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Lifestyle // Island Matters
Mufi Hannemann

Ken Niumatalolo’s Key To Coaching

Former Radford High School and University of Hawaii quarterback Kenneth Va’a Niumatalolo has reason to beam with pride this week, having been inducted into the first class of the Polynesian Hall of Fame – the brainchild of Super Bowl players Jesse Sapolu and Ma’a Tanuvasa.

Unlike the other superstar inductees – Herman Wedemeyer, Jack Thompson, Junior Seau, Kevin Mawae, Olin Kreutz and Kurt Gouveia – Niumatalolo wasn’t selected for his achievements as a player, but for excelling as a coach. There are stories galore of the exploits of Polynesian athletes through the years, yet hardly a tale of what Polynesians have accomplished as coaches at the collegiate or professional level because, all too sadly, there have been so few of them.

Enter at the helm “Coach Niumat,” as he affectionately is known at the U.S. Naval Academy, where in six short seasons he has run one of the NCAA’s most successful football programs. In fact, in the fall of 2009, it was that itching curiosity that led Hawaii businessman Marc Tilker and me to Annapolis to see for ourselves the country’s first Polynesian college head football coach in action. What we witnessed gave us chickenskin.

The Niumatalolo family in front of Laie LDS Temple (front, from left) Ken Niumatalolo, James Niumatalolo, Steve Niumatalolo, (back) Molly Niumatalolo-Simmons, Sonja Fitisemanu, Lamala, Simi and Raelene Niumatalolo, and Janice Manoa | Photo courtesy Janice Manoa

The Niumatalolo family in front of Laie LDS Temple (front, from left) Ken Niumatalolo, James Niumatalolo, Steve Niumatalolo, (back) Molly Niumatalolo-Simmons, Sonja Fitisemanu, Lamala, Simi and Raelene Niumatalolo, and Janice Manoa | Photo courtesy Janice Manoa

Marc and I were so impressed because Niumatalolo and his staff taught the young men more than just the basic X’s and O’s of football. The coach and his management team also were in charge of student-athletes whose primary responsibility is being a stout member of our armed services to protect and defend our country.

This unique aspect of Kenny’s job hit home with me when he invited me to address his team at midfield during a practice break. As I gazed into their eyes and felt their aloha and respect for their Samoan-born coach, I could not help but hearten back to Kenny’s father, Simi, a retired Coast Guard officer and an employee of Polynesian Cultural Center, and his mother, Lamala, who for many years would take daily commutes on TheBus from Laie to downtown Honolulu, where she worked at Bank of Hawaii. All those sacrifices they made for their seven children reflected in their son Kenny being held in the highest regard by students and alumni naval officers at one of the nation’s most prestigious service academies.

Lamala died last fall after a long illness, a monumental loss for Simi, Kenny and siblings James, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, Molly Niumatalolo-Simmons, Sonja Fitesemanu, Janice Manoa, Raelene and Steve. She was the heart and soul of this close-knit family. Judging by the hundreds who made the trek to Laie to pay homage to a loving matriarch at the funeral service, she was an inspiration to all. Her influence was felt in so many ways, even down to Kenny professing in his tribute that he had “one of the tidiest offices of any football coach in America” because of his mom’s “insistence on cleanliness.”

When I queried Kenny on what has been the key to his success as a coach, he quickly responded: “My family and my faith. I am not the smartest guy in the world, but I hold to certain values and principles taught to me by my parents that have stayed with me throughout my life. They have guided me in mentoring some of our country’s finest young men.”

Kenny had taken two years off during his college years to fulfill an LDS Spanish-speaking mission in California.

Regarding his latest honor, he says, “In many ways, I am so humbled to be singled out, and I don’t feel worthy of such an award. I have looked up to my fellow inductees for their trailblazing accomplishments both on and off the field.”

Finally, when asked to point to the biggest highlight so far of his coaching career, the 48-year-old skipper looked to his first recruit to the academy, Alex Murray, from Seattle, when he was assisting then-head coach Paul Johnson in 1995 (like Kenny, Johnson was formerly on UH coach Bob Wagner’s staff).

“When Murray came back to visit me on campus, having graduated from Annapolis as a football player, completed his tour of duty and now embarking on a meaningful private sector career as a vice president with JP Morgan, I was overcome with emotion. His success story meant more to me than winning the Commander-In-Chief’s Cup (which he has won four times for having the best record among the Army, Navy and Air Force teams competing against each other) or beating Wake Forest (Navy’s first over a nationally ranked team in 23 years in 2008) or beating archrival Notre Dame twice.”

That in and of itself speaks volumes of the character and integrity of Kenny Niumat-alolo. For him, it’s not only about winning on the gridiron, but winning in the game of life. I know I speak for many when I say when he and wife Barbara (a native of Guam, whom he met in Laie while she was a student at BYU-Hawaii) and their children are ready to return home to Laie, we’ll welcome them back with open arms. But given all the great things he is doing presently, that may be a long time coming.

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