LOS ANGELES — Known for innovative thinking, Chip Kelly has supplemented his coaching staff with a veteran universally respected for his integrity, knowledge of the triple option and ability to win with meager resources.
Kelly on Friday announced the hiring of Ken Niumatalolo, the winningest coach in Navy history, as UCLA’s newly created director of leadership. As part of his duties, Niumatalolo will advise the Bruins football staff and players.
“It just tells you about how he is as a coach,” Niumatalolo said of Kelly in an interview with ESPN. “He’s an established coach, he’s not threatened by me or anything, he’s not worried about somebody looking over his shoulder. That’s how Chip looks at it — anything I can add. They’re not far off, whatever I can bring, but it just felt right.”
Niumatalolo, who will turn 58 in May, was fired by Navy in December after going 109-83 and winning six of 10 bowl games in 15 seasons. The Midshipmen had faltered over his final three seasons, going 3-7, 4-8 and 4-8.
Niumatalolo has strong ties to a UCLA staff that includes his son Ali’i, a graduate assistant offensive line coach. Bryce McDonald, the Bruins’ chief of staff, worked under Niumatalolo as an assistant at Navy. Niumatalolo previously worked with UCLA safeties coach Brian Norwood at Navy, first when they overlapped as assistant coaches from 1995 to 1998, and later when Norwood was Niumatalolo’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach in 2019 before coming to UCLA the next season.
Among his many accomplishments, Niumatalolo guided Navy to an unprecedented eight consecutive victories over Army in their annual rivalry game. Under Niumatalolo, Navy won the Commander-in-Chief‘s Trophy — which goes to the military service academy team with the best regular-season record against the other two — a school-record six times.
In 2015, Navy won a school-record 11 games, and matched that mark in 2019. Both teams finished in the Associated Press top-25 rankings, something the Midshipmen had not accomplished since 1963.
Niumatalolo’s success came despite many challenges. Navy did not allow players to redshirt because the government requires the Midshipmen to graduate in four years, putting them at a disadvantage against more veteran teams, particularly those with additional COVID-19 eligibility. Navy also shared an indoor practice facility with a gymnastics team and its players completed classes that administrators would not change to accommodate better practice times.
Niumatalolo’s teams defeated Notre Dame three times and produced 11 Academic All-Americans, matching the school’s total from the previous 56 years.
The first Samoan college head coach at any level, Niumatalolo was twice a finalist for the Dodd Trophy and the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award as coach of the year.