When BYU plays Navy in its football opener on Monday night — that’s right, college football actually played — there will be all kinds of connections between those who guide each program.
Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, the winningest football coach ever at the Naval Academy, now entering his 13th season, and Kalani Sitake, starting his fifth at BYU, are respectively the first Samoan FBS head coach and the first Tongan head coach, each of whom spent at least part of their childhood growing up in Laie, Hawaii.
The town on Oahu’s North Shore is essentially a tiny village, with a population of just over 6,000 residents. According to a recent story in Annapolis’s Capital Gazette, when the schools arranged their matchup as a result of BYU losing more than half of its schedule due to the effects of COVID-19, Niumatalolo sent Sitake a text saying the game would be the “all-Laie championship” between a couple of “competitive dudes from the North Shore.”
Added NIumatalolo: “I think it’s pretty sweet. Talk about diversity. To have two Polynesian young men coaching against each other is pretty cool. If anybody has ever been to Laie, that would make it more remarkable to just see how small the town is.”
Niumatalolo, 55, and Sitake, 44, no longer are so young. But they are trailblazers for Polynesian coaches and while they go about their football, particularly on offense, differently, their roots are tangled up in BYU.
Sitake played for the Cougars in the ’90s under LaVell Edwards, who saw in his running back, who was a scholar athlete, the potential to be a successful coach, encouraging him to pursue the profession. He did and he does.
Niumatalolo, who was considered a candidate, along with Sitake, to replace Bronco Mendenhall at BYU in 2015, grew up hanging around the BYU-Hawaii campus in Laie. He told reporters in a virtual news conference the other day that he in his youth used to chuck water balloons at students there, a practice that presumably helped hone his skill as a quarterback, considering he later went on to play the position at the University of Hawaii. Niumatalolo also worked part-time at the neighboring LDS Church-owned Polynesian Cultural Center as a tour guide.
He was close childhood friends with Jack Damuni, who went on to play defensive back for the Cougars and currently works as BYU football’s executive director of on-campus recruiting. The two have remained tight friends through all the years.
Another commonality: Niumatalolo’s son, Va’a, played at BYU, part of the time under Sitake. And another: Both Sitake and Niumatalolo served as full-time missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The football field, however, at least schematically, is where the connections blow apart, veering in dramatically different directions. Niumatalolo has continued the option-football philosophies of Paul Johnson, his offensive coordinator at Hawaii, under whom he learned and worked as an assistant at Navy on two different occasions before taking over the program, just prior to facing Utah in the rain-soaked 2007 Poinsettia Bowl, a game the Utes won. Sitake was an assistant — coaching linebackers — for that Utah team, later becoming defensive coordinator.
But the losing didn’t become regular for Niumatalolo, who has only had two losing seasons in Annapolis, where his service academy teams have gone 98-60. His 2018 team, which finished 3-10, rebounded last season with an 11-2 mark.
Basically, opposing defenses hate facing the Midshipmen on account of their run-the-ball-at-all-costs option attack, a deceptive offense that forces defenders to put up disciplined assignment-sound resistance. Not only does Navy’s offensive line have a tendency to cut defenders’ legs out from under them, it forces every player to read and recognize what’s happening on each play.
It’s a challenge, as any defender who has faced that offense will admit, going back 50 years, being physically and mentally exhausting, and on any blown play, punitive and frustrating.
Sitake’s Cougars are looking to open their playbook with more passing this season. Quarterback Zach Wilson should get plenty of opportunities to show off his arm behind a large and experienced offensive front. The loss of injured tight end Matt Bushman, who was meant to be a centerpiece, will hurt, but coaches say they intend to attack all quadrants of the field, hoping to leave some of BYU’s more conservative schemes in the past.
As is, each defense will be taxed in completely different ways in the season opener.
And the two men leading their programs — one in the Rocky Mountains, the other on the Eastern seaboard — each with a background of living in the same tiny town on a garden rock in the middle of the Pacific, will stare down and attempt to outmaneuver the other on Monday night in Annapolis.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.