To turn around Navy, Ken Niumatalolo made the toughest call: He let go assistants
By JOHN FEINSTEIN | The Washington Post | Published: November 28, 2019
The 10 days leading to last Christmas weren't exactly filled with holiday cheer for Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo. His team had just lost to Army for a third straight year, closing out a dismal 3-10 season.
"It wasn't any fun," Niumatalolo said Wednesday morning with a small laugh. "A lot of things had gone wrong, but the Army game was the last straw. I knew I had to make changes - starting with myself."
Niumatalolo is the winningest coach in Navy football history. At the end of his 11th full season in charge, he had an 87-58 record, along with all sort of other accolades: five Commander-in-Chief's trophies; nine bowl trips; a nine-game winning streak against Army that ended in 2016.
Not good enough.
"There were things I wanted to do, felt I needed to do for a while," he said this week as the 8-2 Midshipmen prepared to play at Houston on Saturday. "But I had put them off because we were having success, so I didn't push things as much as I should have pushed. After the Army game, I knew it was time."
Like any good coach, Niumatalolo first looked in the mirror. He felt he had failed Malcolm Perry, his quarterback, by not committing to him as the full-time starter. He told Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk the team needed a full-time nutritionist, among other things, and he had to talk to school administrators about giving his players more help away from the football field.
"The guys up north [Army] and Air Force had made commitments we needed to make too," he said. "I would never ask anyone to give up the principles of the academy because I believe in them. But if we're going to compete with those guys, we have to have the same tools."
The hardest thing, though, was deciding to change his coaching staff. Niumatalolo values loyalty, and he had worked with defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson for most of 23 years, dating from his first stint as a Navy assistant under Charlie Weatherbie. Pehrson had succeeded longtime coordinator Buddy Green in 2015, and for three seasons, the defense continued to have success.
Not so in 2018.
"It wasn't just that we'd had a bad season," Niumatalolo said. "I'd thought about a different defensive approach almost from the day I took over [in December 2007] as head coach. Buddy worked with Paul and had done a great job. So why change? Dale was a lot like Buddy. But I'd always thought we needed to make some schematic changes. I wanted to disguise our defenses more, be more aggressive. After the Army game I spent hours thinking about what to do.
"Dale's a good friend. I know his wife, his kids, his grandson. It was hard. But I knew I had to do it. I couldn't go through another season like last season."
Niumatalolo didn't know whom he wanted to succeed Pehrson, but he knew he wanted someone who would bring schematic change and understood the option offense. For all the talk at Navy about the importance of winning games in the American Athletic Conference, the two games that still matter most are Army and Air Force.
"They're our two biggest games every year," Niumatalolo said. "If I talked to a coach and he said, 'I don't know anything about the option,' that was it. I said, 'Thanks for coming. Best of luck.'"
Brian Newberry's coaching experience had been at the Division II and FCS levels. He had been the coordinator of Kennesaw State for the previous four seasons. But he had experience with the option, and as soon as he and Niumatalolo sat down to talk, Niumatalolo thought he had the right guy. There was one sticking point: Newberry wanted to bring two of his position coaches from Kennesaw State with him, meaning Niumatalolo would have to let go two more coaches. That twisted his stomach into a knot. He was convinced, though, that Newberry was the right guy.
In return, Newberry agreed to go along with Niumatalolo's desire to bring Brian Norwood back to coach the secondary. Niumatalolo and Norwood had worked together as young Navy assistants dating from 1995, and Norwood had gone on to coach at Penn State, Texas Tech, Baylor and Kansas State.
"I can't begin to tell you what having Brian back has meant to me personally and to the team," Niumatalolo said. "It's like having another head coach on the staff. That's why I often let him talk to the team on Friday nights. He's that good."
There was one other thing Niumatalolo felt he had to do long before the team began to get serious about off-season training. He called in the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Perry in, and he and longtime offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper more or less apologized to him.
"It was on me," Niumatalolo said. "I had been wishy-washy. After the way he played when we started him as a sophomore, I should have been more committed to him as the quarterback, but I wasn't. . . .
"I told Malcolm, 'We're giving you the keys; it's your team.' I think that helped with his confidence. Of course, we worry about him getting hurt, but we've talked to him about trying not to take too many hits, to think about getting down after he makes that first cut before he gets hit."
Niumatalolo laughed. "Then again, if he had listened to us last week and gone down after his first cut, he wouldn't have had that 70-yard run against SMU."
The two coaches also told Perry they were going to hire a passing coach, Billy Ray Stutzmann, to work with him on his throwing. Perry's improvement throwing the ball has been a critical part of his play this fall.
Navy has completely changed the story line this year with Perry starring at quarterback. The Mids' only two losses were at Memphis and at Notre Dame. A year after losing 35-7 at Air Force, they rallied late to beat the Falcons in Annapolis to put themselves in position to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 2015.
But before they get that chance against Army two weeks from Saturday, the Mids could have two more games. If they win at Houston on Saturday and Memphis loses to Cincinnati, they'll play at Cincinnati for the AAC title during what normally would be a bye week.
Three years ago, the Mids reached the championship game and were crushed at home by Temple. More important, six players were injured in that game, including starting quarterback Will Worth, and Navy lost the next week to Army for the first time in 15 years.
"I honestly believe if we're healthy, we win that game," Niumatalolo said. "Six guys, including our quarterback, is a lot to lose."
Which is why, in many ways, the ideal scenario for Navy would be to win at Houston and hope Memphis wins. After all, winning the CIC Trophy is the number one goal, and Niumatololo and his players want desperately to end that three-game losing streak against "the guys from up north."
Niumatalolo is too smart to say anything that would downgrade the importance of a conference title. "If I had to choose," he said pausing, "I'll take both."
The best news in that comment? A year after his December-of-discontent, Niumatalolo has the Mids in position to take both. They've come a long way from that dreary evening in Philadelphia almost a year ago.