Crossing the T: Tactical Planning With Ken Niumatalolo

By Kyle Rowland on June 5, 2014 at 8:30 am

For the first time in 15 years, Ohio State will start the football season on the road. In 1999, the Buckeyes began the season in an NFL stadium in a neutral-site game. Disaster struck.

Ten years later, they kicked off the season against Navy. Disaster nearly struck. Five years after that – 2014 – Ohio State will open the season in an NFL stadium against Navy. Be prepared.

Eleven Warriors recently traveled to Annapolis, Maryland, home to the United States Naval Academy since 1845, and sat down with head coach Ken Niumatalolo. A plethora of topics were discussed, including Navy’s place in college football, the Army-Navy game and trips to the White House.

If you’re wondering whether Niumatalolo is thinking about Ohio State, the answer is every day. The first sight upon entering his office is an Ohio State tin. It serves as a daily reminder as to what’s looming.

Eleven Warriors: Navy’s been incredibly successful this past decade while Army’s really struggled and Air Force has been up and down. Why has Navy been so successful and been able to sustain that as other service academies struggled?

Ken Niumatalolo: We try to make sure we never get complacent. We all recognize this is a fragile deal. We have a good blend on staff, we have continuity. Every year you have to up your game. Regardless of what you might have accomplished last year or the year before, we’re seeing how we can get better.

Maybe the issues you deal with at normal schools, you don’t deal with here. It’s still football, but the issue you deal with is if a guy did his uniform right or handed in his homework. Annapolis is a beautiful place to live. We’re not playing football at Ohio State’s level, but we’re playing at a high level. I think it’s a nice blend for guys.

We don’t have guys looking outside our window asking, ‘Hey, are you guys getting ready for Army this week?’ It’s competitive, but there’s a nice blend to it. I’m a firm believer in that people are human, players are human. We’ve been here long enough we know things that do and don’t work here.

These guys need a break. Coaches need a break. We’re constantly trying to do things – watch the way we eat, the way we stretch. We know who we are. We might have gone 9-4, but the games were barnburners. It’s like a basketball game coming down to the last possession. We’re not going to blow people out. We have to take care of the football, we can’t have penalties. We led the country in both of those last year and still lost four games.

So our approach is we’re going to have a hard time beating people, we can’t beat ourselves.

11W: It’s difficult to win any game. Every coach will you tell you that. But at certain places – Ohio State and Alabama, they can line up and know they’re going to win nine or 10 games and there are two or three they have to play well. How difficult is it to win at Navy? Are the odds stacked against you?  

KN: I’m glad you asked that, because it’s frustrating for me at times. I have to fight with certain people here on campus. There’s a lot of administration that are good, but I don’t think they recognize how hard it is to win. Guys that we play are bigger, faster and stronger. We give up 60 or 70 pounds to people. Guys are always faster than us. 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.

I went to the University of Hawaii and coached at UNLV and I’ll just say it those classes are different than these guys are taking. They aren’t taking online courses to stay eligible. Guys are waking up at 6 a.m. It’s hard.

There are things here that are inherent to this place that make it tough, and I embrace that. Most schools don’t tell you what to wear and to shine your shoes. But I think all that attention to detail and discipline helps. Football is the ultimate team sport. Eleven guys’ jobs are independent of everyone else. Everyone’s job is different, but if you do your job and you aren’t worried about praise and accolades, I think it helps you.

It’s hard, but hopefully we can get an edge on a team that isn’t as disciplined or is selfish.

11W: You played at Hawaii, coached at Hawaii and coached at UNLV. How different is the recruiting dynamic at Navy? Do you approach kids like any other school in the country and ask them to play football?

KN: 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. Form 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.

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. But we recruit nationally, and I feel like from amongst the 50 states there are enough good players out there that are good players. Maybe they were overlooked, maybe he’s a 4.4. instead of a 4.5 or maybe instead of being a 6-6 offensive lineman he’s 6-3.

I think there’s enough good kids who want an education. I think the economy has helped us. People recognize it’s hard to get a job and not everyone is going to the NFL.

11W: You’re from Hawaii, you’re wearing your Hawaiian shirt and flip flops. That’s about as far away from here as you can get. You played and coached at Hawaii. What attracted you to Navy, this place on the other side of the country?

KN: When I first came here in 1995, Paul Johnson was the offensive coordinator. I played for him and coached under him at Hawaii. He said there was a running back job open. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It would be like someone growing up in Columbus and coaching at Ohio State. I’m not going anywhere.

I told my wife I’d fly out here and take a look. I fell in love with the place. I love what it represents, I love what it stands for. I know it’s kind of cheesy, but it’s cool to be at a school that represents your country and stands for everything good about your country.

I’ll always be an island guy, but I love the Naval Academy. I have to pinch myself all the time. I make sure I have perspective. 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.

Hopefully I can have a small influence on them to be a better leader. 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.

11W: Leadership is huge at the Naval Academy. Do you find it’s not very difficult to find leaders? It’s seems like you probably have 120 of them. In football, it’s so important to have those guys and it seems like you have an infinite amount.

KN: 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. 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.

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.

11W: It seems like you have a great understanding of what it takes to win here. If you come here and say I’m going to try and get kids that are equal, will you fail?

KN: You have to recognize who you are. I’ve always been a competitive person. In football I was a quarterback, in baseball I was a pitcher, in basketball I was a point guard, so my ultimate goal is to win. So if we play basketball and we know these guys can dunk on us, we’re going to play zone and make them shoot 3s. If they beat us, they beat us. But we’re going to be smart and not let them do their strength.

I get killed sometimes from alumni asking why we don’t throw the ball more. I’m trying to make sure the guys we play only get the ball eight times. We’re going to try and get the ball away from opponents. We recognize our strengths and realize this is our only way to compete. Yeah, I’d like to do things with passing the ball, but we’d get sacked every time. Our linemen are 6-2.

11W: When Roger Staubach was here, there were great years. In the 40s and 50s there were too. There were national championships going back even further than that. But in the modern era, this is the gold standard of Navy football. What do you think when you hear that?

KN: I try not to think about it. I know we have a good run going, but once you start patting yourself on the back and looking in the rearview mirror, you’re done.

11W: Do you get criticism from alumni and fans just like any other job?

KN: Oh yeah. I try not to pay attention to it. But I get enough emails from alumni drawing up pass routes. Sometimes I let it go, but sometimes it pisses me off. I’ll be a wise guy sometimes and thank them and ask them to draw up a blitz protection.

It is what it is. It’s part of the profession. It’s the one job where everyone knows your job better than you. No one tells a lawyer how to try his case, no one tells a doctor not to use that scalpel.

I go to the grocery store and the guy bagging groceries is like, ‘How come you punted?’ And I’m like, just put the milk in the bag. You just accept it and move on.

11W: The run game – everyone knows what you’re doing, everyone knows you have this weird blocking scheme. Yet, it always works. Why?

KN: Because it’s sound. It’s like the pick-and-roll in basketball. John Stockton and Karl Malone did it for years. I think that’s what option football is. It’s not a gimmick, it’s based off numbers, it’s based off angles and it’s based off what you’re doing.

Some guys talk about halftime adjustments. We’re making adjustments after the first couple plays. We’ll try to see who you’re hurting us with and then counter. You have to get to the game and make adjustments based off that.

That’s why I think option football’s worked. It’s based off principles.

11W: You almost beat Ohio State, you’ve had success against Notre Dame, you guys beat big programs every year. Does it ever surprise you how successful your offense can be against defenses loaded with three-, four- and five-star recruits?

“it’s because I don’t want to see the opponent. I don’t want to be like, ‘Holy smokes, I knew they were big, but I didn’t think they were that big.’”

KN: 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. I don’t want to be like, ‘Holy smokes, I knew they were big, but I didn’t think they were that big.’

I have great respect for our players. I think they are hard workers. Some of the things our players have been able to accomplish over the years, it is quite amazing.

The wide receivers in our offense epitomize who we are. You aren’t going to find that at many places, a guy who blocks a corner for 50 plays. They’re unselfish, they’ll do their job, they aren’t worried about accolades. It’s refreshing to coach guys like that. They are good people.

11W: What’s life like as a non-power five school? What do you think of the direction of college football?

KN: I’ve been concerned about it for years. My AD, president and I had discussions trying to join the Big East when they were still one of the power conferences. I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be left out.’ I saw this all coming.

The big boys are going to break off because the NCAA having all these minuscule rules. The NCAA is making millions of dollars, why can’t a guy sell his jersey? The school’s are benefitting from all of this, why can’t he go have a free meal at a restaurant?

Just listening to those guys talk a little, I think they are getting fed up with the NCAA. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I see them breaking off. The money is so big and it’s all money-driven. I know people talk about rivalries and tradition, but economically what the Big Ten and SEC are getting is unbelievable. I see it as a tsunami.

11W: How difficult is it to be an independent?

KN: It’s harder now. It was hard before. We have a hard time scheduling people. We’re hard to prepare for and people say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, we don’t want to play these guys.’ It’s not that people don’t know how to defend it.

Our AD does a great job of lining up bowl games, but bowl games are getting their hands tied with the Big Five. 

11W: Are you glad you’re joining the AAC?

KN: Yeah, I’m glad to be in a conference because it will be easier to schedule. But I don’t know what’s going to happen to us. I think the Big Five is going to break off. I guess we’ll play ourselves and have our own bowl games.

I’m still trying to grasp it. Maybe our games will be on Food Network in between Bobby Flay [laughs]. I think it’s the right road for us, because it was super hard to schedule as an independent.

I just hope we can continue to sustain ourselves. TV is such a big part of it, trying to keep up with the Joneses. These big schools, not only do they have stadiums of 90,000, they have TV, marketing and all this stuff. There’s a lot of question marks.

11W: You guys have dominated the Commander-in-Chief series the past decade. Winning that trophy, going to the White House, being the top service academy – how thrilling is all of that? How important is that to the Naval Academy?

KN: It’s our No. 1 goal. It’s just recognizing who you are. We’ve talked about the playoff, I don’t even worry about it. Just beat our two rivals and go to a bowl game. There are only three teams that go to the White House: the Super Bowl champ, national champion and winner of the Commander-in-Chief trophy. So you’re in a pretty elite group.

We focus all our energy on that. I think it’s helped us be successful. I know who I am. I know I’m not Tom Cruise, so I just accept it. We’re the Naval Academy, we’re going to play football at a high level, here are our two goals. If we do that, we feel we’ve had a successful year.

Crank it up and start again. That’s kind of been our blueprint.

11W: What’s it like going to the White House every year?

KN: Every time you pull up there and go through security and you walk into the White House, you think, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’ To have the president shake everyone’s hand, I always get star struck. The president calls me by my name. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, he knows my name.’ It’s pretty cool.

I think for our players, they realize it’s a special, special honor. The two presidents we’ve met – President Bush and President Obama, they recognize our guys are part of there team. They have great respect for our guys. It’s been a really cool event.

11W: The Army game – it’s one of the grandest games in sports in the entire world. What is that week like, what is that game like?

KN: It never changes. When you come here as a freshman – or a plebe – they basically strip you of all human rights. But one of the few things you’re allowed to say is ‘Go Navy, Beat Army.’ You can’t say much else, but that’s the first thing you indoctrinated into.

The thing that really resonates with me is 1995, my first Army-Navy game. We’re coming up in the bus and people asked if I’d ever been part of a rivalry game and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I came from the BYU-Hawaii game. That was a big rivalry game.’ When I saw the corps of cadets in their gray coats and the brigade of midshipmen in their black coats, it was like the Civil War. It made the hair on your neck stand up.

I remember our running backs didn’t know where to stand during pre-game drills. They asked where to stand. What do you mean, you stand where you’ve stood the last 11 games. They were so nervous.

I remember President Bush’s last year, we’re having linebacker drills and he’s walking through them. The coach had to stop the drills. What are you supposed to tell the President and Secret Service – get your butt outside the ropes?

He’s walking through the line shaking our guys’ hands. That made me realize this is a unique place. You see these Secret Service guys with long trench coats. They have them because it’s cold, but there’s also stuff under that trench coat [laughs].

11W: During that week, are you anxious or nervous? What is your mindset?

KN: I don’t want the streak to stop. I know our seniors feel the same way. If you’re in this profession and you don’t have butterflies, it’s time to quit. I think our approach to the game is to get it about the game.

There’s so much hype to it. Different generals and admirals speak to the team. But you have to prepare your kids for the game between the white lines. It’s still a football game.

“No matter how many planes and helicopters fly over and how many people parachute out of them, you still have to block and tackle. You try and focus on that.”

No matter how many planes and helicopters fly over and how many people parachute out of them, you still have to block and tackle. You try and focus on that.

11W: Keenan Reynolds, your quarterback, is already good. It looks like he’s going to do some big things these last couple years. There’s a lot of national excitement around him. How excited are you to see what he can do?

KN: Different coaches have different approaches. They try not to hype a guy or get his head too big. This kid is unique. He’s as mature a young man as I’ve ever been around. He’s well beyond his years. I’ve embraced that. I call a spade a spade.

This kid is as good an option quarterback as I’ve ever been around. Ever. He’s the best. He continues to work.

Him coming off the bench as a true freshman with six minutes left at Air Force with us down by three – I was nervous. I couldn’t even think. He came in so calm and collected. His first pas route he went through his progression and hit a safety valve that we didn’t even hit in practice.

He gives me a lot of confidence. Will the play work? I don’t know. But I know he’ll put us in the right play. He allows you as a coach to know the ball is going to be where it’s supposed to be, It’s decision-making that sets him apart.

11W: The Ohio State game, Notre Dame – do you get juiced for those to try and prove yourself?

KN: Human nature makes you. In those games, we recognize we have to play perfect and they have to help us. Maybe plays they normally make a guy drops the ball. I don’t have any shame in that. It’s the truth. If they play the way they’re supposed to, they’re going to beat us.

11W: In spring practice, did you prepare at all for Ohio State?

KN: Everyone has their own formula. But I feel like you have to introduce concepts. You focus on yourself – blocking, tackling. You have to introduce some concepts on both sides of the ball and special teams, just some general things without getting too heavy. I don’t think you start game planning in March. Some years I think we’ve done a good job preparing for our first opponents, some years I think we’ve done a bad job. It’s always a balance trying to find it. Each team is different.

11W:  You seem fairly easy going, I guess I don’t know how intense you are during and after a game. Do you feel like you have perspective and you aren’t going to light into them because you know what they are doing? It’s different than at a place like Ohio State.

KN: I think some guys that see me in practice think I’m Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – you’re easy going, but then you snap. I’m a competitor, and I hate to lose.

I try and tell our guys it’s great what you’re doing and I’m grateful as an American that you’re serving our country. But quite frankly, when the game starts no one cares. Notre Dame doesn’t care that you had a physics test or that you had a 20-page paper to turn in. In a game, they’re going to try and knock the crap out of you.

Our approach has been you have to get ready. This is Division I football. If you want to play at the highest level, you have to compete and you can’t make excuses. Although I appreciate what they do from a personal standpoint, as a coach, I can’t worry about that.

Ohio State and Navy begin the season at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore Aug. 31 at noon. The game will be televised by CBS Sports Network. 

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