No Questions of the Heart
Ken Niumatalolo opens his third season as Navy's head coach Monday vs. Maryland.
Aug. 31, 2010
By Bob Socci
He knows the way by heart.
"Exit 23," Ken Niumatalolo says, laughter punctuating his words, as if an exclamation point.
When you've driven the Capital Beltway as often as he has, there's no mistaking the way to College Park. The last three years, there's no telling how many times he and wife Barbara have visited the University of Maryland campus, where daughter Alexcia is a member of the Terrapins lacrosse team.
"I've been on that campus a lot," Niumatalolo says, recalling the times he's helped his oldest child move into and out of dorm rooms, or simply attended her games. "I go to tailgates with black and red on."
A couple of years ago, he even rode a bus to Blacksburg, Va. with other parents of Terrapin players to root for their daughters against Virginia Tech. What might seem fairly typical for families of college athletes proved a brand new experience for Niumatalolo.
He's accustomed to riding in the front seat, responsible for someone else's kid. Here he was, seeing the miles pass by through an entirely different perspective.
"It's helped me become a better coach," says Niumatalolo, who will open this third season as Navy's head football coach Monday when his Mids meet - ahem - Maryland in Baltimore. "I see how coaches deal with my daughter. It makes me reflect."
And constantly reminds him what must always be remembered about his Midshipmen.
"Don't ever forget that they're somebody's sons," Niumatalolo says.
As for his daughter, though she may play defense for the Terps, there's no doubt whose offense she'll be pulling for to outscore the other at M&T Bank Stadium. Family blood is thicker than one's school colors.
"When it comes to football," Niumatalolo says, "it's all Navy."
And while the red-and-black polo's - his and hers - remain in the closet, in favor of Navy blue, Niumatalolo's thought a lot lately about Brown; as in Don Brown, Maryland's second-year defensive coordinator.
Granted, thanks to the quirkiness of the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, none of the current Terps have faced an offense like Navy's. Maryland last played league foe Georgia Tech in 2007, the year before Paul Johnson took his triple-option attack from Annapolis to Atlanta.
Brown, however, knows all too well the importance of harping on assignment football. As ex-head coach at the University of Massachusetts, he did it while preparing for Johnson's pre-Navy teams at Georgia Southern and then option-oriented Rhode Island.
And, as you may recall, his Minutemen confronted the Mids four years ago, narrowly losing at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Though very respectful of the current Mids - and especially effusive in his praise for quarterback Ricky Dobbs - that result leaves Brown undaunted. Earlier this summer, in an interview published in The Terrapin Times, Brown discussed the key to containing Navy.
"Well, you have to donate time to it," he said. "When I was at UMass we played Navy in 2006 and lost, 21-20, and held them to 80 yards in the second half. So it's not like `ooh, we're afraid.'"
Actually, quite the opposite, as he later explained in The Capital.
"I definitely have a lot of experience in defending the triple. I think we developed a pretty solid plan to defend it, although we've tweaked what we've done over the years," Brown said.
"There are certainly a lot of challenges to defending this type of offense, but at least I have a strategy of how to get it done."
True enough. But then again, Monday's circumstances will be vastly different than the last time he schemed to stop the Midshipmen. Starting under center, with Dobbs.
When Brown's Minutemen visited Annapolis in early September of '06, Navy's Brian Hampton was making just his second career start and wound up alternating with even less experienced Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada.
Combined, those two quarterbacks fumbled six times - UMass recovering two - and completed just 1-of-7 passes for 21 yards, with an interception. The Mids lost yet another fumble, settling for 268 yards rushing and an average of 5.1 yards per carry.
To their credit, the Minutemen - who were talented enough to advance to the Division I-AA national championship game - stuffed Navy fullback Adam Ballard, who totaled 48 yards on 13 attempts. His longest run gained 7 yards.
This Brown-coached defense must deal with Dobbs in his 14th career start. However the Terps line up, even if Dobbs hasn't, surely Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have seen it before.
"(Brown's) changed some things through the years," Niumatalolo said last week, before echoing a refrain heard `round here since Johnson introduced the option offense to Annapolis. "But there's nothing we haven't seen over the years."
Not that Niumatalolo isn't wondering what Brown will do for the Terrapins. But it's just one of many things on his mind this week. Mainly, he's concerned with his own team's preparedness.
Coaching other people's sons, Niumatalolo can't help but ask if he's done right by them.
"It's just so hard to tell where you're at," explains the father of a Terrapin, and steward of the Midshipmen. "You ask yourself, `Did you hit enough? Did you hit too much?'
"You just always wonder if you're on track to step on the field September 6 and be at your best."
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