The Zen of Ken

Navy Athletic Dir. Chet Gladchuk must be a student of ancient nonviolent martial arts, because his selection of Ken Niumatalolo as Paul Johnson's successor carried a simple yet resonant message to his football program: we don't have to grab a big name to remain great. The profound wisdom inherent in Gladchuk's decision will enable Johnson's departing swagger to be replaced by the Zen of Ken.

Yes, this is a great hire simply because it's a progressive one. Niumatalolo becomes the first Pacific Islander to walk through a tunnel as a Football Bowl Subdivision head coach. Such a reality can only open more doors for people of color in this business. However, as the Black Coaches Association found out with Ty Willingham at Notre Dame, the cause of minority coaches can be set back if the coach doesn't succeed. Gladchuk--like other athletic directors--isn't paid to be a social worker, and the quality of this decision will be determined by Navy football's performance on the gridiron over the next few years. When all is said and done, the only relevant question is: will Ken Niumatalolo be able to deliver the goods? No one knows, of course, but the early read here is that the Paul Johnson staffer--now elevated to the top spot on the sidelines in Annapolis--will more than hold his own.

To understand why Niumatalolo is a good fit for Navy football, only one word is needed to tell the tale: confidence.

Paul Johnson took a big boatload of swagger to Atlanta, as one of the most decorated coaches in Navy history finally moved on to a power-conference program after achieving everything humanly possible in Annapolis. Johnson was more than just a brilliant play caller or strategist; the deeply passionate coach pushed his players and insisted on success, thereby changing the subculture of the program, always the key for a coach who inherits a floundering outfit. Johnson transformed Navy football primarily because he changed the prevailing attitude in the locker room; the installation of the triple option gave his team an edge that Army simply couldn't solve, but it was a winning mindset that truly elevated Navy to a place of total Commander-In-Chief supremacy and bowl game brilliance. Chet Gladchuk needed to hire a man who could sustain not just a system, but a confident aura and a swaggering persona. Niumatalolo is as good a person as anyone Gladchuk could have found.

You don't easily replace a coach of Johnson's stature and caliber; when a man achieves gridiron immortality and then leaves the landscape, it's both foolish and counterproductive to deny the sense of loss that fills the air around a program. It is supposed to hurt when a coach as accomplished as Paul Johnson packs his bags and seeks a new challenge. It's a poignant and powerful moment when a Navy legend—a figure who will stand with men named (Wayne) Hardin and (George) Welsh as Annapolis coaching giants—rides off in pursuit of a greener pasture. Finding a replacement for Johnson, then, had to achieve one thing above all else: maintain the sense of confidence Johnson had instilled into his players.

This hire—as is always the case when a legend is replaced at a school—had to bring aboard a head coach who could deal with the emotional side of the game just as much as the tactical dimension of college football. Tom Osborne's cool and calm demeanor enabled him to follow Bob Devaney and succeed at Nebraska. Dennis Erickson had the burning internal confidence that allowed him to continue winning ways at Miami after Jimmy Johnson left for the Dallas Cowboys. On the other hand, Ron Zook's rah-rah enthusiasm wasn't substantial enough to continue Steve Spurrier's winning tradition at Florida. Ray Perkins was too much of a technician and too poor a motivator to follow Bear Bryant at Alabama. The men who follow legends are able to withstand the withering emotional pressures of coaching. When players see that the Big Man can handle the heat, the confidence created by the old boss is re-created by the new boss.

With all this in mind, Ken Niumatalolo stands a good chance of being able to replicate Johnson's football jujitsu. Navy players—who surely hurt, if only for a little while, when Johnson departed—had to be equally elated when they learned that a familiar face would be their head coach. Niumatalolo did much of the behind-the-scenes work that molded the triple option into a consistently successful attack. This simple reality will enable a spiritual and emotional nerve center to remain in place, thereby solidifying morale throughout the program and silencing any anxious questions or nervous whispers that might have (briefly) accompanied Johnson's move to Georgia Tech. Navy's success—established primarily by Johnson but with significant help from Niumatalolo—remains in the hands of a man whom Navy's players know, love and trust. This pearl of wisdom is what makes Chet Gladchuk's decision such an inspired one.

Navy didn't have to desperately search for (and then pick) a big name or a splashy resume.

Navy didn't put its players through a long period of uncertainty that has to be damaging the Michigan and Arkansas programs right now.

Navy didn't overreach for an outsider who, though talented, would have been an unproven commodity within the Annapolis football family.

Navy didn't try to remake its image (see Nebraska with Bill Callahan a few years ago) or look for one of the many retreads that, while experienced, have become stale and outdated in their approaches to the sport.

No, Navy and Chet Gladchuk—when faced with the need to replace a legend—made the percentage hire, tabbing the right man for the right time. When confidence—in great danger of sagging in Annapolis without Paul Johnson around—needed to be bucked up with due haste, Navy hired the man best situated to immediately revive flagging football feelings. If Paul Johnson-less heartbreak pervaded the Navy football program for a few hours last Friday, the sadness didn't last long. The zen of Ken Niumatalolo should rev up the engines and keep the Navy ship sailing smoothly for years to come.


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