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Army, Navy coaches friendly enemies

Rich Ellerson wanted to do everything right when he headed to the north shore of Oahu to visit the home of a high school quarterback he was trying to recruit for the University of Hawaii.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo (center) was recruited in high school by Army's Rich Ellerson. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo (center) was recruited in high school by Army's Rich Ellerson. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)Read more

Rich Ellerson wanted to do everything right when he headed to the north shore of Oahu to visit the home of a high school quarterback he was trying to recruit for the University of Hawaii.

What he eventually learned was that the quarterback, Ken Niumatalolo, liked Hawaii and wanted so badly for Ellerson to offer him a scholarship that his father, a professional chef, prepared a lavish feast of Samoan food for dinner.

"I'm trying to be polite," Ellerson said last week. "I made the mistake that I finished, because as soon as you finish, there's more. At the time, I couldn't maybe appreciate all the culinary delights they were putting in front of me. Ken's sisters made sure that I had plenty."

Niumatalolo recalled: "I don't think that was his favorite food. I know my family brought a ton of it to him. I think my parents realized that they probably couldn't pay for me to go through college, so if we could kind of butter him up, I'd get a scholarship offer."

The dinner, which indeed led to an offer, sparked a friendship that has endured for more than 20 years. But it will be suspended for a few hours today when Ellerson and Niumatalolo, both head coaches, lead their teams from Army (5-6) and Navy (8-4), respectively, into their 110th meeting, at Lincoln Financial Field.

Niumatalolo said he would not have been in his position without Ellerson's help. After he finished playing at Hawaii, he became a graduate assistant there, then was promoted to a full-time assistant after Ellerson left to join Arizona's coaching staff.

When he heard last December that Army had hired Ellerson, Niumatalolo remembered thinking, "I'm happy for him, not so happy for us."

"He's a great family man, a great person, and a great football coach," he said. "Army is a better football team, and it's because of Coach Ellerson. He knows what he wants. He has a vision and he's as smart as they come."

Ellerson, Army's third head coach in the last four seasons, has the Black Knights on the doorstep of their first bowl appearance since 1996. However, to get to a matchup against Temple in the EagleBank Bowl on Dec. 29, Army must break its seven-game losing streak in games against the Midshipmen.

Ellerson has followed Niumatalolo's rise since day one and appreciates what he has done.

"I can't help but be so proud as to what he's accomplished in his professional career and, first and foremost, the man he has grown to be," he said. "That's not my doing; that's his parents and his family. But I'm proud of who he is and the success that he's had."

Ellerson is trying to do something Niumatalolo achieved last year - win an Army-Navy game in his first season as head coach. The Midshipmen rolled to a 34-0 win at the Linc in 2008.

That could be a tall order. During their winning streak in the series, the Midshipmen have outscored the Black Knights by an average score of 39-10. Navy, which is headed to the Texas Bowl, comes in again with an outstanding rushing attack, ranking third nationally at nearly 280 yards per game.

Army, which like Navy uses the triple option, has a fine running game of its own, averaging 212 yards to stand 14th in the country.

Ellerson realizes that Army men and women, both at the Linc and around the world, will be focused on today's game and breaking the long losing streak.

"There will be a lot of people here to watch us play, but we have to make sure we're 100 percent focused on the challenge between the white lines," he said. "We've got to make sure we don't watch them watch us play. The focus has to be on the next play."

As for how he feels about his coaching rival today, Ellerson said it mirrored the relationship among the players for both academies, all of whom will be serving their country side by side someday.

"I think it's entirely appropriate that the coach at Army and the coach at Navy have a deep respect for one another, because the institutions do," he said. "I think every one of our players feels the same way about the man across from them, because we have respect for them."

Army vs. Navy

When: Today at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Lincoln Financial Field.

TV/Radio: CBS3; WPEN-FM (97.5).

Records: Army, 5-6; Navy, 8-4.

Series: This is the 110th game of a series that began in 1890. Navy holds a 53-49-7 lead and has won seven straight.

Coaches: Army, Rich Ellerson (first season, 5-6); Navy, Ken Niumatalolo (second season, 16-10).

Bowls: Navy has accepted an invitation to the Texas Bowl, facing Missouri on Dec. 31 in Houston. With a victory today, Army will gain a berth against Temple in the Dec. 29 EagleBank Bowl in Washington.

Army preview: The Black Knights have all the incentive they need trying to break their losing streak against Navy, but also would like to end a drought in bowl appearances that dates to 1996. Trent Steelman, the second freshman to start at quarterback for Army in the history of the series, is the team's leading rusher with 690 yards. Senior Alejandro Villanueva, a 6-foot-10, 283-pound wide receiver, has 29 catches for 460 yards and five touchdowns. Defensively, Army is led by junior end Josh McNary, who has 22.5 tackles for losses, including 12.5 sacks.

Navy preview: The Midshipmen boast the nation's No. 3 rushing attack (279.7 yards per game), led by junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who has gained 924 yards on the ground and scored 23 touchdowns despite missing one full game and most of another. Junior fullback Vince Murray is right behind Dobbs with 884 rushing yards. Senior linebacker Ross Pospisil is the team's leader in tackles with 91.

- Joe Juliano