Navy football is special. Since 1882, Navy has captured 13 Commander-in-Chief’s Trophies, claimed one national championship and helped win two world wars. It takes a special person to play for Navy; only at a service academy is football so clearly the third-biggest priority on its players’ daily agendas. With that in mind, it takes a special person to lead the Navy football program.
With nearly two decades in the program before his 50th birthday, Ken Niumatalolo holds a 40-26 record in six seasons as head coach. He’s only 16 wins shy of becoming the program’s all-time winningest head coach. But, like his players, leading the Navy football program is not the most important thing Niumatalolo does on a daily basis. We talked to the Navy head coach about how he recruits, the advantages of coaching at a service academy and his number one title in life in today’s edition of 10 Questions With.
To view past installments of 10 Questions With, please visit the archives.
1) You start fall camp on Saturday. What’s the rest of this week look like for you?
Right now it’s just basically finalizing stuff. Most of our practice scripts and stuff have already been done. Really more than anything we’re just kind of finalizing things right now. We’re pretty much ready for camp.
1a) When do you plan out your camp practices?
We try to do a lot of those things during the spring, right after spring ball is over. I start trying to work on camps then, get a lot of the practices out to the coordinators so they can start getting the practices schedules together, getting all the scripts together. We have some game planning for Indiana, our first opponent, but most of it’s really about ourselves, trying to get general schemes and that sort of stuff together.
2) What will make 2013 a successful season for you?
We’ll start off the same every year. Number one is to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and number two is to win the bowl game. If we accomplish those, it’s a success for us. I think every team starts off the season wanting to go undefeated, that’s everybody’s goal in August. Our major goals are to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and go to the White House, and to win a bowl game.
3) I’m very curious about your recruiting process. Do you offer more kids than schools you recruit against, or is it about the same? Do you have to do more homework than a typical university?
We do the same homework as everybody else. Everybody’s got to do their due diligence, not just the football side of it but academically, the character (evaluation). For us it’s way more than football here. We’re recruiting young men to be officers in the Navy and Marine Corps. They’ll be defending our country so we’re looking for young men of the most high character, people that our willing to serve our country and so we’re going to do our due diligence in checking out backgrounds. We do offer more people than most people. We kind of feel like that’s one of the advantages we have. Our numbers are more than most people so we don’t have to self-scout all the time. We’re able to scout teams, which we feel like allows us to be a little bit more rested during the season. We’re not going against each other all the time. We still do some good vs. good stuff but we do a lot of scout work, and having a bigger squad allows us to do that.
3a) Can you count on a certain percentage of kids every recruiting class just not being up for the service commitment required at Navy, or is every class different in that respect?
Every class is different. For us recruiting, the first criteria is academics. Right off the bat you can cut out who you even have the opportunity to look at. Obviously it’ll be a guy that we feel like can play Division I football. Then a person has got to be willing to serve our country. We feel like within the 50 states, there’s enough good football players that are good students that might have been overlooked by somebody. You might have an offensive lineman that instead of being 6’5″, he might be 6’3″. A skill guy that maybe is not a 4.4 guy, but maybe he’s a 4.6 guy but he’s a good player. We have to do a lot of projecting. We don’t get caught up in stars when we recruit. We try to evaluate and try to project. Not everybody wants to serve, though. I think as we go out in our recruiting process, we start off first academically, then see if they’re Division I caliber and see which guys are willing to serve. Those numbers vary but we feel like through 50 states you’re going to find somebody. We’re not a regional team, we recruit nationally.
3b) You mentioned that you don’t have to do as much self-scouting as other schools. Why is that?
We’re not as big as everybody else so we feel like we’ve got to be careful. We still feel like we’ve got to bang and practice hard during the week but we also feel like we’ve got to be rested and get ready to go. We’ve got defensive linemen that are 250 going against guys that are 320. I know a lot of people talking about always trying to compete good on good, that would be nice but for us it’s not realistic. If we did good on good against each other all the time during the season, by game five we wouldn’t be able to walk. The reason we do scouting, we feel like it allows us to get a ton of reps. You’re No. 1 offense is not worried about trying to go on cards and do what your opposing team is going to do on offense, they can run their offense and we can run our defense and get a ton of reps. We feel like it helps us from a reps standpoint.
4) With all the discussion about head trauma going around football, a lot of people believe the most dangerous hits are the low-speed collisions that occur at the line of scrimmage. Do you pay extra attention to that with an offense that puts so many people around the line of scrimmage?
I don’t know if it has anything to do with the offense, I just think the game in general, I think anybody involved is concerned. You’re concerned for your players, you’re concerned for those involved. You understand that this is a violent game, it’s a contact game. We have to do all we can within our power to try to make it as safe as possible. I think there’s a lot of good discussion going on about practice, being smarter in our practices. One thing I try to look at, I think football has actually taken a lot of great steps in this measure. I think MMA fighting is starting to find out what we found out.
You see a lot of MMA fights, and then a week before the fight it’s cancelled because somebody got hurt in actual, live fighting. They’re having to scale back some of the things they do in their preparation. I think over the years football coaches have learned that, too. You have to scale back a lot of what you do. The human body can only take so much, but it is a contact sport and we’re just trying to be smart in your live reps, being smart in your contact. I think everybody involved in this game is concerned about it. There’s health issues involved and everybody’s trying to do their due dilligence to make sure that we can keep the game as safe as possible.
5) We’re all aware of the extra demands the Naval Academy puts on football players, but is coaching at Navy noticably different than at a typical university?
I think there are some differences. The recruiting rules are a little bit different. There are some little variances the NCAA allows the service academies than being at a civilian school but fore the most part, football is football. I think every school and every institution has their pro’s and con’s. I don’t think anybody that we play are worried about teaching their guy the backstroke or how to float with a uniform on so there are some things that you’ve got to do here at the Naval Academy because the cirriculum is part of what this institution is about. You’ve just got to deal with it.
You don’t see the kids as much as you did at other places. When I was at Hawaii or UNLV, the players when they weren’t in class, they were in the football building a ton. Here, you basically see them during practice and during meetings. You don’t see them any other time. That’s different. You recognize that their time is very busy. It’s a lot of different things so you’ve got to make sure you’re very efficient and very organized when you have them. You have short meetings and short practices, so you’ve got to find a way to make sure that they’re ready to go on Saturday.
6) With your players’ time so much in demand, does that create a longer work day for you or a perhaps a shorter work day?
My number one title is not the head football coach at the Naval Academy, my number one title is being a husband and a father. I read all the time about guys monitoring their players and stuff and I think that’s fine, making sure they’re going to class and all those things. That’s important. I’ve always thought, if you’re monitoring your players 24 hours a day, who’s monitoring your own family? Who’s watching your own kids? I make sure that we’re not burning the midnight oil here. I feel like we can be efficient in our work hours here. We’re probably more of an early morning staff, guys get here a little bit earlier but I want guys to go home after practice. I want them to go home and see their families. They can do their recruiting stuff at home.
I go to conventions all the time and I hear all these coaches talk about some of the regrets they’ve had in their careers, and these are all great coaches that have accomplished a lot of great things, and a lot of them mention, “I wish I’d spent more time with my family.” I don’t want that regret. I’d rather at the end of the day look yourself in the mirror and be like, “You know what? I was able to be a father and a husband.” And I want my coaches to have that same opportunity. To me, family time is very important. I’ve always taken this approach: if it takes you 24 hours to watch tape and you’ve been in the film room all day, how are your kids going to figure it out in a 45 minute meeting? You’ve just got to make sure it’s not that complicated, try to keep things simple. Don’t get me wrong, we’re working. We work early. I want to make sure our guys are efficient and go home and be a father and a husband.
6a) I’d have to imagine your assistant coaches appreciate you a lot of for that, no?
I hope so. I don’t know, maybe I’m not working these guys enough. We’ve got probably more kids under five years old than any staff in the country. We’ve got like a nursery when we travel. It’s good. We’ve got a great staff. Like I said, life’s too short, man. You can spend all day in the office 24/7, you can win national championships and do all these kinds of things but if you don’t see your family grow and see your kids grow, I don’t care how much money you make. It ain’t worth it.
7) The Army-Navy game is probably one of the five most common bucket list fans for sports fans in America. How often do people talk to you about that game when you’re out in the community?
You hear from a ton of people that it’s on their bucket list of things to do to come to the Army-Navy game. It’s more than a football game, I think, for all Americans. The Army, Navy, Marine Corps and the Air Force, they protect us. I think what it represents is what draws people to it. There’s a lot of patriotism as you watch that game, to recognize that these young men will eventually protect our freedoms and protect our country. The pagentry that goes along with that game, the march ons, the flyovers, all those things, it’s a unique game. I’ve been in 16 of them and it never changes. The goosebumps and the butterflies of that game are always the same.
8) How much time do you spend education your players on the history of the Naval Academy and Navy football?
We talk a lot about it. We feel like part of the Naval Academy’s history, it’s the history of our country. We talk a lot about that, those that have come before. Not always about football, but we’re just talking about all the former football players that have played here have gone on to serve our country when they graduate so there’s a great responsibilty that comes along with it. There are people that are retired, people that have served their country, people that are serving now overseas, that are watching them so there’s a great responsibility to make sure that they represent all those that have come before in a way that all of them would be proud of.
9) You play only five games in Annapolis this season. Does that change the way you prepare your team at all?
No, because we normally don’t have a ton of games at home. We might have six at home. We always play home and away with Notre Dame and if it’s our turn to host it’s normally at a different venue, it’s never at our place because we know the size of the game is going to not permit us to play at our stadium. We’re used to that, we go on the road. The Army-Navy game is at Lincoln Financial Field (in Philadelphia) every year, so it’s not at our stadium. I think our young men are used to playing on the road.
10) You’re entering your seventh season as head coach and 17th season overall at Navy. Do you see yourself in Annapolis 10 years from now?
In this profession you just take it one year at a time, one game at a time. You don’t look back, you don’t look ahead, you just try to look at the next task ahead. I love working here. It’s a great place to raise a family. I believe I coach the greatest young men in the country, they’re just wonderful young men. And I work with a great bunch of coaches, coaches that I love. Right now things are good but as you know, sports are a bottom-line profession. You’ve got to find a way to get it done. You don’t know, you just try to do your best and hope you can stay at a place. I love the continuity of coaching the same kids and the same people and being at this great institution, but also for my family. I feel very blessed that my kids that have been able to stay in one place.