The 2022 season will mark Ken Niumatalolo’s 15th season as the head coach of the Navy football team. Niumatalolo is the program’s all-time winningest coach (105-75) and has beaten Army 10 times, most among coaches in the history of the rivalry. Since joining the American Athletic Conference in 2015, the Midshipmen are 33-22 in league play.
Former Navy quarterbacks Malcolm Perry (2016-2019) and Keenan Reynolds (2012-2015) spoke to PressBox’s Glenn Clark about what makes Niumatalolo so successful.
PressBox: What makes Niumatalolo so special? Why has he been so successful at Navy?
Malcolm Perry: I’d say his willingness to do things the hard way. He doesn’t cut corners. That’s kind of what he instills in his players. I think it’s easy for the players to follow him and do things the hard way and really get all you can out of everything you do because he’s doing the same thing. And also his competitiveness — I don’t think I’ve met anybody who’s wanted to win as bad as he has or anybody that’s outdone him in that category. I think his willingness to do things the hard way and his competitiveness.
Keenan Reynolds: I think what makes Coach Niumatalolo special is he actually cares about his players. It’s a bit of a lost art in sports where coaches have a legitimate relationship with the people they are in charge of leading. But I really felt like when I was there Coach Niumatalolo really cared about me as a person, still cares about me as a person long after I’ve graduated. … When people feel like you care about them, they’re willing to go to battle for you. They’re willing to run through a wall for you. I think that the coaching staff there really had that figured out. It’s been a large part of why they’ve been successful. Obviously they’re good football coaches and they scheme people up like nobody’s business and they understand concepts and whatnot, but I think some of the off-the-field intangibles that are important as people, they definitely have those boxes checked.
PressBox: How has Niumatalolo stood the test of time throughout his career?
Malcolm Perry: [It is] the fact that he isn’t changing much. I think his way of coaching is very old school in the sense that we’re going to stick to the basics, we’re going to work hard, we’re going to outwork everybody that we play against. Obviously we’re not as big and as fast as those guys, but the recipe he’s used throughout the years I don’t think has wavered much. Obviously there’s little things here and there, but I think his consistency in the way he does things and his ability to not waver and get soft, if you will, I think that’s what’s enabled him to have such a great career as a coach, especially at Navy.
Keenan Reynolds: I think what’s important is that the coaching staff has been pretty open to changes. I think a lot of major changes have been made. Even when I was there, I remember our coaching staff going to visit Northwestern trying to integrate some of their shotgun stuff. How do we stay ahead? How are people trying to defend us? How can we adjust? How can we adjust based on the rules? What strengths do we have as a football team and how can we schematically play toward those strengths? Being a coach when you have nothing but five-star athletes, that makes your job a lot easier. But when you’re consistently playing in a conference where more than likely you’re athletically mismatched — you’re not as big as the other people — you have to find ways to outsmart people and out-scheme people and out-execute people. I think the discipline that is inherent in Navy football culture, coupled with the coaches’ ability to adjust on the fly during games, during the offseason, I think that’s why we’ve been able to stay up with the pace of play and changes in college football.
PressBox: How did you develop such a special relationship with Niumatalolo?
Keenan Reynolds: When I was a plebe, I was playing really well. I think I was undefeated as the starter and then we played Troy. I’ll never forget this. We lost that game and I had like a really long run and at the end of the run, I was trying to score, got tackled, stripped, the ball flew out of the back of the end zone. And on Monday in the meeting room, Coach Niumatalolo played that play and I wanted to shrink. I wanted to shrink under the chair because I knew what was coming. And I’ll never forget this. That was like the one time where he just absolutely ripped me in front of the entire team. It just showed the type of person Coach is because no matter what anybody was saying, no matter how good I had been playing up until that point, I made a mistake. It’s like a cardinal sin in the Navy football program, turning the ball over.
His ability in that moment to go in on me, I think I had great respect for him after that. As a leader, as you’re dealing with different personalities and just dealing with a team, being able to say, “We’re going to stay at the standard no matter who you are.” I think you see a lot of times when players get really good or they’re the star, they get away with different stuff. They get to do stuff that other players don’t get to do. I don’t agree with that philosophy in coaching and leadership. I feel like whatever the standard is, that’s what the standard is. I don’t care how long you’ve been there or whatever. If we say we’re taking care of the football and you’re our starting quarterback and you don’t take care of the football, I’m going to rip you in front of the team. Whether you’re the starting quarterback or the third-string quarterback, it’s the same. That story was always funny to me. I got a lot of jokes in the locker room about that.
PressBox: Is there a story involving you and Niumatalolo that resonates to this day?
Malcolm Perry: I love that in the offseason when players graduate or they’re about to go to do their service and stuff, he gets out on the tennis court or on the basketball court and he actually competes. … I don’t belong on a tennis court or a basketball court, [but] I would hear stories and I’d see him out there playing. It’s basically a tradition during the offseason. He’s playing tennis with a couple of the guys or playing basketball with a couple of the guys. He gets competitive. He gets serious. There’s no way he can play a game without wanting to win, doing everything he can to win. He can’t lose freely. … A different animal comes out of him when he’s coaching, one, on game day and in practice and then two, in any recreational sport he decides to partake [in].
Keenan Reynolds: When I was being recruited, my mindset was I’m going to come in and start. I expected nothing less. My parents said that to him as we were meeting. She said, “You know, my son’s going to start for you.” And he was just like, “Yeah, yeah.” You know how coaches are when they’re recruiting. They’re like, “Yeah, yeah, you’re going to be good, we’ll play him.” But it’s a little plebe coming in, he’s not going to play. For the first game that I actually started, after the game my mom walked up to him. She just looked at him and was like, “I told you so.” He just started laughing. That’s a funny story to hear him tell. I never actually saw that interaction, but I think it’s pretty hilarious that my mom remembered that moment and went up to him and said that after the fact.
PressBox: How has Niumatalolo helped you in life outside of sports?
Malcolm Perry: Day in and day out, seeing his relationship with his kids, his family, his wife. He’s truly perfected being a father, a husband and a coach all in one. I think he does a great job of mixing them but also keeping them separate, so being able to see that and witness [that], his family would always come around but he’s still locked in. He’s still locked in, he’s still the same coach, but he’s able to love his kids and his wife and his family all in one. He’s kind of given all the players that come across a blueprint for just how to be a well-rounded individual while also taking care of what you need to take care of. At least in my time at the Academy, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Navy Athletics