The first thing people notice about Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo is his name, one that can trip up even the most conscientious and considerate among those he meets.
President Bush tried valiantly to succeed at pronouncing the coach's surname in April during a White House ceremony honoring the Navy football team for winning the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy before offering a compromise.
"You can call me George," Bush said with a laugh, "and I'll call you Ken."
The name is distinctive, as is the fact that Niumatalolo (nee-uh-mah-tah-LO-loh) is only the second Polynesian head coach in Division I-A history and the first Samoan to be a head coach at any level of college football. But once you get past all that, you immediately realize the man can coach.
In his first full season at the helm, he has orchestrated a smooth transition following the departure of Paul Johnson as head coach after last year's Army-Navy game. On Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, the Midshipmen (7-4) will try to extend their winning streak over Army (3-8) to seven and seek to post a record 13th consecutive victory over a service academy.
Niumatalolo, 43, of Laie, Hawaii, served as assistant head coach and offensive-line coach for all those victories by the Mids before being promoted Dec. 8.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity," Niumatalolo said earlier this week. "I'm grateful I was judged on the quality of my work, not my ethnicity. I've always looked at myself, first and foremost, as a football coach that happens to be Polynesian, so I feel very fortunate that way."
In two stints as a Navy assistant, Niumatalolo became very familiar with the pomp, pageantry and pressure of the storied rivalry with Army. Now, however, he is the man in charge preparing his team, trying to be oblivious to all the attention on the game from servicemen and servicewomen around the world.
"I'm honored by it, but more so, right now, my focus is on getting our team ready," he said.
"I don't want to think about the past or the future, just think about the present."
But that doesn't mean strange things can't happen on game day. Niumatalolo recalled his first Army-Navy game in 1995 at Veterans Stadium as an assistant in charge of the running backs when he witnessed something "mind-boggling."
"We had the same pregame routine all season," he said. "We got there before the game, and none of our guys could remember what the routine was. They were saying, 'Coach, where do I go? What do I do?' I'm saying, 'The same thing you've been doing for the last 10 games.' It's the intensity, the magnitude . . . it's like they couldn't remember their names."
Niumatalolo sold programs at University of Hawaii games as a youngster. He played quarterback for the Rainbows in the late 1980s before beginning his coaching career as a Hawaii graduate assistant. He made only $400 a month, with a wife who worked and a baby girl, and struggled to make ends meet.
He was fired during his first go-round at Navy but returned to the academy in 2002 after being hired by Johnson, for whom he played at Hawaii. Niumatalolo learned the most intricate details of Johnson's unique triple-option offense during that time, and did very little, if anything, to change things after taking over.
"This is his offense," Niumatalolo said.
The Mids lead the nation in rushing, averaging 292.0 yards, and are vying to be the top rushing team in the Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I-A) for the fourth straight season. As a result, Niumatalolo will become the third Navy head coach in the last 60 years - joining Wayne Hardin and Gary Tranquill - to lead the team to a winning season in his first year.
But all that is secondary when Saturday comes around.
"When I see us playing against Army, I see us playing against ourselves," Niumatalolo said. "We're the same. We're going to play until the last whistle. We're going to play very disciplined, very tough.
"Somebody asked me, 'Are you nervous about this [Army-Navy] game being your first as a head coach?' Hey, I was nervous in the first one" as an assistant.