U.S. Naval Academy head football coach Ken Niumatalolo is not a federal employee, as was incorrectly reported in this column. Niumatalolo is paid by the Naval Academy Athletic Association, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose money “comes mainly from football (attendance, game guarantees, TV deals) and private donors,” according to an academy spokesman.
The nation’s highest-paid federal employee lives on the East Coast, grew up playing sports in Hawaii and graduated from high school here.
And, if you’re thinking it is President Barack Obama, you’d be wrong.
It is Ken Niumatalolo, the Naval Academy head football coach.
"You know, I really hadn’t thought of it in those terms," Niumatalolo said.
Yet, with the announcement by the academy yesterday of a new "long-term contract" — one that is expected to take him up to 2020 and put his salary into the $1 million-a-year neighborhood — Niumatalolo will easily be topping the president’s $400,000 and any other listed federal salary.
"More than the money or anything like that, I just feel fortunate to be going to work every day, loving what I do and being at a great place," Niumatalolo said.
To know Niumatalolo and his Radford High-to-riches story is to understand that the words are genuine and come from the heart, not off a well-crafted press release. Because 20 years ago he was former UH backup quarterback, trying to get into coaching, determined to roll up his sleeves and pay his dues in the form of sweat and long hours.
He was a graduate student, video helper and all-around errand runner at UH. He fetched coaches’ lunches, dropped their kids at school and made sure the head coach’s exercise bike was on hand. After road games, Niumatalolo would help sling equipment onto the a truck or team bus and perform all manner of tasks just to try and get his foot in the door for a full-time job.
When acquaintances from home saw him lugging bags to the UH bus in Provo, Utah, after a tough loss at Brigham Young in 1991, they hooted and razzed him. So much for making it in coaching, they snickered. See you in the big-time.
He was only able to get that far because his wife, Barbara, was the breadwinner while he initially took on the graduate assistant job. Even with that their family of four crowded into a one bedroom Makiki apartment to make ends meet and made a vow that if a coaching job didn’t come his way within the two-year window, he’d try his luck in another field.
But he made a big enough impression on then-UH head coach Bob Wagner to earn a full-time position. "You could see he had a bright future, was personable, smart and worked hard," Wagner said.
UH offensive coordinator Paul Johnson thought enough of Niumatalolo to take him to Navy with him. And in the wake of Johnson’s departure, the academy scrapped the national search, and kept Niumatalolo, making him the first major college head coach of Samoan ancestry.
Now, after a 27-14 record — the most victories for a coach in his first three years at Navy — three bowl wins, two triumphs over Notre Dame and two Commander-in-Chief’s Trophies, the 45-year old Niumatalolo has a milestone contract and a secure future.
"We now have a roadmap in place that can allow for Kenny to continue leading our team for years to come," Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. "I have always felt strongly that Coach Niumatalolo is the perfect fit for Navy and Navy is the perfect fit for Kenny."
What Niumatalolo has, Wagner suggests, "is the American dream."
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.