Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, who has a personal connection to Arizona’s glory days, has emerged as the leading contender for the Wildcats’ coaching job.
Niumatalolo has been offered the position, a source close to the situation told the Star. When asked if Niumatalolo was going to get the Arizona job, a separate source who has been privy to the negotiations said: “I would not be surprised.”
Niumatalolo was unexpectedly absent from the Navy football offices Friday, but is expected to meet with his staff — which has been in the dark about his plans and recent whereabouts — on Saturday morning. Niumatalolo could be telling the staff goodbye, or it could be business as usual. Like many schools, Navy is set to host recruits this weekend.
The 52-year-old Niumatalolo is a disciple of former UA coach Dick Tomey, dating to their respective time at the University of Hawaii. Niumatalolo interviewed for the BYU opening in December 2015, was offered the position but ultimately turned it down. It is believed that one of the sticking points was Niumatalolo’s offense — the run-first triple-option.
BYU reportedly wanted Niumatalolo to hire Ty Detmer as his offensive coordinator. The former Cougars quarterback did become the OC under Kalani Sitake but lasted just two seasons.
The prospect of Arizonab bringing Niumatalolo and his offense to Tucson drew a largely adverse reaction from UA players. Star quarterback Khalil Tate tweeted Friday that he didn’t come to Arizona to run the triple-option. He deleted the tweet shortly afterward.
Niumatalolo plans to implement his system at Arizona but would be open to tweaking it to suit the talents of Tate and his teammates, people familiar with the coach’s thinking said. His offense has evolved over the years, and Navy has begun to use the shotgun in recent seasons.
Tate was among several Wildcats who continued to campaign for interim coach/defensive coordinator Marcel Yates to take over as the head coach. Yates interviewed for the job and made a strong pitch built around familiarity with the program and players, recruiting Southern California and improving the team’s academic performance.
However, there were no indications Friday that Yates was seriously in the running, despite a report that he was among the finalists.
UA athletic director Dave Heeke remained in communication with three candidates Friday, according to a Star source. Niumatalolo is atop Heeke’s list, with the other two coaches as backup options. It is not uncommon for candidates to interview a second time in these situations.
Another coach who is believed to have made a strong impression on Heeke is Jedd Fisch. Fisch, 41, spent last season as UCLA’s offensive coordinator, and he coached the Bruins in the season-ending Cactus Bowl.
Fisch isn’t expected to be retained by new UCLA coach Chip Kelly. Fisch has extensive NFL experience and runs more of a pro-style scheme. Before UCLA, Fisch was the passing-game coordinator under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan.
Arizona is in the process of replacing Rich Rodriguez, who was fired Jan. 2 after six seasons amid allegations by his former administrative assistant that he created a hostile work environment and sexually harassed her. In a letter to UA students, faculty and staff, Heeke and university President Robert C. Robbins expressed concern about the “direction and climate” of the football program.
Heeke, in his first year at Arizona, hired search firm DHR International to aid in the process. He also sought the counsel of Tomey, the coach of the “Desert Swarm” Wildcats who won 10-plus games twice during the 1990s.
FootballScoop.com reported that Tomey initially recommended Niumatalolo, that DHR signed off on it and that the firm submitted several other candidates to vet.
Niumatalolo has compiled an 84-48 record in 10-plus years as the coach at Navy. He guided the Midshipmen to a bowl game in nine of the past 10 seasons.
Niumatalolo is from Hawaii and played quarterback for the Rainbow Warriors, lettering from 1987-89. Tomey coached at Hawaii from 1977-86 before coming to Arizona.
Niumatalolo wrote the foreword of Tomey’s book, “Rise of the Rainbow Warriors.”
“He introduced the people of Hawaii to a new brand of football — a brand founded on love, toughness and effort,” Niumatalolo wrote of Tomey. “It was a philosophy that perfectly mirrored the culture of the Islands. A culture of a fierce Warrior mentality. A culture of love and giving. A culture of humility and hard work.”
The Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, reported that Niumatalolo has a desire to move closer to Hawaii, where he owns a home and vacations often. His daughter, Alexcia, lives on Oahu.
Niumatalolo’s older son, Va’a, just completed his playing career at BYU. The Capital Gazette reported that Va’a is interested in getting into coaching and that he and his wife have a 7-month-old daughter. Va’a could join his father’s staff at Arizona as a graduate assistant, enabling Ken and his wife, Barbara, to see their grandchild on a regular basis.
Niumatalolo’s other son, Ali’i, appeared in 11 games as a freshman special-teams performer for Utah this past season.
Ken and Barbara could have satisfied their desire to move west if Niumatalolo had taken the BYU job. That he didn’t shows how fickle and fluid these coaching searches can be.
Another rumored candidate for the UA job, Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, reportedly was on the verge of becoming the head coach at Oregon State last month. The Beavers ended up hiring Jonathan Smith. DHR helped OSU run its search.