His team is scheduled to kick off college football’s first game of the 2020 season five months from Sunday.
And Navy head football coach Ken Niumatalolo is concerned as he sits locked down in Manoa. You hear it in the measured, sober tone of his voice.
The concern is not so much that, this time of the football calendar, he is here, house-bound, 4,853 miles from Annapolis not sure when he might get back to the Naval Academy campus. It is not that he will be rebuilding a team coming off a school-record-tying 11-2 season while breaking in a new quarterback without the benefit of any spring practice or an idea of how much fall camp there might be.
Nor even that the Aug. 29 opener against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland, the marquee game of the Week Zero schedule, might not get played due to the lengthening impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t know what the right word is, but, to me, there are more pressing matters for me, my life and my position. That’s making sure of the safety and health of my family, of my players and staff is preeminent,” Niumatalolo said. “And the football part, we’ll get to it.”
A Radford High graduate and former UH quarterback (1987-89) and coach (1992-94), Niumatalolo arrived here at the start of March for what was to have been one of his brief annual homecoming vacations, a trip that has tuned into something more for Navy’s all-time winningest coach (98-60) who is coming off an eight-game turnaround, the second-best single-season flip in NCAA history (June Jones’ 1999 UH team still holds that distinction).
With the state having imposed a stay-at-home order, Niumatalolo’s forays out of Manoa are primarily to check up on his father on the North Shore. Even some of his favorite jogging places and beaches have been closed down.
The extent of his coaching these days is mostly from behind a laptop or on his other devices. He holds a weekly Monday teleconference with his staff, touches bases with his players and dives into recruiting online and with social media.
“I’ve tried to keep my world a little bit small, making sure my family is safe, that our coaches, their families and our players are safe and (having) some church responsibilities. I’m trying to do the best that I can in that realm, so to speak,” Niumatalolo said.
This is not media-speak. This is a head coach loath to work his assistants late into the night, mandating that they go home and not lose sight that they have higher responsibilities as fathers and husbands.
He says he has “no idea” if fall camp will begin on time in July, if the season will start as scheduled or even if there will be much of a season. “I feel like things will probably get pushed back … I don’t know. Like everybody else, every human in the world, I’m watching the latest news. There are just so many uncertainties that you don’t know.”
Like UH and a minority of schools, there has been no spring practice for Navy and, again, as with the Rainbow Warriors, who have a scheduled Aug. 29 debut at Arizona (but seven time zones earlier), there is an opening date moving closer as the nation’s number of COV-19 cases escalates.
Niumatalolo’s operating policy has steadfastly been to work within what he can control, and in this case, that means he has very little say in what is happening right now. “So, I guess my approach is whatever they (the NCAA) give us (in terms of a schedule) we will do the best that we can with it. That’s not to say it is not a concern. I’d be lying if I said it was not a concern.”
“Something like this just really puts things into perspective of what really matters in life. Obviously, if you lose football it is going to impact a lot of people from a financial perspective. Right now my thoughts are of the health and safety of people.”
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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