Why Saturday’s storied Army-Navy game won’t be Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo’s most important event of the week

Annapolis Maryland Stake President Ken Niumatalolo doesn’t need to be reminded of the historical heft attached to Saturday’s Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia.

This weekend’s iteration of what many regard as the purest rivalry in college football will mark the 12th time President Niumatalolo has been on the sidelines as Navy’s head coach. He’s also experienced the storied match-up numerous times as an assistant coach.

The annual contest between the Black Knights of Army and Navy’s Midshipmen — with its customary flyovers, pregame march-ons and visits from presidents, generals and admirals — is, of course, renowned for its pageantry, tradition and color.

And perhaps fittingly, the game marks the end of the 2019 college football regular season. It’s the only Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) game being played this Saturday.

But the 2019 Army-Navy game promises to be the biggest of them all for the lifelong Latter-day Saint that many were introduced to in the 2014 Church-produced documentary film “Meet the Mormons.”

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, center, kneel with defensive end Denzel Polk (52) and defensive lineman Jackson Pittman (99) as they watch the final play of an NCAA college football game against Air Force Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Annapolis, Md. Navy won 34-25.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, center, kneel with defensive end Denzel Polk (52) and defensive lineman Jackson Pittman (99) as they watch the final play of an NCAA college football game against Air Force Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Annapolis, Md. Navy won 34-25. Credit: AP Photo

A lot is on the line Saturday.  President Niumatalolo knows it.

For one, Navy can reclaim the Commander-In-Chief Trophy awarded to the top American service academy football team. 

Second, with a win against Army, President Niumatalolo would become the winningest coach in the history of the celebrated Army-Navy rivalry.

And there’s more. 

If 21st-ranked Navy can defeat Army and then go on to beat Kansas State in the Dec. 31 Liberty Bowl, its 11-win season would stand as one of the greatest single-season rebounds in college football history. Last year, Navy uncharacteristically dropped 10 of their 13 games — including a 17-10 loss to Army.

The most important moment of Army-Navy Week — and all other weeks

But record books and rivalries aside, Saturday’s Army-Navy Game won’t be the week’s most important event for President Niumatalolo.

His defining moment of the week, he told the Church News, occurred on Sunday, Dec. 8, during a reverent Sabbath-day gathering where he shared the sacrament with fellow members of his Annapolis stake.

“By making the Savior the center of your life and partaking of the sacrament, you focus on the Atonement of Jesus Christ,” he said. “The sacrament helps all of us center our lives. That’s the main thing.”

President Niumatalolo’s unforgettable 2019 stretches beyond Navy’s historic bounceback on the gridiron. On Jan. 20, he was called to preside over the Annapolis Maryland Stake

That demanding ecclesiastical assignment didn’t come at an easy time for the coach, at least professionally. Navy’s losing 2018 campaign exacted a heavy toll on the 54-year-old coach. It was gut-wrenching to fire assistant coaches, restructure his staff and peel back the scab of a disappointing season. But a painful examination of the program was essential.

Multi-layered shelf in Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo's office is adorned with football helmets and other memorabilia reflective of his success at the U.S. service academy in Annapolis.
Multi-layered shelf in Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s office is adorned with football helmets and other memorabilia reflective of his success at the U.S. service academy in Annapolis. Credit: Jason Swensen

 The 2018 season caused him to drop to his knees more than ever before, and ask, “Lord, what’s going on?”

Humbled, but perhaps more spiritually sensitive than at any time in his life, President Niumatalolo’s deepened relationship with Christ allowed him to accept the demanding Church calling without hesitation — becoming the first person to coach a Division 1 college football team while presiding over a stake of Zion.

He credits the role of divine assistance in fulfilling both jobs before reciting a few Book of Mormon verses that are guiding him through a coach’s/stake president’s inevitable ups and downs:

“Yea, humble yourselves, and continue in prayer unto him.

“Cry unto him when ye are in your fields, yea over all your flocks.

“Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day and evening”  (Alma 34:19-21).

 “I know I have to rely upon the Lord,” he said.

A tough Navy squad “founded on love”

Pessimistic football coaches typically enjoy short coaching careers. 

In President Niumatalolo’s line of work, equal measures of resiliency and hope are as essential as mastering football’s X’s and O’s and timely play calling. A successful head coach also needs to recruit the right guys to his particular program — and then, well, “coach’em up” the right way. 

That task is trickier at a service academy such as the U.S. Naval Academy.  

When President Niumatalolo’s counterparts at traditional four-year schools experience a rough stretch, they can attach a few “band aids” to problems by bringing in a batch of proven junior college players or athletes transferring from other programs. 

That’s not an option at Navy. 

Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo looks over the many Church-themed items and images on his desk in his Annapolis office.
Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo looks over the many Church-themed items and images on his desk in his Annapolis office. Credit: Jason Swensen

Midshipmen are required to complete four years at the school. The academy’s primary mission remains training military officers who can lead sailors and Marines into battle and win.  There are no two- or three-year students. And no transfer allowances are given — even if a would-be player can run 40 yards in just over 4 seconds or run through quarterbacks like a freight train.

So there were no quick fixes to Navy’s roster following the 2018 season. It was up to President Niumatalo and his staff to develop and improve last year’s Midshipmen players — along with a new class of freshman “plebes” — and return Navy to its winning ways in 2019.

Ultimately, he added, it’s the young men on the field wearing Navy blue and gold who are executing plays, looking out for one another and winning games.

“We wanted to be the closest team in the country and the toughest team in the country — and we wanted to be a team founded on love,” he said. “That’s what our team is built upon. The players love each other. They play for each other. They are a family.”

President Niumatalolo’s success in 2019 has not gone unnoticed. He’s been honored as this season’s American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.

Army-Navy: a transcendent rivalry

During his Navy coaching career, President Niumatalolo has faced top-10 squads, competed in multiple bowl games and been hosted at the White House. 

But nothing in coaching, he said, matches the exhilaration of leading the Midshipmen onto the field to face Army.

“This rivalry touches the entire country,” he said. “Everybody knows somebody or is related to somebody who has served in the Navy or in the Army or in the Marine Corps.

“It’s America’s game.”

Fans appreciate that the mission of each service academy is not to win football games or send graduating players on to the NFL, he added. “Our main purpose is to produce leaders for our country who will protect us and preserve our freedoms.”

For the senior players, the Army-Navy game also signals a finality different from most other graduating college football players.

“When the game is over, the graduating seniors will be moving on and serving our country,” he said. “That reminds us that the players on these two teams — who are trying to beat each other up on the gridiron — will eventually end up serving together to protect you and me.”

A priesthood leader’s season of growth

Now approaching the first anniversary of his call to lead the Annapolis stake, President Niumatalolo said he is grateful to labor alongside “so many people who serve the Lord so faithfully.”

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo walks the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Houston, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Houston.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo walks the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Houston, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Houston. Credit: AP Photo

Serving as as priesthood leader “also keeps things in perspective” for an uber-competitive college football coach who pleads guilty to still losing his cool on occasion when a guy in a zebra-striped shirt blows a call.

“The quiet dignity and the sacredness of the Lord’s work has been very humbling for me,” he said.

He marvels at the daily miracle of the Lord working in the details of people’s lives.

President Niumatalolo once regarded a stake president’s calling as primarily a collection of administrative duties such as organizing stake conferences and directing high council meetings.

“But now, a year in, I mostly remember the individual, one-on-one times that I’ve had just meeting with people and serving alongside the individuals that I serve with.

“I’m very grateful.”

So is it tough making the shift from “Coach Niumatalolo” after a grueling Saturday afternoon at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to “President Niumatalolo” on Sunday morning at the Annapolis Stake Center?

“I have a hard time going to sleep,” he admitted. “But the Sabbath Day has definitely helped me. … I just have to live in a way that I can feel the Lord. I know that this is His work.”