When Ohio State trickles onto the field for pre-game warm-ups Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium, Ken Niumatalolo will be somewhere – anywhere – where the Buckeyes are out of sight and out of mind. It’s for his own sake.
“I don’t come out during warmups. Some coaches think it’s because I’m not social, it’s because I don’t want to see the opponent,” the Midshipmen head football coach told Eleven Warriors in July.
“I don’t want to be like, ‘Holy smokes, I knew they were big, but I didn’t think they were that big.’”
For Navy, this is a near-weekly reality come game day. It will be especially true this weekend against Urban Meyer’s talented bunch, which is ranked fifth in The Associated Press’s top 25 poll.
“Guys that we play are bigger, faster and stronger. We give up 60 or 70 pounds to people. Guys are always faster than us,” he said. “We don’t have any three-star, four-star or five-star guys, and we’re going to open up with a team that’s filled with five-star guys.”
Niumatalolo, a proud Hawaiian who wears flip flops to work, is refreshingly candid about challenges of winning games at a service academy. He’s the third-winningest coach in school history.
“There are things here that are inherent to this place that make it tough, and I embrace that,” he said. “Most schools don’t tell you what to wear and to shine your shoes.”
Indeed, there are few schools quite like the United States Naval Academy, one of the most prestigious, grueling centers for academia and leadership training in the world. It’s easy, then, to understand why Niumatalolo's constant search for football talent is an uphill battle that’ll never get any less steep.
“Anywhere you recruit, you’re selling what you have. If you’re Ohio State, you say you can play at one of the top schools in the country. From that standpoint it’s the same. At Navy, you sell that you’re coming to a great Ivy League type of school, career opportunities and a prestigious academy,” he said.
“But right off the bat, your recruiting pool is cut in half because of academics. From that pool, it’s cut in half with who wants to serve in the military.”
Naturally, scouring the nation for prospective players and, consequently, prospective officers in the United States Navy, is an arduous and serious affair. It’s a give and take that more often than not makes it hard for Niumatalolo's teams to realistically compete against outsized opponents like Ohio State when it comes to the big picture. The Midshipmen probably aren’t going to be vying for a spot in the first-ever, four-team college football playoff this season.
But on game days, Navy’s rigorous admission standards seem to lend itself to a fighting chance against the Buckeyes and other power football programs that churn out NFL draft picks like the Midshipmen mold military leaders.
“If we were to go to a combine testing 40s, bench and verticals, our team probably wouldn’t test high. But if we were to test character and integrity, there’s no doubt in my mind we’d be at the top,” Niumatalolo said.
“At some schools, they use the words toughness and discipline and that kind of stuff, and they are clichés. They are real here. They are real vibrant things.”
Added Niumatalolo: “We may not be as fast as guys, but we’re going to coach the crap out of the integrity part and the discipline part. Hopefully that side will help offset us being a little slower. They’re going to do their job exactly the way you want to do it. We’re a program filled with leaders.”
And that, of course, is the crux for why Meyer and Ohio State don’t appear to be asleep at the wheel while preparing for Navy.
“These guys are guys who are trained to be fearless and they’re trained to be relentless all the time so we know that we have to go full-go the whole game,” junior linebacker Joshua Perry said Monday.
In 2009, the Buckeyes slipped past the Midshipmen, 31-27, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus after surrendering 13 fourth-quarter points. The game remained in doubt until former linebacker Brian Rolle intercepted a two-point conversion and returned it to the house with less than three minutes to play. The fear such a collapse could happen again is real.
“We understand that if we get up on them early, we got to keep it full throttle, we can't let up. We saw four or five years ago, they came in our place and almost shocked us,” junior tight end Nick Vannett said. “We understand how they are as a football team.”
To understand that, you must understand, for Navy, football is a launching point – not a destination.
“Everyone wants to win football games, but each and every one of our guys is going to serve our country. They’re going to be leaders of men and women,” Niumatalolo said.
“I’m a firm believer in what you learn in football – toughness, discipline – they help you in life. I’ve been here long enough to see guys go through here and see who they become. I have guys flying the helicopter for the president, there are Blue Angels and SEALs. It’s a pretty cool place to coach.”
Launching point. Not the destination.
“Football is a game, what they do is life and death,” Perry said.
“They’re gonna come with their best shot every time. They’re going to play a full game and we have to expect that. They might not be the biggest guys or the strongest guys, but they’re going to come at you.”