BYU Football: The Case for Ken Niumatalolo

The following was submitted by Benji Hadfield (@alaskutahn)

BYU – the Perception

There I was, sitting in a local sports bar watching BYU face Gonzaga in the 2015 WCC basketball tournament. I had moved to Alaska one week earlier and did not yet have TV at my house, so I found a bar, ordered some food, and sat like a fly on the wall listening to others discussing the game. The subject of BYU as an institution came up.

“You have to convert if you want to play there, right?”

“No, you just have to agree to live by their rules.”

“Oh, like you have to go to church and stuff?”

“No, but you can’t drink.”

“Not even a beer?!?”

“Nope.”

“In college?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow. Wow. In College? Not even a beer?”

“Yup.”

At this point the inquirer shook his head in disbelief and declared, “Wow. That would be hard.”

Recognizing that I was in a bar and that every patron had a drink in his hand save me alone, I didn’t think this was the best chance to testify of the many positive virtues of Brigham Young University, so for the most part I held my tongue, but pointed out that I had a connection to the school and that students there are surprisingly happy.

This is the outside perception that BYU fans can sometimes forget. As appealing as a dry campus is to the concerned LDS mother, it can be equally unappealing to two guys at a bar in Alaska who, like most of the world, view college as the time to go wild, have fun, and live it up while you’re still young.

This reality makes me wonder: if one of those guys in the bar were a blue-chip recruit and it was my job to get him to BYU, where would I start?

The 17-year-old version of me would not have been hard to convince. As a child I kept a copy of “Ty – The Ty Detmer Story” on the nightstand right next to my Book of Mormon. Earlier this year Tanner Mangum talked about growing up a BYU fan and how much the oval Y on his chest meant to him. Guys like that are awesome for BYU because to them, the idea of BYU is not a tough sell. But how often do they come around?

Recruiting – BYU by the Numbers

Earlier this year I was working on a piece comparing various aspects of the careers of Bronco Mendenhall and Kyle Whittingham (coming soon!) and came up with a formula that, in my opinion, reflects the ability of a coach to actually “coach” the game of football. I took the three most reputable recruiting sites (Rivals, 247, Scout) and compared the numbers with the three most reputable ranking sites (Sagarin, Congrove, S&P) to see what a particular coach was able to do with what he had been given.

The results were impressive. To summarize, over the course of his first 10 years at BYU, Bronco worked with the 57th best recruiting class in the country, yet his teams finished 32nd, meaning he out-performed the projections by 25 spots!

Naturally, I was curious to see if this was an anomaly so I dug a little deeper and compared the same metric with not only Kyle and Bronco, but every coach who had been with the same team for the same decade. There were 11. Among those, only Gary Patterson performed better than Bronco, finishing 31 spots ahead of projections.

Since I know you’re dying to see them, here are the numbers:

11 coaches comparison

Table 1: Recruiting numbers are an average of those from Scout, Rival, and 247 from 2005-2014. Results are an average of Sagarin, Congrove, and S&P for the same time period.

This chart was fresh in my mind the day Harvey Dent’s words became true for me: You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see your coach become a Wahoo. Love him or hate him, Bronco had done something at BYU that very few people are capable of doing, and this worried me. Because of BYU’s unique atmosphere, and because of the way two guys in a bar in Alaska view BYU, the recruiting numbers aren’t likely to change anytime soon. We are who we are.

If BYU were to replace Bronco with an average coach, capable of getting out of his recruits just as much as expected (57th in the nation), BYU would descend into an independent wasteland and long for the days of the MWC. I think we all know we’re way too prideful of a fanbase to entertain such a nightmare.

Then, like a ray of hope shining across the low arctic horizon came the Twitter rumors of one Ken Niumatalolo, the man I believe to be the current frontrunner to replace Bronco. If you haven’t already, go read Vai Sikahema’s profile of Ken. It’s a good read. From it we learn that at Navy, he doesn’t worry about losing recruits to other schools; he loses them to Wal-Mart. Yes, that Wal-Mart. You see, as hard as it is to sell someone on the idea of BYU (you can’t drink here, not even a beer!), try to consider what it must be like selling someone on the idea of playing football for Navy (when you’re done people will try to kill you for at least 5 years). With all due respect for our military heroes–and a tremendous amount of respect is due–if you’re an average HS football star who didn’t grow up planning on joining the military anyway, Wal-Mart might not seem like a bad alternative.

Thinking about the challenges of Navy’s recruiting led me to compare Ken’s 8 years as Navy’s head coach with the rest of the field. Any guesses on how he fared? Spoiler alert: he blows them out of the water, just like a true American Naval hero.

Ken Stats

Table 2: Ken is brilliant.

Working with an average incoming class that should have finished 107th in the nation, he has brought them well above and beyond expectations, finishing 60th.

Ready to be even more impressed? His current squad has a recruiting strength that should put them at 103 in the nation. As of right now (pre-bowl week) the average of the performance ranking systems has Navy at #25. Of roughly 120 FBS football teams, Ken currently has his team 78 spots higher than they should be! That alone could be the miracle that beatifies St. Niumatalolo.

Important disclaimer: before my conclusion, it’s important to recognize that comparing coaches in this manner inherently favors those who start out with a worse recruiting class. Consider the numbers alone- if you start with a squad that ranks 119 out of 120, you have 1 chance to perform worse than expected and 118 chances to perform better. Conversely, those with exceptional recruiting classes have a much higher chance of a let down, which is why I think Bob Stoops is actually the best coach in the nation. With only 10 opportunities to outperform his expectations and 109 opportunites to fail, he only underperforms by 1. That’s a pretty impressive feat. But that’s enough rational thinking for now. We’re BYU fans, so…

WHO’S READY TO GET DOWNRIGHT DELUSIONAL????

If Ken can outperform the recruiting the same way at BYU that he did at Navy (+47) and BYU can simply continue to recruit the way they currently do (57), that means that BYU will finish #10 in the nation! Keep in mind that’s just an average, so every year they finish ranked a measly #20 will be offset by another national championship, of which there are sure to be plenty during his reign at BYU.

Parting thought: consider how silly it sounds that some of you want to put a stipulation on how he coaches. Here is this miracle worker, and you have the audacity to tell him how to do his job? “Hey, football genius, we might allow you to come coach here but only if you promise to throw the ball. And make sure you throw it deep. A lot. Like 85% of the time sounds about right, because that’s worked really well for us this year, a year we were weak at running back, and because Tanner has a great arm. Yeah, so we need you to promise to run a spread offense here forever. Otherwise, no deal mmmmkay?” Forget all that, I say give the guy the keys and get out of his way. If you’re looking for a way to help, come join me as I pour the foundation for his statue just outside the southeast gate at LES.

About the author

Andy Kartchner

I have a Ph.D. in sports analytics. No I don't. But I do have a law degree. And if there's one thing I learned in law school, it's how to write about sports.

I am Big Bro. My brother, Aaron (a.k.a. Little Bro), and I make up the Sports Bros, your one-stop shop for everything BYU sports.

  • Danny

    Good article, other than a misguided commentary on the boys who go to the military academies. Those boys are legitimately the nation’s elite. The military academies (spec Navy and Air Force, but West Point isn’t far behind) are amongst the most difficult schools to get into in the country. Valedictorian’s, sports captains, student body presidents, and national honor society is just the beginning. Test scores and GPA only get you so far. Everyone has those! No, beyond that, you actually have to receive an appointment (nomination) from your Senator or Congressman and each can only have 5 from his state or district attending the academy at any one time. The boys that choose to go to the military academy do so not because they are military brats or because they want to go to war or because their other option is working at Wal-Mart. The boys (and girls, by the way) that choose to apply to the military academies are amongst the best we have. They choose to be leaders, graduating from the academies as an Officer in their respective branch.

    Your article was great about Bronco and Ken and comparison of their abilities. Just wanted to provide some clarity about the caliber of young men that go to a military academy, like those on the field and in the stands today.

    – Signed,
    US Naval Academy Appointee 2003 and BYU fan

    • Andy Kartchner

      Thanks for your comments and your service. Benji meant no disrespect to the military academy. All of us here at TornBySports are eternally grateful to our men and women in the service and understand that they are truly our nation’s best. Go Cougs, and God bless America.

    • Benji

      I can see how that came across wrong & I apologize. I was simply referring to the story Vai Sikehema wrote where they did in fact lose a guy they wanted because he chose to stay home and work at Wal-Mart. Which, you’re, right, is odd because he must have fit the academic and athletic profile they’re looking for, so you’d think he would have better options. The guys I know from HS that went to academies, and several of my friends on the bases here in Alaska, would best be described as “high-caliber” people in every sense of the word.

      I suppose it would be better to frame it in the sense that most schools in the BYU/Utah/TCU recruiting tier would have a dozen guys who think they have a shot at the NFL. Those in the LSU/Georgia/Bama tier probably have half the team or more who think they have NFL potential. The service academies, on the other hand, have almost no chance at landing a recruit who thinks he has a chance to play in the NFL.

      Your comment brings up a good point as well- Navy, Army, and Air Force should be working with the same recruiting challenges. I’m going to run the numbers for those academies for the same time period and that might be a better comparison of how much Ken’s teams are performing above their potential. I’ll get back to you on that.

  • Bryan

    Fun analysis. However, it is an invalid. Heres why. As recruiting class rank is higher, there is a decreased limit of how many spot numbers ahead that coach can can gain in final rank. For instance, a coach who has a class ranked 100, that ends up first, could not be said to be 100 times better than a coach given the 2nd ranked class, that ends up first. In other words, the higher an initial class trends, the less potential that class can rise, affecting the coach rank. All we can say is Niumatalolo effectively rose 60 spots. What we can’t say is had Bob Stoops had been given the 107th class would he have risen as high. We also then can’t say from this if Niumatalolo is a better coach than, say, Bob Stoops (number 9). Its not saying he isn’t. It’s just we can’t say that the effect isn’t due to initial class rank alone (a lower initial class rank being the advantage for final score, which Niumatalolo has).

    • Andy Kartchner

      Benji admitted that weakness in the analysis.

    • Benji

      If I’m being honest I agree with a lot of your logic, but that’s not every exciting, which is why I buried it in the third to the last paragraph where it’s easy to miss! Go read it again and I think you’ll see we’re actually on the same page.

      As far as the analysis being “invalid” I don’t think I’d go that far. If I were an AD these are the exact numbers I’d be paying attention to. I don’t think it’s a fair comparison between Ken and Stoops because it’s apples to oranges. However, it’s extremely useful for evaluating guys with similar recruiting profiles (I.E. Bob Stoops, Les Miles, and Mark Richt; or Kyle, Bronco, and Gary).

      What this data tells me about Ken is that he deserves to climb the ladder and see what his potential is at the next level.

      • Bryan

        Agree on all counts. Great article. It’s cool such data exists. Thanks for bringing it to light. I especially agree that it is a much more useful comparison between coaches starting with similar recruiting class ranks. At any rate, I also agree with you that Ken is a total stud, and would make a great coach at BYU

  • Benji

    Ok here’s a good Post Script based on the comments of Bryan and Danny.

    For a valid comparison of coaches & schools who recruit at this same level – athletes who are high-caliber, driven individuals but who don’t raise as many eyebrows when it comes to HS football recruiters, I ran the same data with Army and Air Force during the same period we’re evaluating Ken (2007-2014). Here are the results:

    Army Recruiting 113.35 Results 112.29 Difference +1.06
    Air Force Recruiting 103.67 Results 68.71 Difference +34.96
    Navy Recruiting 106.96 Results 60.42 Difference +46.54

    This should back up my original conclusions that, yes, Ken Niumatalolo is a brilliant football mind capable of running an extremely successful program. I really hope he’s BYU’s guy.