And so, on Saturday evening, after Navy had hung on to beat Temple, 31-29, for the 100th victory of Niumatalolo’s Naval Academy career, they decided they had to find a different way to celebrate.
“Chick-fil-A,” Niumatalolo said.
There was one problem: Chick-fil-A had already closed.
“So, we went to McDonald’s,” Niumatalolo said during a Zoom call. “I hadn’t been for years. But it was nice to have a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese.”
Perhaps nothing sums up Niumatalolo better than his confession that he celebrated win No. 100 with, as he called it, “bad food.”
That may be the extent of Niumatalolo’s vices: occasionally eating food he knows isn’t healthy.
No one wins 100 games in 12-plus years as a Football Bowl Subdivision coach without bringing an unabated intensity to the job, and what people miss about Niumatalolo is how searingly competitive he is. Most of the time, Niumatalolo is as soft-spoken as they come. He’s a terrible TV interview because his answers are always the same. When the Midshipmen are playing well, it’s because the players have done a great job. When they aren’t playing well, it’s because he’s being out-coached and the other team’s players are doing a great job.
But when there aren’t TV cameras around, Niumatalolo will never fail to get after his players and he will often do so loudly.
“I know I say some crazy things to you guys on the practice field,” he told his players a year ago after a dramatic win over Air Force. “But I do it for moments like this.”
Of course, Niumatalolo cried early and often that day after the Mids scored in the final seconds to win. He is a self-described “big crybaby,” and he knew the Air Force victory was the first real signal that the difficult moves he had made during the previous offseason, in the wake of a 3-10 disaster in 2018, were paying off. He had fired assistant coaches who had been good friends, he had demanded that the athletic department show more support for the football team and he had implored his players to not make excuses for losses but to find ways to make certain they didn’t happen again.
The changes sure seem to have paid off. The Mids used that Air Force win as a springboard to an 11-2 season that was highlighted by a 31-7 win over Army that snapped a three-game losing streak to their archrivals.
I have been fortunate enough to know Niumatalolo since he first arrived at Navy in 1995 as an assistant coach on Charlie Weatherbie’s staff. I remember the first time I really noticed him on the practice field. I was half paying attention when I heard screaming coming from the middle of the field. It was Niumatalolo, letting the offensive line know he was not at all happy with what he was seeing.
Niumatalolo became the offensive coordinator after Paul Johnson left to become the head coach at Georgia Southern in 1997. But when things began to slip for Weatherbie, Niumatalolo became one of the scapegoats. Weatherbie decided to abandon Johnson’s option offense and bring in a new offensive staff. In Weatherbie’s last season in Annapolis in 2001, the Midshipmen were 0-10; saved from 0-11 only by the cancellation of a game at Northwestern.
When Johnson was hired to replace Weatherbie, his first move was to bring Niumatalolo back. Six seasons later, Johnson had become an icon at the academy. He took the Mids to five straight bowl games, went 6-0 against Army and — perhaps most important — ended Navy’s 43-game losing streak to Notre Dame.
Six days after Navy trounced Army to end that 2007 season, Johnson took the Georgia Tech job. Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk immediately named Niumatalolo as his successor. The program was certainly on solid ground. Even after losing that season’s Poinsettia Bowl to Utah, the Mids finished 8-5. That was the good news. The bad news was that following Johnson at Navy was a little bit like following Elvis in concert.
Except that Niumatalolo has himself become an icon, although in a much quieter way than Johnson, his former boss and mentor.
Niumatalolo has had plenty of chances to leave for a civilian school, to go to a job where recruits don’t run from the room at the mention of the five-year service obligation upon graduation. The closest he came to leaving was in 2015, when he was pursued by Brigham Young.
It seemed inevitable that Niumatalolo would leave. He is a devout Mormon and BYU is a Mormon school. Plus, his son Va’a was playing there. He had already done just about everything there was to do at Navy: He was 8-0 against Army; had won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy five times and had become Navy’s all-time winningest coach.
Tearfully (of course), Niumatalolo more or less said farewell to his players after their win over Army.
“I really did think I was going to take the job when I went out there,” he said later. “Part of it was feeling an obligation to my church.”
But the BYU search committee blew it. Instead of convincing Niumatalolo that he needed to take the job, they kept asking him why they should offer him the job. Niumatalolo’s ego isn’t anywhere close to Johnson’s, but the (non) pitch bothered him. He had gone to BYU to be sold on why he should leave a job he loved. Instead, he was asked to sell himself.
It now seems likely that Niumatalolo will coach at Navy until he retires. He’s only 55, and one would think before he quits, the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium will bear his name. The field is named for Navy graduate Jack Stephens, a past chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, because of a huge donation Stephens made to the academy.
Niumatalolo’s name should be added to Stephens’s. His contributions to Navy go way beyond money.
But don’t tell him that. It’s all about the players and his coaches and everyone he works with.
“I’m just a fat guy who stands in the middle of the field,” he said once.
Well, he might eat a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese every once in a while, but let’s be honest: He’s earned it.