Navy head football coach Ken Niumatalolo says playing in empty stadiums in the fall doesn’t make any sense, believes the season will be pushed back and is confident his program is uniquely qualified to handle whatever lies ahead in a college football landscape altered by COVID-19.
Spring practice has been canceled for every program in the country, meaning players are working out remotely and coaches are holding virtual meetings with players. A timetable for when teams will be able to report to campus is unclear; gatherings of 10 or more people are currently forbidden in the state of Maryland, and there are similar restrictions throughout the nation.
With that in mind, it’s been speculated that if a college football season is played in the fall, it may have to be without fans in the stands to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. Niumatalolo isn’t buying such a proposal.
“You’ve got 100 people on both sides, maybe 120 with all the support staff and everybody and media on the sidelines on both sides of the ball. So you might have close to 250 people on the field,” Niumatalolo said on Glenn Clark Radio April 8. “So let’s say you just do the players and the coaches, it’s still a ton of people. So I don’t see any scenario in college football where you don’t have people in the stands. Because if you don’t have people in the stands, then it means that things still aren’t safe. And in our game, there’s no social distancing.”
Niumatalolo says a more realistic scenario is the season being pushed back, with games possibly being played in the spring. He said that with everything he’s read and heard, he envisions the season will be “much later this year, pushing into the beginning part of [the spring] semester.”
The coach is well aware of the importance of football to the college sports ecosystem, with the revenue generated from football benefitting the entire athletic department. He also knows that the broad questions that arise if the season is pushed back or canceled — What happens to the other sports on campus? Do some people lose their jobs? — make for particularly high stakes.
“What everybody’s talking about is they’ve got to get football going because it produces the revenue,” Niumatalolo said. “It produces the revenue for every sports program, so I think athletic directors don’t want to imagine a season without football.”
The Mids are scheduled to open against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland, Aug. 29. Niumatalolo believes he’d need about two months to get his team ready to play, which would require an early July report date at the latest, but he knows he’s ultimately not up to him.
“I think the one that is the most likely or the one that I feel like you could play — the product may not be the greatest, but you could be safe — is a month of working out and a month of practice, so two months,” Niumatalolo said. “But they might say, ‘You have a month.’ You’ve got two weeks of conditioning and two weeks of practice, and then we get ready to go to war.”
The success Niumatalolo has had at Navy — he’s 98-60 in 12-plus years as the head coach and is coming off an 11-2 season — suggests he’s long been able to overcome adversity, and Niumatalolo says the culture he’s instilled gives the Mids a chance to succeed in swimming through the uncharted waters ahead.
Niumatalolo said he operates his program so that his coaches are able to give “100 percent” on the practice field and in the film room. He gives his assistants more time off during the summer than most coaches so that they’re full of energy when camp starts. His coaches report to work early and leave the building in time to eat dinner with their families. On Sundays, his staff watches film at home instead of reporting to the office.
Coaches around the country who are used to living at the office are at a disadvantage, according to Niumatalolo, who said “some of them don’t know how to function right now.” Niumatalolo also mentioned that one of his players mentioned during a virtual team meeting that the Mids are well-positioned to handle an altered 2020.
“He kind of mentioned that, ‘Coach, we know that everyone’s got nicer facilities or they might have better nutrition or other things that we don’t have.’ But he said, ‘I feel like right now it’s a level playing field. We’re all at home trying to figure out our own workouts,’” Niumataolo said. “He said, ‘We feel like we’re like everybody else now. Nobody has an advantage on us.’ So we feel like that’s going to be our advantage — our work ethic, our culture, what we do. When he said that, I totally believed him.”
Niumatalolo also touched on some other topics, including …
On former quarterback Malcolm Perry’s prospects heading into the 2020 NFL Draft (Perry is working out as a wide receiver):
“I think the stuff he did at the Combine helped him with people seeing him being able to catch and recognized that he’s got really good hands. He goes to the Combine and he’s trying to work out on his own. He’s got certain people trying to help him, but it’s not to the extent of other guys. Most guys who get ready for the Combine, they’re not in school anymore. They drop out of school or they’ve graduated and they’re in California or Florida or somewhere training and living at a facility to train for the Combine. He was going to school and trying to do things. I think people take all of that into account. They recognize who he is and they see the body of his work. I’d be very surprised if he didn’t get drafted. All different indications that I’ve heard from people that a lot of people liked him. A lot of people like him and are really excited about him.”
On whether a compressed offseason will give sophomore Perry Olsen, who played in seven games last year, the nod at quarterback over other options like Dalen Morris, Tyger Goslin and Maasai Maynor:
“Everybody’s going to be working on a short schedule. It’s not like we’ll be the only team. It’s going to be an open competition, but obviously somebody’s who’s been here a little bit longer will have an advantage. But I think the other guys recognize that. I’m looking to see that. I’m looking to see who can make up some time, who’s studying on their own, who’s doing some of the other stuff like, ‘Hey, you know what, if we go back and we’ve only got a month of practice, I’ve got to make sure I know my stuff.’ And I think all of that stuff will play out anyway, especially during the season like this. You don’t want to hand the job to anybody. You want to make sure whoever that is, he definitely earned the job.”
On if stories about COVID-19 infecting U.S. Navy sailors make it more difficult to recruit:
“Kids come to us wide-eyed and they understand what’s going on with social media and stuff online. Everybody knows, so it’s not like you can hide anything. You present things. Some of the stuff may scare people off, some of the normal things that have always made people go in other directions other than the military, which is fine. I’ve always said that it doesn’t make you a bad person if you don’t come to a service academy. Maybe some of the current events now make it even less likely that some guys would come, but I’ve gone to the approach [that] it is what it is. The guys who end up coming here are supposed to be here anyway. They’re meant to be here.”
For more from Niumatalolo, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox