Thursday, March 29, 2012
Navy lines up new defensive coach
By BILL WAGNER, Staff Writer
When Ken Niumatalolo took his son out to Brigham Young University last spring, he never imagined spotting Navy’s next assistant coach.
Va’a Niumatalolo, a first team All-County linebacker at Broadneck, was invited to walk-on with the BYU football program and the trip to Provo was a chance for father and son to check out the program during spring camp.
The elder Niumatalolo, about to enter his fourth season as head coach of Navy football, was watching BYU practice and found himself closely observing a giant graduate assistant by the name of Shaun Nua.
“I saw Shaun when I went to BYU spring practice and was very impressed with him. He had high energy with the defensive linemen and I liked the way he interacted with the players,” Niumatalolo said. “He left a strong impression on me. I knew if an opening came on defense this was a guy I’d like to hire.”
That vacancy was created this offseason when Napoleon Sykes left Navy for North Carolina-Charlotte. Niumatalolo shifted assistant Justin Davis to outside linebackers and hired Nua to work with the defensive line.
That was clearly the appropriate spot for the 6-foot-5, 280-pounder, who played four seasons in the National Football League with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills.
“Shaun played nose guard so he really understands that position, which is a plus. The fact he played at the highest level brings an added dimension to our staff,” Niumatalolo said. “I was just impressed with his overall wealth of knowledge. He’s a young, energetic coach with a lot of potential.”
That was certainly the opinion of BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who gave Niumatalolo a glowing recommendation for Nua, who spent three years as a graduate assistant at his alma mater.
“When I talked to Coach Mendenhall, he told me he would hire Shaun if he had an opening. In fact, he said if something does open up he may try to steal him back,” Niumatalolo said. “Shaun has been better than advertised. He’s a knowledgeable coach, gets along great with our staff and will definitely help us recruiting-wise. He’s got a humility and a hunger that I’m looking for.”
Niumatalolo and Nua have one major thing in common: both are of Samoan heritage. Niumatalolo grew up in Hawaii while Nua is a native of Pago, Pago, American Somoa. Niumatalolo is the first Samoan to become a head coach at any level of college football, but this hire was not about helping a fellow Polynesian advance in the business.
“It’s always cool to hire someone with the same ancestry, but what caught my eye was the way Shaun coached and interacted players. I don’t care if he’s white, black, oriental or Polynesian, I just felt he would fit in well with our staff,” Niumatalolo said.
Interestingly, Nua visited Navy along with the rest of the BYU defensive staff three years ago to learn more about the option. Nua not only discovered that a Samoan was head coach in Annapolis, but came away with a better understanding of what the Naval Academy was about.
“I got to learn a little about the Naval Academy on that trip, learn about the Midshipmen and what they do and just the mission of the institution. I gained an immediate respect for this place,” he said.
Nua was a second team All-Mountain West Conference selection as a senior at BYU after leading the team with six sacks. He was a seventh round draft pick of the Steelers and was a member of a Super Bowl championship club as a rookie.
When his NFL career concluded, Nua returned to BYU to earn a graduate degree while also breaking into football coaching. While one would think he was hoping to earn a full-time position with the Cougars, Nua said he actually was looking to leave Provo, Utah.
“I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to expand my horizons and learn from different coaches. I love BYU, but I didn’t want to stay there forever,” he said. “I wanted to coach at a different school and I couldn’t think of a better place than the Naval Academy.”
Nua’s coaching education is continuing under the tutelage of Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green and defensive line coach Dale Pehrson, who have a combined 60 years of college coaching experience.
“They’ve both got a lot of years in the business so I try to pick their brains as much as I can. Buddy is obviously a great defensive mind and a real fiery guy while Dale is a great teacher of the fundamentals and technique. I am learning so much from both of them,” Nua said.
Nua has only been in Annapolis a few months, but has already fully grasped the culture of navy football.
“This is a blue-collar program with blue-collar players. These kids have a lot on their plates with all the military and academic requirements and yet they still devote a ton of time to football, which shows great commitment,” he said. “What sticks out the most about the players here is that they are fighters and workers. There is no question they have the heart and desire that is needed. I’ve only been here two months, but I can already tell that we can win with these types of kids.”
Nua admitted it is special to work for someone who comes from a similar background and shares his heritage.
“I’m straight from the islands and he’s straight from the islands. To be the first Samoan to become a Division I head coach takes a lot of hard work, a lot of knowledge and is a tremendous accomplishment,” he said. “Parents, players and high school coaches in Samoa always talk about Kenny. He’s like a hero and a role model for a lot of people back home.”
Nua said he and Niumatalolo have something in common beyond being of Samoan descent.
No question. He’s very passionate. He’s very quiet off the field, but he does get very fired up on the field. That’s how I am too. I’m quiet for the most part, but there are times when you need to get passionate and fired up. I love his energy and the way he treats people. He’s a first-class individual. I feel fortunate to have an opportunity to work for him.”