Army-Navy rivalry puts two coaches’ friendship to the test
By JOE JULIANO | Philly.com | Published: November 29, 2018
PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Jeff Monken and Ken Niumatalolo are the best of friends. They also are the head coaches who will be standing on opposite sidelines at Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 8 when Army and Navy renew one of the greatest rivalries in college football.
With the two academies in "a bare-knuckle brawl competition 365 days a year," as Army's Monken expressed Wednesday at the Linc before the Army-Navy luncheon, a continuously warm relationship can be elusive, however.
"I'm so proud of Kenny," Monken said. "He's just such a great guy, a great person. He's got a wonderful family. I've known Kenny a long time. I've known his kids since they were born. We're great friends and it is incredibly difficult to maintain the same friendship we've had in this rivalry because we can't talk about anything football-related.
"We're not going to share schemes that would help the other guy win. We're not going to talk about recruiting because we're both going after the same recruits. We're not going to complain about anything that might be bugging us, a problem or a player that's hurt. So when we talk, it's all about our other friends or about our families. We don't talk as often as we used to because it's just hard."
Monken and Niumatalolo became acquainted in 1990 as graduate assistants at Hawaii. They worked on the same staff at Navy from 2002 through 2007 under head coach Paul Johnson.
When Johnson left after the 2007 season to take the Georgia Tech job, Monken went with him, and Niumatalolo was promoted to replace Johnson at Navy.
Monken moved on in 2010 to become head coach at Georgia Southern. After the 2013 season, when he had a chance to take over at Army, he talked with Niumatalolo.
"He said he had a chance to get a job," Niumatalolo said. "I said, 'Really? That's great.' We kept talking and I asked, 'Where are you going? What job do you have a chance for?' He said, 'West Point,' and I said, 'Where?' But I said it was a great place and 'I want you to go there because I have great respect for you.'"
The Navy coach expressed his pride in Monken.
"It's hard to win anywhere but especially at a service academy, and what he's done has been remarkable," Niumatalolo said. "Jeff's such a great person. He comes from a great family. We both started in this profession together. It's kind of weird that of the jobs that we had to get, we got jobs [with teams] that were archrivals. But I'm really impressed by what Jeff's done."
The Black Knights enter the game on a seven-game winning streak and stand at 9-2 overall. They will finish with a third straight winning season for the first time since 1990.
Meanwhile, the Midshipmen are 3-9 and will finish with the fewest wins in Niumatalolo's 11 seasons as head coach. Navy saw its run of 14 consecutive victories over Army end in 2016, and now the Mids, who hold a 60-51-7 series lead, seek to avoid a three-game losing streak to the Black Knights next week.
Monken, however, knows Army will be challenged by the team coached by his good buddy.
"He's a remarkable football coach and he's a great friend," Monken said. "It's fun to be in this game. It's fun to battle and to go against a guy that you feel that way about. But I think it probably makes you want to win just that much more."