Niumatalolo breaks new ground as a Polynesian college coach
A visit to the White House. Still "humbling and exciting," in the words of Ken Niumatalolo, but nothing new. He'd enjoyed the Rose Garden's sweet smell of success several times as Navy offensive coordinator. Recently, the Middies have dominated the other service academies. They regularly drop by 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to officially renew their lease on the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy.
This time, two months ago, was somewhat different. This was Niumatalolo's first appearance as head coach, since he replaced Paul Johnson who went to Georgia Tech.
This time, the president had to try to pronounce his last name.
"They gave him a card with the phonetics, but he still had a hard time with it. So he asked me if he could just call me Ken," Niumatalolo recalled. "He said I could call him George."
Anybody got some smelling salts for the protocol advisor?
Niumatalolo concedes to being more in awe of where Joe Montana played than where Abraham Lincoln slept, but that's a football coach for you. Beat Notre Dame, and even the Golden Dome isn't quite so shiny. Do it with a local kid, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, at quarterback? Better yet.
Two men who played quarterback at the University of Hawaii made national news last Dec. 8. I learned of Niumatalolo's promotion via giant neon letters crawling across the ESPN Zone's marquee in Manhattan, a few minutes before Colt Brennan was announced as finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting.
The buzz for Brennan was bigger that day, and rightfully so. But Garrett Gabriel's backup will likely have the bigger long-term effect on football in Hawaii and other places where young Polynesians play the game -- meaning just about everywhere.
More high school athletes than in the past understand the odds against them becoming pros. For those who don't, reality eventually does settle in, and they, too, begin to see coaches as role models.
Prior to the ascent of Niumatalolo, a full-blooded Samoan from Laie, you could count the Polynesian college football head coaches on Edward Scissorhands' fingers.
It's the first battle won in a war similar to the one African-American coaches continue to fight. Apparently minorities are good enough to star on the playing field and be assistants. But when the head coaching positions open up, they are rarely in the mix.
"I don't feel pressure because of it, but I think about it. After all the e-mails and phone calls I got I thought about it a lot," said Niumatalolo, after a talk at the Honolulu Quarterback Club yesterday. "Dignitaries from Samoa contacted me. It's a milestone for Polynesians.
"But coaching is a bottom-line profession. You have to win or you're out. So I already felt the pressure, for other reasons."
Navy might seem like a strange place for the first Poly head coach. But look at Niumatalolo as an individual and it makes sense.
"I'm a civilian," he said. "But I understand their perspective."
At Radford, he played alongside military dependents in the shadow of Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Force Base. His father was in the Coast Guard for 23 years. And Ken's been at Annapolis 10 years, learning to handle the unique challenges of academy coaching from Johnson, his friend and mentor who first asked him to join the profession when Johnson was offensive coordinator at UH and Niumatalolo was done with college and wondering what to do next.
So let's put him on the hot seat. Who does Niumatalolo like for president? The dynamic young man from his home state, or the former POW who graduated from the school at which he coaches?
"I'm going to be politically correct on that one," he said. "I just hope I can go to the White House again and shake hands with whichever one is there next year."
Keep beating Notre Dame and Army, and Kenny will be on a first-name basis with Barry or John, too.
is a Star-Bulletin sportswriter who covers University of Hawaii football and other topics. His column appears periodically.
Reach him at email@example.com