Dec. 8, 2009
By Bob Socci
On the next stop of what must seem like a month-long sentimental journey, Ken Niumatalolo will come face to face - albeit separated by the width of the playing surface at Lincoln Financial Field - with his past.
Two weeks ago, as head coach of Navy, Niumatalolo brought his Midshipmen back home to his native Oahu, for a meeting with his alma mater, Hawaii. Family, friends and Islanders proud of a favored son turned a trip halfway across the world into a stroll down memory lane.
This week, as he prepares for his second Army-Navy game as head coach, Niumatalolo goes down that road again, returning to the intersection where past meets present.
Awaiting him, at the corner of Pattison Avenue and S. 11th Street in South Philly, is his coaching counterpart and another co-star of the reality series unfolding before us; Niumatalolo's very own "This is Your Life."
By now, you've likely read of the confluence of life's circumstances that connect Niumatalolo and Ellerson. More cosmic than coincidence, they start with the night Ellerson visited Simi and Lamala Niumatalolo's home in Laie.
Ellerson was there as recruiter for the University of Hawaii; Niumatalolo as high school recruit and future Rainbow Warrior. Largely because of that evening and the history it spawned, the tangled storylines stemming from Saturday's matchup resemble the branches of the Hau trees that inhabit Hawaii.
Each represents a limb extending from the coaching tree of recently retired Dick Tomey, whose teams won 183 games in 29 seasons at three schools. Tomey coached Ellerson at Hawaii, and remained there when Niumatalolo concluded his career at Radford High by committing to the Warriors.
Coaches like Bob Wagner and Paul Johnson followed, eventually influencing both Ellerson and Niumatalolo. Johnson's fingerprints are still evident on the offenses that both Army and Navy employ.
By the time Ellerson left Honolulu for Arizona to draft the `Desert Swarm' defense under Tomey, Niumatalolo was ready to be promoted to full-time assistant coach for the Warriors.
"I would not be here if it wasn't for Coach Ellerson," Niumatalolo said during a press conference on Thursday.
But as much of his own history as Niumatalolo might see across the way on Saturday, the past will be staring right back at Ellerson.
He was named Army head coach last December, less than a week before his 55th birthday. As widely reported, West Point was Ellerson's dream destination.
In his world, he's often said, there isn't a more important job in football than the one he now occupies. At Cal-Poly, where he guided the Mustangs to a 56-34 record, Ellerson made sure if Army ever called on him that there would be no buyout of his contract. It did. There wasn't.
His father, the late Col. Geoffrey Dixon Ellerson, and two older brothers marched in the Long Gray Line of Cadets. John Ellerson was an Army team captain in 1962. Ellerson grew up, he says, on Army football.
It's a wonderfully tidy fit. Ellerson is, you could easily assert, where he was always meant to be - a victory away in his first season from leading the Black Knights' to their first bowl game in 13 years.
Square jawed, with his stubble-length hairline - receding as it is - Ellerson may have spent the last eight seasons in San Luis Obispo, but he showed up at West Point out of central casting.
But there's something else about his background that's gone unnoticed for the most part in recent days, something that makes this weekend's Philadelphia storylines even more jumbled.
Before Ellerson was given the offer he'd never refuse, Army athletic director Kevin Anderson interviewed Navy assistants Buddy Green and Ivin Jasper. But rather than a current coach of the Midshipmen, Anderson hired a former midshipman.
Yes, you read it right.
Present-day coach at West Point, son and brother of career Army officers, Rich Ellerson was once a Navy plebe, appointed to the Academy in Annapolis out of Salpointe Catholic High in Tucson, Ariz.
As reported by The Arizona Star's Greg Hansen last December, Ellerson attended the USNA for a year, before deciding to transfer to Hawaii the following summer (graduates of either academy can insert your own punch lines here).
You know what they say about truth as it relates to fiction. And here's what we know about the truth entering Saturday.
On that sideline, the ex-plebe - who, no doubt, was subjected to and invoked the phrase "Beat Army" countless times while in Annapolis - will try to beat Navy.
On this sideline, the Midshipmen will be coached by the not-so-old lefthander who two decades ago joined Ellerson at his adopted school on Oahu, where Niumatalolo was mentored by the same Johnson whom he'd succeed as Navy's head coach.
The Mids have won 14 straight games in the Commander-In-Chief's series, including the last seven over the Black Knights; all by lopsided margins. Their next encounter will be the 110th meeting in a rivalry now restored to its rightful place, with a Saturday all to itself.
But it will be the first matchup of these two head coaches.
And as intertwined as their personal and career paths have been to date, they - like the branches of the Hau - will be ensnarled for years to come.