When Army hired Rich Ellerson in December, it was a bittersweet moment for Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo.
The second-year Navy coach was happy his close friend landed a top spot at a Football Bowl Subdivision school, but he also knew beating his rival just became a lot tougher.
“It’s funny considering that Coach Ellerson recruited me out of high school,” Niumatalolo said. “So I had a lot of mixed emotions when he became the coach at Army. I know what he represents, and I know he likes to win.”
One of the hottest topics at last week’s Army-Navy luncheon was the longtime relationship between the coaches. Each shared his memory of the fateful night it all started more than 20 years ago when Ellerson, then an assistant at Hawaii, traveled to the town of Laie to recruit Niumatalolo. Niumatalolo’s family served a traditional Samoan meal and made sure Ellerson’s plate was full.
Niumatalolo became a graduate assistant after his career was over. And only when Ellerson left for Arizona in 1992 did Niumatalolo become a full-time assistant at Hawaii.
That relationship will come full-circle Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. The Midshipmen (8-4) are favored over the Black Knights (5-6) in the schools’ 110th meeting.
“I would not be here if it wasn’t for Coach Ellerson,” Niumatalolo said. “My playing career and my coaching career got a start because of Coach Ellerson.”
The two kept in contact as they bounced around the country moving up the coaching ladder. That became easier in 2001 when Ellerson landed the top spot at Football Championship Subdivision school Cal Poly.
There he installed the triple option, having learned its finer points from former Mids coach Paul Johnson when they were on the Hawaii staff together. And since Ellerson’s tenure at Cal Poly coincided with Johnson’s in Annapolis, Ellerson often consulted with Johnson and his staff.
After elevating Cal Poly to the ranks of FCS elite with a 56-34 record in eight seasons, Ellerson has Army on the verge of an EagleBank Bowl berth in his first season.
“It’s appropriate that in this contest, in this game between these two institutions, that our coaching staffs should have those kinds of feelings. This rivalry is built on respect,” Ellerson said. “I care what Coach Niumatalolo thinks about our preparation and how prepared our team is to play, just like I know that our players care about that guy lined up across from them thinks.”
Ellerson was a perfect fit for the vacant Army job. His father and two older brothers attended West Point, and he brought with him a knowledge of the option; athletic director Kevin Anderson coveted both factors after seeing the program struggle much of the decade with a pro-style offense.
Naturally, Niumatalolo was happy for Ellerson. But in becoming the Black Knights’ coach, he guaranteed one thing: For one week a year, their friendship is on standby.
“Coach Niumatalolo and I are fierce competitors,” Ellerson said. “The last thing we said to each other [last week] after we patted each other on the shoulder was, ‘See you after it’s over.’ ”
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