Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo Is College Football’s Most Underrated Head Coach

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Ohio State and head coach Urban Meyer proved their collective mettle in the 2014 season, winning the first College Football Playoff. However, the Buckeyes’ road to North Texas was very nearly derailed in Week 1 by Ken Niumatalolo’s Navy Midshipmen.

Navy led the eventual national champions 14-13 before a second-half Buckeye rally that left Meyer half-jokingly saying the Mids were on Ohio State’s schedule “without [his] input.”

Since winning last year’s national title, Meyer climbed to No. 1 in various rankings of college football coaches, which are oh-so prevalent every offseason. If he’s not No. 1, he’s No. 2 behind Nick Saban. Noticeably absent from the top of these rankings, however, is Ken Niumatalolo: the coach whose team Meyer would rather not face.

He’s No. 53 per Athlon Sports, where I provide Pac-12 coverage. He was absent from Fox Sports’ Top 25. Sporting News gave Niumatalolo the strongest endorsement this offseason at No. 39, though still well shy of all the coach has accomplished commensurate with the inherent challenges of leading a service academy.

The recruiting pool Niumatalolo has to work with is very small. The Naval Academy has academic standards that put it more in class with Rice or Tulane than with most of the football brand names. Niumatalolo must find student-athletes who both meet the rigorous academic requirements and heed the advice of former Navy man and college football player, John F. Kennedy by asking what they can do for their country.

To routinely flourish with such a small niche of prospective players is remarkable. Associate A.D./sports information Scott Strasemeier pointed out: “Navy has won at least nine games five times in the last 11 years. Before the current streak, Navy had won nine or more games just five times in the previous 77 seasons.”

What Ken Niumatalolo’s done in Annapolis is historic, and he’s succeeded since Day One.

I covered Niumatalolo’s first game for CBS after the coach took over for Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson: the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl against Utah. The Utes survived a raucous, rain-drenched rally in Qualcomm Stadium, 35-32. Many of the same Utah players in action that night and head coach Kyle Whittingham were integral to the Utes’ undefeated run the following season.

Whittingham and Utah ended the 2008 season with a two-touchdown rout of Saban’s Alabama team, which failed to test the Utes in the Sugar Bowl as much as Navy had in the previous year’s Poinsettia Bowl.

Truthfully, it’s easy to overlook Niumatalolo’s remarkable success. Though Navy routinely wins eight or more games and has bowled six of his seven years at the helm, so much of college football’s focus is put on the power programs loaded with NFL talent.

Niumatalolo has produced NFL players, like New England Patriots draft pick Joe Cardona, who is balancing his pro football duties with his Naval obligations. But Niumatalolo is more likely to have a player go on to win the Bronze Star than he is to recruit a 5-star prep prospect.

Navy may not be one of those power programs, but the Mids under Niumatalolo routinely take power programs to the brink. There was the 24-21 contest at South Carolina in 2010, the first of three straight years coaching ranking Top 10 stalwart Steve Spurrier led the Gamecocks to 11 wins.

Ironically, the South Carolina game in the worst season of Niumatalolo’s tenure at Navy.

The scare the Mids put into Ohio State last season mirrored the 2009 meeting between the two teams. The Buckeyes went on to win the Big Ten that year, while Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs launched a record-setting season on that afternoon in Columbus.

Dobbs finished his memorable Navy career in 2010, the same season the Mids beat longtime rival Notre Dame for the second time in as many seasons. The 2009 win came against Charlie Weis. In 2010, Navy ran all over the Brian Kelly-coached Fighting Irish, 35-17. Kelly was ranked No. 11 in this year’s Sporting News coaching rankings.

That win over Kelly’s version of Notre Dame football was no aberration, either. The Mids routinely play the Irish close, falling in 38-34 and 49-39 decisions the last two meetings. Notre Dame needed a 21-8 fourth-quarter rally to escape the 2014 encounter with a win.

Kelly knows exactly what’s in store when he sees a Ken Niumatalolo-coached team.

“As a coach that’s really all you can ask for, to win a football game and give a lot of young guys experience,” Kelly said, per UND.com. “And then, not have to play Navy against until next year.”