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How Navy had its best season in 50 years while working less hours than ever

Navy Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo during the NCAA football game between the Southern Methodist University Mustangs and the Navy Midshipmen on Saturday, November 12, 2011. Navy beat SMU 24-17. (Patrick T. Fallon/The Dallas Morning News)

Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/The Dallas Morning News

Ken Niumatalolo attended an NFL game recently. Walking the sidelines before kickoff, the Navy head coach observed coaches leading their players through pre-game drills and saw something that troubled him. "They were spent," Niumatalolo said. "You could see it in their eyes. They looked gassed."

He wasn't talking about the players, he was talking about the coaches.

If one were to poll all 128 FBS head coaches, Niumatalolo would sit squarely in the bottom quartile in hours he asks his staff to work. See this answer from a 2013 interview with FootballScoop:

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.

Speaking to a ballroom full of coaches at the AFCA Convention last Tuesday, Niumatalolo, spurred by what he saw on that anonymous NFL sideline, revealed he's gone a step further than where he was even two years ago: he gave his staff Sundays off throughout the season.

Niumatalolo based the decision, in part, on Chick-fil-A. (The man loves food. He made some sort of food reference close to a dozen times during his 45-minute talk.) "My dad was in the food-service business for 40 years," he said. "I know Sunday is the biggest day in their week." But the chicken chain's can-kicking of the rest of the fast food industry while taking Sundays off assured Niumatalolo his staff could do the same.

So while coaches were permitted and encouraged to put their prep work in at home on their own time, Navy's football offices remained dark on Sundays throughout the fall. (He didn't elaborate on this, but the bet here is that his assistants still got their work in so as to avoid being the least-prepared staff member at Monday morning meetings -- just in a different manner than if they'd been in the office all day.)

The end result? Only Navy's best season in 50 years. The Midshipmen won 11 games, the most in program history, while posting the first two-or-fewer loss season and top-20 final ranking since Roger Staubach captained the ship.

Now, we must add some reality to the situation. Niumatalolo is in his eighth season as head coach, with a generational talent in quarterback Keenan Reynolds on the roster, and the assurance of knowing a 7-5 dip next season wouldn't dent his job security. It's possible he would have still given his staff Sundays off had they gone 4-8 in 2014, or if he was in his first year on the job, because he's simply that type of guy.

But it's equally possible he wouldn't.

Niumatalolo insisted his Sundays-off policy wasn't born simply because he's at Navy and football is different there. "I'm the most competitive guy ever," he said. "My wife told me, 'If we get fired because you elbowed an admiral on the basketball court, I'm leaving you.'"

Niumatalolo also said Navy practiced less than ever this fall, and hit less than ever when they were on the practice field. Navy, based in that trademark triple option offense, also focuses less on strategy than most of his peers. "Culture beats strategy all day long," Niumatalolo said. "Our culture is the way we come off the fricking football, the way we hold the ball, how our wide receivers block."

This season, while Niumatalolo paced his own sidelines before games, he saw a team that was fresher -- both players and coaches. And with a 15-2 record (losses only to Notre Dame and Houston), Middies assistants can go ahead and plan on making reservations for that after-church lunch with their families again in 2016.