The BYU and Navy football teams may not have a long, storied shared history, but their coaches do.
Both the Cougars and the Midshipmen are coached by Polynesian men who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo has hometown connections to BYU coach Kalani Sitake and ties to BYU.
The third meeting between the private religious school and the military institution is now scheduled for Sept. 7 and if played it could very well end up being one of the most watched BYU football game.
“I’m really excited for this game,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “I think that I’m trying to keep the focus on the players, but it is a cool thing that I’ve known Ken a long time.”
Niumatalolo’s connection to BYU starts well before he or Sitake took on their respective jobs. Both men grew up in Laie, Hawaii and it was while living on the North Shore that Niumatalolo met his childhood best friend Jack Damuni, who is now the Cougars’ executive director of on-campus recruiting.
Because Laie is a small town — and the location of the Polynesian Cultural Center — everyone knows everyone. It’s also where both Niumatalolo and Sitake learned to play football and spent afternoons playing pick-up basketball.
“I think it’s pretty sweet,” Niumatalolo said. “I mean, just talk about diversity and minority, to have two Polynesian young men — we’re both from Laie — [coaching this game].”
Niumatalolo joined the Navy coaching staff in 2002 and took over as head coach in 2007, but almost left to come to BYU.
When then-coach Bronco Mendenhall moved on from the Cougars to coach the Virginia Cavaliers in December 2015, Niumatalolo made the short list of potential replacements. BYU eventually offered Niumatalolo the position, but he turned it down and decided to stay at Navy.
His decision opened the door for Sitake to start his head coaching career in Provo for his alma mater.
“He’s older than I am, but I look to him like an older brother, a mentor,” Sitake said. “And he and I have remained close throughout our whole coaching careers. I keep in contact with him regularly.”
Also, Niumatalolo’s oldest son Va’a Niumatalolo played linebacker for the Cougars in 2011 and 2014-2017.
This game wasn’t originally on the schedule, rather it was added as part of the ongoing reaction to the coronavirus.
After Navy lost its season opener against Notre Dame (which joined the ACC this year and intends to play a conference-only schedule), athletic director Chet Gladchuk started looking for replacements. Niumatalolo suggested BYU and soon after the season opener was set.
“We were looking for the best option for us,” Niumatalolo “I don’t know all the schools that Chet was talking to. … There were a lot of different factors that Chet had to deal with, but considering everything, this worked out the best for us. It looked like it worked out for BYU.”
Sitake said it was a fairly quick turnaround. BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe called Sitake to let him know Navy was interested, and the fifth-year coach thought it was a great idea. By the time everything was finalized, the staff and players knew for all of maybe 30 minutes before the game was announced publicly.
“It wasn’t much of a discussion because I think I just told Tom I trust him and [there was] a lot of excitement from the team once that was announced,” Sitake said.
The players were just thrilled to know when the season is starting and who they'd face.
“I think it’s awesome,” running back Lopini Katoa said. “We had a lot of faith in what coach Sitake was telling us, what Tom Holmoe was doing. We knew it wasn’t a matter of if, it was when. So just to finally have a name to that Week 1 game is exciting and it’s a great match up. It definitely excited all of us.”