Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo fresh, rejuvenated for start of preseason camp
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: August 2, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — After two decades at the Naval Academy, head coach Ken Niumatalolo could be forgiven for taking a ho-hum approach to the first day of football.
After all, preseason practice can become monotonous and stale even for a younger coach.
Niumatalolo has said if he ever feels that way going into August camp he will know it's time to retire from the business.
So it was that an energetic Niumatalolo was barking instructions, blowing his whistle and busily patrolling the practice fields as Navy football began preseason camp on Tuesday.
"It's my 28th season and it seems like my first. I'm really excited," Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo believes strongly in using all allotted vacation time and demands that his assistants get away during the summer months to recharge the batteries. The 10th-year head coach spent time visiting with family in Hawaii and Utah in June and July, purposefully getting away from football.
"When you get to this point, you can't be tired. We want our whole staff fresh and rejuvenated. Today is Aug. 1, but as a program we want be going like this all the way to Sept 1," he said, holding his arm at an angle to indicate an upward trend.
Niumatalolo is famous for being a meticulous planner, carefully putting together practice plans and constantly brainstorming ways of improving the Navy football operation. However, he has learned that sometimes you need to be flexible and go with the flow.
"I do take pride in being organized and detailed, but there are always some last-minute adjustments," Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo made one of those adjustments this week, deciding to conduct training camp on the fields located near the Robert Crown Sailing Center. The Midshipmen used to spend the first few weeks of practice at that location before the head coach grew concerned about the field conditions.
For the last two years, Navy has spent all of August practice on the football-specific practice fields located inside forbidding metal fences closer to Ricketts Hall.
"We stopped coming out here because the fields have been pretty bad," Niumatalolo said after practice on Tuesday. "I was out walking the other morning and I noticed the fields are in good shape."
Niumatalolo notified the facilities and equipment staffs of the sudden change of plans on Monday and they quickly lined the fields, moved blocking sleds and set up tents with training tables underneath.
NCAA rules allow Division I football programs to conduct 29 preseason practices and Niumatalolo intends to use the full allotment leading up to the Sept. 1 opener at Florida Atlantic University.
This year, the NCAA eliminated two-a-day contact practices, a decision that led to consternation among some major college coaches. That new rule does not impact Navy, however, since Niumatalolo had previously stopped conducting two-a-day practices.
"I've heard some coaches say it's going to be an adjustment going to one practice a day, but we've been doing that for a long time," Niumatalolo said. "I've always felt this game is so physical and so grueling. I thought there were times when guys left some of their fight on the practice field. We want to have everything in our holsters for the game."
Per NCAA rules, Navy players practiced in shorts with helmets on Tuesday and will do so again on Wednesday. The Midshipmen will not have their first padded practice until Saturday. Niumatalolo believes it's important to establish the standards of the program during August drills.
"It's all about culture and teaching the players the way we practice," he said. "Just small little details like running to the football on defense and carrying the ball high and tight on offense."
Navy's players participated in off-season strength and conditioning workouts during the winter and summer months. Those sessions, which were overseen by associate athletic director for sports performance Mike Brass, cannot mimic playing football in full pads.
"It's more about drills the first couple days and getting into football shape," Niumatalolo said. "Our guys are in good running and lifting shape. Coach Brass and his staff did a good job with our offseason conditioning. Now we need to get them into football shape."
Navy has posted winning records in 13 of the last 14 seasons. The Midshipmen set a program record with 11 wins in 2015 and have won eight games or more in seven other seasons under Niumatalolo, who senses this 2017 squad could be special.
"There is something about this team. I really like this team. I like the chemistry, I like the talent, I like the work ethic," he said. "I just feel really good where we are going into preseason camp. We just have to be humble and keep working.