When LDS coaches squared off on Thursday, Dec. 20, it wasn't ward ball down at the local stake center.
It is believed that LDS coaches faced each other for the first time in a major college football bowl game when the University of Utah and the U.S. Naval Academy met in the Poinsettia Bowl at San Diego, Calif., that night.
The Utes were led by Kyle Whittingham of the Brighton 11th Ward, Salt Lake Brighton Stake. In his first game as head coach of the Midshipmen was Ken Niumatalolo, first counselor in the bishopric of the Broadneck Ward, Annapolis Maryland Stake.
The coaches have high personal regard for each other and their teams put on an entertaining show won by Utah, 35-32, at Qualcomm Stadium.
Speaking to the Deseret Morning News, Brother Whittingham said the Church angle didn't have much to do with the football aspect of the Poinsettia Bowl "other than Ken Niumatalolo is just an excellent football coach who happens to be LDS."
He continued, "He's paid his dues. He's done a great job for a lot of years. To me it was a no-brainer when the (Naval Academy) job came open that he is who they go with and, apparently, the people that made the decision felt the same way."
The Naval Academy immediately promoted Brother Niumatalolo from assistant head coach to head coach after his predecessor, Paul Johnson, left to take the reins at Georgia Tech in early December.
A Hawaii native, Brother Niumatalolo, 42, is the 38th head football coach in Navy's history and is believed to be the first Polynesian head coach in NCAA history.
In his debut as head coach, Brother Niumatalolo's team battled Utah to the finish. But that wasn't good enough for the new leader, he said in a Church News telephone interview from his home a week after the game. A very competitive man, he said he doesn't look for moral victories. But he was proud that the Midshipmen played hard against what he called a very good Utah team.
"I have a lot of respect for Coach Whittingham, his program and what they do," he said.
He was sorry his seniors didn't have a better finish to their playing careers. Now, rather than moving on to professional football or other careers, they will be commissioned officers in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
"We're a country at war now and I pray that nothing happens to them," Brother Niumatalolo said.
His Church membership has been mentioned in the Annapolis area media in connection with his new position at Navy. Under such a spotlight, he said he knows it's important to continue living the gospel and let that speak for itself.
He believes the Naval Academy is a good fit for an LDS coach because the school puts strong emphasis on gospel-shared principles such as integrity, character and leadership. He said the things he has learned about leadership in the Church, from serving as a deacons quorum president to missionary service and service in a bishopric, are useful in coaching.
"The Savior was the greatest example of being a leader and I try to be like Him," he said.
Another example of leadership he has appreciated is former BYU Coach LaVell Edwards.
"I'm going to try to follow him because he was successful," Brother Niumatalolo said. "And more important than winning, the way he did it was right."
For example, he pointed out, while many coaches believe Sunday is a crucial work day in preparing for the following week, coach Edwards believed it was best to take advantage of the blessings that accompany keeping the Sabbath Day holy.
Brother Niumatalolo dreamed about playing for BYU. But when he wasn't recruited, he ended up starting as quarterback at the University of Hawaii after serving in the California Ventura (Spanish-speaking) Mission.
"I think that's what the Lord wanted," he said. "I know if you humble yourself to listen to Him, He'll lead you."
His offensive coach, Paul Johnson, got him into coaching, which was one blessing of staying in Hawaii, he said. But he is most grateful that he stayed in the islands because that is where he met his wife, Barbara, at a dance at BYU-Hawaii after his mission.
Brother Niumatalolo said he believes the Lord continued to guide him as he served as an assistant coach at Hawaii, UNLV and Navy, and has put him into his current position where his example can influence others.
Annapolis Maryland Stake President Pace J. McConkie, in a telephone interview, described Brother Niumatalolo as not only a determined competitor on the football field, but also said he is "as humble and Christlike a person as I've known."
"He puts first the kingdom of God and his family, and the Lord has blessed him for it," President McConkie added.
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