ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo was on top of the world on the night of Dec. 28.
Navy had just beaten Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl to close out the most successful season in school history with record-breaking quarterback Keenan Reynolds leading the way. Reynolds extended some of the records he already held and established some others as the Midshipmen set a single-season school record with 11 wins.
That game came just over a week after Niumatalolo had decided to remain at Navy after considering accepting the Brigham Young University job. Navy's seniors had equaled the school record for career victories by a class and set a program record with their third straight bowl championship.
"It was like the storybook ending to a terrific season. I was so elated," Niumatalolo said. "Then the very next day I got that call."
Niumatalolo was referring to the phone call he received on Dec. 29 informing him his older brother had died in a drowning accident while swimming in the ocean near their hometown of Laie, Hawaii.
James Niumatalolo, recently retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, died in a drowning accident while swimming in the ocean near their hometown of Laie, Hawaii.
"Jim was my role model growing up. He was the oldest brother and we all looked up to him. In a lot of ways, he was the strength of our family," Niumatalolo said Monday in his first interview since attending his brother's funeral.
Lt. Col. James Niumatalolo built an impressive resume during his military career, serving as team chief for training operations in the Middle East, senior strategist for Theater Security Operation out of the Pentagon in D.C. and branch chief for U.S. Army Pacific.
"I never fully realized all of the things he did until I read the bio the Army provided. It's truly amazing all that Jim accomplished during his career," Niumatalolo said. "Jim never talked about what exactly he did. He was the epitome of a selfless soldier who served without fanfare."
James Niumatalolo was proud of his younger brother who became head football coach at the Naval Academy. While stationed in Washington from July 2009 to June 2011, James regularly attended Navy football practices and games.
Ken Niumatalolo was equally proud when he attended a ceremony at the Pentagon during which Jim was presented with a special award for distinguished service, which was presented by the Army general serving on the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time.
"Jim was on the fast track and I have no doubt he would have been eventually been promoted to general if he wanted," Ken Niumatalolo said. "Jim made some decisions later in life that hurt his career."
Lt. Col. Niumatalolo requested a transfer to an Army base in Honolulu so that he could care for his elderly parents. Lamala Niumatalololo, mother of seven children, died in September 2013. Simi Niumatalolo, 82 and the family patriarch, still lives in Laie.
Funeral services for James Niumatalolo were held last Wednesday with his two children (David and Chelsea), two grandchildren, father and six brothers and sisters attending.
"We are all still in shock. Jim was such a strong, vibrant and healthy person," said Ken Niumatalolo, who spoke at the funeral. "This is the type of life event that just puts everything in perspective. It is a reminder that family and relationships are what matter most."
Niumatalolo was speaking by phone from San Antonio, where he is attending the American Football Coaches' Association annual convention. The ninth-year Navy head coach was slated to speak at the convention on Tuesday and said he would discuss the "Bond of Brotherhood" that exists among the Midshipmen.
"I'm just going to talk about the culture of our program and how having a team full of players who are all leaders and truly love and care about each other goes a long way toward success," he said.
Niumatalolo was in Hawaii for his brother's funeral and unavailable to comment last week about Keith Jones, who is no longer a member of the Navy coaching staff.
On Monday, Niumatalolo said he had a heart-to-heart discussion with Jones following the regular season to discuss his future with the program. Jones, who will turn 62 this week, is a 34-year veteran of collegiate coaching.
"Keith and I had a long talk and when it was over we both came to the conclusion this was the way to go," Niumatalolo said. "Keith is at the tail end of his career and was ready to retire. It's a young man's game with the long hours and being on the road recruiting."
Jones and his wife Pamela plan to spend more time at their vacation home in North Carolina and with their four daughters. Jones was hired by former Navy head coach Paul Johnson in 2003 and coached outside linebackers and defensive backs during his time in Annapolis. He recruited such standout players as slotback Shun White and wide receiver Tyree Barnes along with such standout members of the 2015 squad as slotback DeBrandon Sanders, offensive lineman Ben Tamburello and linebacker Ted Colburn.
"Keith has been a valuable member of our coaching staff and has done a lot of great things for the program," Niumatalolo said. "Keith was a good man and great mentor for our players. I can't thank him enough for all his contributions to Navy football. We wish Keith and Pamela all the best as they enter this next phase of their lives."
Niumatalolo must fill one slot on his coaching staff and said he has been inundated with interest. He intends to hire a defensive assistant, but not necessarily a secondary coach.
"I'm going to take my time on this one. I already know of several good options to consider," Niumatalolo said. "I'm looking for a person who is the best fit in terms of working with the defense, recruiting and meshing chemistry-wise with the rest of our staff."
Niumatalolo said he will spend most of this month out on the road recruiting, making school or in-home visits with prospects his assistants have already contacted. He will be back in Annapolis on weekends as the staff will be hosting recruits on campus throughout January.
Niumatalolo is headed to Houston on Wednesday to attend the presentation ceremony for the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award. Niumatalolo is a finalist along with Larry Fedora (North Carolina), Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), Tom Herman (Houston), Nick Saban (Alabama), David Shaw (Stanford) and Dabo Swinney (Clemson) with the winner being announced during a banquet at the Hilton Americas Houston.
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