Oct. 7, 2011
By Bob Socci
Midway through his first service academy game as Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jon Greenert promised a second-half comeback for a Navy team which at the time was 18 points in arrears to Air Force.
He drew in part from a football faith validated in last January's NFL playoffs by his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, who overcame a 21-7 halftime deficit to beat the Baltimore Ravens, 31-24.
Of course, Adm. Greenert, a 1975 graduate of the Naval Academy also believed in the Midshipmen. And, as a guest of the Navy Radio Network, he fully trusted Ken Niumatalolo.
As a football coach rallying his players in their locker room at that very moment. And more vitally for the country and its future, as a molder of Navy and Marine Corps officers-to-be.
Though ultimately to encounter the disappointment of a 35-34 final in favor of the Falcons, the next two quarters, and following five days, proved Adm. Greenert correct; his belief was well placed.
The ever-resilient Mids did rebound, enough to take an overtime lead. And Niumatalolo revealed again why he is the ideal -- and not simply idealistic -- steward of a program whose overriding purpose differs from all but two other Division I counterparts.
"I'm totally amazed," Greenert said of the current off-field state of the Midshipmen, 19 of whom earned Dean's List and/or Commandant's List recognition last spring and, almost certainly, will keep Navy's graduation rate entrenched among the NCAA's top five for years to come. "I got to put a plug in for Coach Ken."
Adm. Greenert met Niumatalolo two years earlier during the White House reception for the Mids, as Commander-In-Chief's champions.
"He was so humble, so clear eyed about what he does," Greenert said. "And all he could talk about was these great men that he leads.
"In the classroom, they are amazing. I see these guys in the Fleet one, two, three years down the road, and they talk about how motivated they are to be in the Navy, to lead people. And clearly playing football for Coach Ken is about leadership."
The admiral's football forecast was prescient; his comments about Niumatalolo and leadership prophetic.
Wednesday afternoon we learned that Alexander Teich wasn't practicing and wouldn't play tomorrow against Southern Miss.
By virtue of his title, offensive captain, and performance, coming off 148 yards rushing vs. Air Force, Teich is one of Navy's most visible individuals. But there were things Niumatalolo saw recently that didn't reflect those values of the Mids' program that he holds dearest.
"There's some things that Alex needs to take care of to make sure that he is conforming with who we are as a program and as a school," Niumatalolo told reporters during a midweek post-practice session.
Niumatalolo demurred when probed for details. Whatever factored into Niumatalolo's decision stays inside the team's circle of trust.
As observed and noted from the radio booth, Teich returned to the locker room between the post-game playing of Blue and Gold and the Falcons' alma mater on Saturday. At a later press conference, he was critical of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on quarterback Kriss Proctor in overtime.
This we know. How much, if at all, those actions led Niumatalolo to hold Teich out of what the coach admits to being a "must win" game opposite the 4-1 Golden Eagles, is for them to know.
What everyone should know is what Adm. Greenert recognized the instant he first said "hello" to Coach Ken: Niumatalolo's vision as caretaker of Navy's football culture is clear-eyed. He sees what's right and what's wrong; for the Midshipmen, and nobody else.
Alexander Teich is, by every account, a very solid individual who plows forward at fullback with his heart and soul, usually wearing as much on his Navy blue sleeves. Personally and professionally, I've enjoyed talking to and writing about him. And, especially, watching him run with such purpose on every play.
All summer and into the fall, Niumatalolo called him a "phenomenal captain." This week doesn't change that.
Some might think Niumatalolo is punishing a team captain; I see him as polishing an officer-in-training. His objective is to help a young man be phenomenal when leading sailors or soldiers instead of football players.
"This is the Naval Academy," said Niumatalolo, son of a Coast Guard man, brother of a high-ranking Army officer and devoted husband and father. "It's more than wins and losses, to me.
"To me, our program is about doing what's right. It's way more than between the white lines. Yeh, we're trying to win games, but the bottom line is that we're trying to produce leaders for our country. There's some leadership stuff and things (Alexander) needs to address."
Niumatalolo is in a business inhabited by men who often choose or are pressured to abandon their principles in pursuit of Saturday-afternoon glory. Too many are too quick to loosen standards, however tight they wear their Windsor knots beneath their sweater vests.
Standing where Niumatalolo will late tomorrow afternoon, on the site of a crossroads game opposite a quality opponent, many -- if not most -- would either ignore or find another way of teaching lessons in leadership to most valuable players.
Then, they don't stand where Niumatalolo does, on a breeding ground for military leaders, along the sideline of a stadium that serves as a war memorial.
And for that, we, like Adm. Greenert, should be thankful.