victories in a season. If not for a 24-17 loss to his alma mater, Niumatalolo would have had the mark.
Moreover Niumatalolo has helped run Navy’s streak of domination of Army to eight years and consecutive bowl appearances to seven.
Sometimes, like during his annual summer return home to Hawai’i, Niumatalolo flashes back to the beginning. "We’ve driven by the apartment," Niumatalolo said. "It was probably more of a studio for us, really," he said. "I was lucky my wife was willing to give me two years to get into the (coaching) business and let me try to do what I wanted. That was the deal we made."
Opening his third season with the Midshipmen, having become the first major college head coach of Samoan ancestry and having made a name for himself at Annapolis, "I know I have been very fortunate," Niumatalolo said. "You could make a story about it."
Or, put it on TV.