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'Coaching is the one job where everyone knows your job better than you'

I had the pleasure of interviewing Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo last summer, and came away thinking that if I was an FBS assistant coach, I would do whatever it takes to find a way onto his staff. Between balancing football, academics, demands of the Naval Academy and family life, no one does it better. The man just gets it. 

After playing and then depositing his first half-decade of coaching at Hawaii, Niumatalolo has spent the majority of the last two decades in Annapolis, first as running backs coach, then offensive coordinator, and then another stint as offensive coordinator following a three-year sabbatical to UNLV before his ascension to head coach in 2007. He is 49-30 in six full seasons leading the Midshipmen with five bowl appearances, four Commander-in-Chief's Trophies, and those two glorious victories over Notre Dame in 2009-10. It's hard to imagine a better fit for both Niumatalolo and the Naval Academy.

In advance of Ohio State's season-opener versus Navy in Baltimore, Eleven Warriors traveled to Annapolis to visit with Niumatalolo. You'll have to head over there for the full interview, but here are a few snippets that were just too good to pass up.

On why Navy is so committed to the triple option: "I get killed sometimes from alumni asking why we don’t throw the ball more. I’m trying to make sure the guys we play only get the ball eight times. We’re going to try and get the ball away from opponents. We recognize our strengths and realize this is our only way to compete. Yeah, I’d like to do things with passing the ball, but we’d get sacked every time. Our linemen are 6-2."

On criticism from fans and alumni: "I try not to pay attention to it. But I get enough emails from alumni drawing up pass routes. Sometimes I let it go, but sometimes it pisses me off. I’ll be a wise guy sometimes and thank them and ask them to draw up a blitz protection.

"It is what it is. It’s part of the profession. It’s the one job where everyone knows your job better than you. No one tells a lawyer how to try his case, no one tells a doctor not to use that scalpel.

I go to the grocery store and the guy bagging groceries is like, ‘How come you punted?’ And I’m like, just put the milk in the bag. You just accept it and move on."

On how he keeps the Navy football machine humming: "We try to make sure we never get complacent. We all recognize this is a fragile deal. We have a good blend on staff, we have continuity. Every year you have to up your game. Regardless of what you might have accomplished last year or the year before, we’re seeing how we can get better.

"Maybe the issues you deal with at normal schools, you don’t deal with here. It’s still football, but the issue you deal with is if a guy did his uniform right or handed in his homework. Annapolis is a beautiful place to live. We’re not playing football at Ohio State’s level, but we’re playing at a high level. I think it’s a nice blend for guys.

"We don’t have guys looking outside our window asking, ‘Hey, are you guys getting ready for Army this week?’ It’s competitive, but there’s a nice blend to it. I’m a firm believer in that people are human, players are human. We’ve been here long enough we know things that do and don’t work here.

"These guys need a break. Coaches need a break. We’re constantly trying to do things – watch the way we eat, the way we stretch. We know who we are. We might have gone 9-4, but the games were barnburners. It’s like a basketball game coming down to the last possession. We’re not going to blow people out. We have to take care of the football, we can’t have penalties. We led the country in both of those last year and still lost four games.

"So our approach is we’re going to have a hard time beating people, we can’t beat ourselves."

On what attracted him to Navy initially: "When I first came here in 1995, Paul Johnson was the offensive coordinator. I played for him and coached under him at Hawaii. He said there was a running back job open. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It would be like someone growing up in Columbus and coaching at Ohio State. I’m not going anywhere.

:I told my wife I’d fly out here and take a look. I fell in love with the place. I love what it represents, I love what it stands for. I know it’s kind of cheesy, but it’s cool to be at a school that represents your country and stands for everything good about your country.

:I’ll always be an island guy, but I love the Naval Academy. I have to pinch myself all the time. I make sure I have perspective. Everyone wants to win football games, but each and every one of our guys is going to serve our country. They’re going to be leaders of men and women.

:Hopefully I can have a small influence on them to be a better leader. I’m a firm believer in what you learn in football – toughness, discipline – they help you in life. I’ve been here long enough to see guys go through here and see who they become. I have guys flying the helicopter for the president, there are Blue Angels and SEALs. It’s a pretty cool place to coach.

Read the full interview here.