Army's Rich Ellerson and Navy's Ken Niumatalolo have long had intertwined lives
The lives and careers of Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo and Army coach Rich Ellerson have crossed many times over nearly three decades, starting when Niumatalolo was a two-sport high school athlete outside Honolulu and Ellerson recruited him to play quarterback at Hawaii.
Ellerson brought Niumatalolo and two more highly acclaimed players, Thor Salanoa and Brian Norwood, from Radford High to play for the Rainbows. Salanoa was Niumatalo's cousin and Norwood, now the associate head coach at Baylor, was one of his best friends.
"I don't know if I was a tag-along offer, but I was on the bottom tier of the guys they wanted," Niumatalolo recalled recently. "I just remember Coach Ellerson being a very smart man. He talked really fast and his vocabulary was big. I was like, 'What did you say?'"
Ellerson, then the defensive coordinator at Hawaii, said Niumatalolo was as good a basketball player as he was a football player. "He could jump really well, and he was good with the ball in his hands, really a smooth athlete, always under control," Ellerson recalled. "He was used to being in charge, used to running the show."
Three decades after their initial meeting, Niumatalolo's perception of Ellerson hasn't changed. Nor has Niumatalolo's persona, as he has made the long, steady climb from player to assistant coach and eventually head coach at Navy.
Another thing that hasn't changed is the deep personal regard and professional respect theylongtime friends have for each other as they head into Saturday's Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
But that won't change that both want to emerge victorious.
When Ellerson was hired at Army after a successful eight-year run at Cal-Poly, Niumatalolo knew he would be conflicted one Saturday every season.
"I knew when he went there I was happy for Rich because that's what he wanted, but I wasn't happy just from the standpoint that I knew he was a good friend of mine and we would be going at it," Niumatalolo said. "Unfortunately, in this profession, it's a bottom-line deal. I knew that the ramifications for both of us would be pretty tough."
Niumatalolo has coached against other friends in the business, but no one who has been as instrumental in his own career as Ellerson.
"I wouldn't have been in college if it wasn't for Rich. I wouldn't be here [at Navy]. He was the one who got me involved in college football and college sports," Niumatalolo, 48, said. "I'm obviously indebted a lot to Rich Ellerson."
'I root for them every week'
Niumatalolo has won his first five games against Army as a head coach, the past four coming at Ellerson's expense. The Black Knights have become more competitive, including a 17-13 defeat last year when Army fumbled away a chance at breaking a 10-year losing streak.
Asked if he sympathizes with what Ellerson has endured in going through four losing seasons in five years, including a 3-8 record this season, Niumatalolo said, "Sympathy would be the wrong word, because this is a tough deal. More I empathize with him, because I recognize how hard it is to win. It's hard to win games, especially at an academy. But I root for them every week but this one."
Niumatalolo has had only one losing season in his first six years — the Midshipmen finished 5-7 in 2011, when three of the defeats came by a total of eight points — and he has won more games (47) in that stretch than any previous Navy coach over the same period of time.
"They do such a good job, and he's surrounded himself with some really good people," Ellerson said. "The thing he's done that's so remarkable is that his time has eclipsed Paul [Johnson]'s time at Navy. His personality and his fingerprints are stamped on the program, because there were some people who were waiting to see how this would go in the absence of Paul. Obviously Kenny hasn't missed a beat."
While Niumatalolo has become the third-winningest coach in Navy history —recently passing his former mentor and boss Johnson — Ellerson appears to be the latest in a long line of coaches at Army whose past success doesn't translate into winning seasons at West Point.
Army went 5-7 in Ellerson's first year and 7-6 his second, the Black Knights' first winning season and bowl appearance in 14 years. But they have won just eight of 35 games since.
It is hard to quantify the progress Ellerson has made judging solely on the results, and though he still has three years left on his contract, some wonder how long he will last.
"You can see that we're more competitive, and we're doing some things right, but you've got to win football games," Ellerson, 60, said. "That's what's missing. There are some things that are still in our way and some things you've got to mitigate.
"It's a real challenge. I've taken my best swing at it, and we'll see. We've fought through some doggone injuries, and I'm not sure if that is rolling snakeyes or I'm doing something wrong. We're still not managing the experience properly."
'Thought I raised you better'
Another interesting element of Niumatalolo's connection with Ellerson is the fact that both had brief encounters with the other's school.
Ellerson started out attending college at the Naval Academy in 1972 but wound up leaving after his freshman year, partly as a result of a summer cruise that wound up in Hawaii.
The place was so intoxicating that Ellerson transferred to Hawaii, finishing out his playing career and then working there as a graduate assistant coach. He later spent eight seasons in two stints as a full-time assistant at Hawaii.
"It's a great story," Ellerson said with a hearty laugh. "But as I told all my brothers in Hawaii, 'Hey guys, we quit talking about when we were 18 or 19 years old a long time ago.' I got stories on them, too, and I'll find some friends of yours."
When Niumatalolo was fired as offensive coordinator at Navy by former coach Charlie Weatherbie in 1998, the first job he inquired about was an offensive line coach position at Army. But Niumatalolo said Army's coach Bob Sutton told him he had to hire a minority.
"You don't get any more minority than American Samoan," Niumatalolo said with a laugh.
Niumatalolo was out of work for several months before being hired by John Robinson at Nevada-Las Vegas.
"It was a humbling time for me," he said. "I also tried to get on at Bowie State and I lost out to a guy who had no college coaching experience."
One of the first people who called Niumatalolo when he got fired at Navy was Ellerson, who was then the defensive coordinator at Arizona State.
"I remember that moment," Ellerson said. "It was like, 'Welcome to the world of coaching. I thought I raised you better than that, than going into coaching.'"
Turns out he raised him pretty well.
Given the outcome of the past five Army-Navy games, maybe too well.