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Ken Niumatalolo Must Prove He Can Succeed Without Triple-Option

The idea that San Jose State could be in a 2024 New Year’s Six Bowl is hard to picture – scratch that – it’s unfathomable. SJSU has finished in the Associated Press Top-25 poll once and may not return nine of its 10 All-Mountain West honorees from last year. 

And yet, newly minted SJSU head coach Ken Niumatalolo said that was his goal in his introductory press conference Tuesday afternoon. 

But Niumatalolo’s lofty goals shouldn’t be the topic of conversation right now. Rather, the focus needs to be on whether or not Niumatalolo can build a sustainable winner in San Jose without the triple-option. 

Sep 10, 2022; Annapolis, Maryland, USA; Navy Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo walks through the bench during the first half against the Memphis Tigers at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

He used it as a head coach for 15 years at Navy en route to winning 109 games – 55 more than any other coach – and from 2015-19, was selected as American Athletic Conference coach of the year three times as the Midshipmen finished in the Associated Press Top-25 poll four times. This was all done while recruiting smaller, less talented players who had to meet the Naval Academy’s high academic enrollment standards. Plus, players would have to serve after their playing career so he couldn’t recruit to offering players the chance to play in the NFL. 

The answer to this conundrum? Running the triple-option. 

But then came the 11 combined wins from 2020-22 which led to athletic director Chet Gladchuk Jr. relieving Niumatalolo of his duties. 

The downturn was a byproduct of the Navy being unable to offer NIL (name, image and likeness) deals, utilize the transfer portal and players weren’t granted an extra “Covid Year.”

Now at SJSU, Niumatalolo can access all of those. Except, he won’t be running the offensive scheme that he used to build his resume.

Inside the Spartans’ media room, while talking to Niumatalolo and his newly hired offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Craig Stutzmann, it was easy to believe he could adapt. Never mind the fact that SJSU may not return 10 of its 11 starters on the offense from last year.

Stutzmann beamed about the simplicity of his “Spread-N-Shred” offense and how excited SJSU’s quarterback room of Jay Butterfield, Anthony Garcia and Tyler Voss are to run it. 

The style is adapted from offensive mastermind June Jones’ “Run and Shoot” and has yielded success at Stutzmann’s stops at Division III Emory and Henry, Hawaii, Washington State and last year at Texas State. 

As TSU’s wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator, Stutzmann helped it rank top-15 nationwide in total offense (457.6 yards/game) and 12th in the country in scoring offense (36.7 points/game).

Stutzmann’s vision will balance with Niumatalolo’s and former SJSU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kevin McGiven’s who will move to wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator. On the surface, this can seem awkward. McGiven was foundational to previous SJSU quarterback Chevan Cordeiro’s success and has been the Spartans’ offensive coordinator since 2018. 

“I get it, it’s a difficult transition for him [McGiven]. You know, ‘What does it look like with the players, what does it look like for him [McGiven], what does it look like within the building?’” said Stutzmann, who worked with McGiven at Memphis in 2010. “ … I think Coach Ken even talked about it. Everywhere I’ve gone that we were successful – everybody – all the coaches were able to check their egos at the door.”

Therein lies the complexity of introductory press conferences. 

Everything seems fine now, but what’ll happen in the hypothetical scenario where SJSU’s new pieces aren’t gelling and McGiven doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Stutzmann? Will egos remain checked at the door?

Niumatalolo should hope so. 

While shepherding the Midshipmen to 10 bowl games and six bowl wins, he turned down opportunities at bigger programs. 

“I had several PAC-12 in-person interviews, a couple of BIG-10 in-person interviews, and when we [Navy] were humming, every year I would get two to three interviews and people didn’t even know,” Niumatalolo shared. “When I talked to people, some of them were very enticing. It was a lot of money. But I was at peace with my job so I wasn’t looking to go.”

Then, after he was let go in 2022, those opportunities decreased. 

Niumatalolo guessed that “some of it was because of the triple-option. ‘Could I do other stuff?’… I’ve also found in this world that most of it is like, ‘What’s the new hot toy?’ and I was doing really good at first and I was the new toy many people wanted to play with and then you start to lose and then it’s like, ‘Don’t forget about me,’” he joked. 

This past coaching carousel, Niumatalolo interviewed at San Diego State, but didn’t get the job. As a result, he was going to stay at UCLA for the second straight year and become its tight ends coach. 

Then SJSU AD Jeff Konya came into the picture and offered him an opportunity to replace Brent Brennan last week. “We asked the direct question and we weren’t really interested in being Air Force 2.0,” Konya said … “We’re going to be running a version of the air raid in the Spread-N-Shred. We are going to be a really fun team to watch.”

Programs that turned down or looked away from Niumatalolo are justified in doing so. But is that fair? Niumatalolo used the triple-option at Navy as a coach for 25 years out of necessity – not by choice. And he succeeded until college football’s changing landscape had other plans. 

But whether it was or wasn’t fair, Niumatalolo can now prove that he turned the triple-option into a success. Not, the triple-option turned him into a success.

His head coaching career and the Spartans’ continuing their unheralded boom may hinge upon it.

Story originally appeared on Mountain West Wire