Then-Hawaii football coach Bob Wagner was speaking at a Rotary Club meeting in the late 1980s when he was asked who would be his starting quarterback. Wagner named six of the seven quarterbacks on the roster and said all six were good and had a chance at playing time.
After the meeting, the mother of the seventh quarterback approached him. She told Wagner he had forgotten to mention her son, sophomore Ken Niumatalolo.
"What are the chances of that?" Wagner said.
Wagner learned that day that Niumatalolo has quite a following in Hawaii. Niumatalolo earned his reputation as a three-sport athlete at Radford High, a school one mile from Pearl Harbor, and as a backup quarterback who led Hawaii to two comeback victories in 1989.
And people in his native Hawaii were among those who celebrated Dec. 8 after Niumatalolo, 42, was named Navy's head football coach. He is the first person of Polynesian descent to be named head coach of a division I-A football team.
Niumatalolo was promoted one day after Paul Johnson resigned to become the head coach at Georgia Tech.
"When I found out Paul Johnson's name was going around, I hoped and prayed that Kenny would get an opportunity," said Joe Seumalo, the defensive line coach at Oregon State, who played at Hawaii while Niumatalolo was an assistant there. "I'm excited for a lot of us in this profession.
"A bunch of us aspire to be head coaches, and if anything, this may create a few windows of opportunity for people who are Polynesian. . . . Now, we've got someone to look up to."
The people at Navy were pleased with Niumatalolo's hiring as well. Niumatalolo had been the assistant head coach and offensive line coach for six years under Johnson, the past five of which featured a 43-19 record and five straight Commander-in-Chief's trophies. Thursday's Poinsettia Bowl against Utah (8-4) marks the fifth straight bowl game for the Midshipmen (8-4).
"There's something about offensive line coaches," said David Lillefloren, an offensive lineman at Navy in the 1990s who has known Niumatalolo for 10 years. "You have to be a special person to coach the line. . . . If you're an offensive lineman, your badge of honor is not being recognized. That the team respects what you do, that's all the reward you want."
In his first meeting with the players after being named head coach, Niumatalolo asked them to leave the comfort of an auditorium and walk outside on a blustery December day. He led them to the practice field.
"He said he wanted us to meet there because that's where we're going to do most of our work," senior slotback Zerbin Singleton said. "He also wanted us to see the academy, to see Bancroft Hall [the academy's dormitory] and the new facilities and the school buildings. He wanted us to remember who we play for and why we're here."
Niumatalolo has said several times that he is trying not to change too much from what Johnson did. In preparation for Thursday, Navy practiced at the same times, at the same facility and for the same amount of time as it did in 2005, when it defeated Colorado State, 51-30, in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Navy's players said Niumatalolo has a sharp eye for detail. Starting center Antron Harper said Niumatalolo can tell during games, not by watching film later, if the linemen have their shoulder pads too high or if they are stepping toward defenders with the wrong foot.
"He's definitely a guy who's big on the little things," starting guard Anthony Gaskins said. "I remember after the Rutgers game my freshman year [a 31-21 loss in 2005] he was pretty mad at one of the linemen in the locker room, he was tipping what play was coming because he was getting out of his stance too quickly."
Friends said Niumatalolo espouses the Hawaiian tradition of "ohana," or an extended family based on love, not necessarily blood.
Baylor defensive coordinator Brian Norwood met Niumatalolo soon after Norwood left Glenarden and transferred to Radford High after his father was stationed in Hawaii. He and Niumatalolo played together in high school and college and coached together at Hawaii and Navy.
"It was such a big difference from Prince George's County," Norwood said. "Maryland was very black and white. Hawaii is truly a melting pot, it's a totally different dynamic. . . .
"Hawaii is such a small place. Everyone knows everyone, and they are all so excited for Ken. And personally, I am so excited for my good friend, my brother from Hawaii who is doing so well. He will take that whole island with him."