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What Ken Niumatalolo staying at Navy means for BYU football

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A major BYU coaching search target is off the board. What does that mean for BYU, now, and in the future?

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

In case you somehow missed the news last night, one of the biggest targets in the BYU coaching search is off the board. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who had interviewed in Provo on Monday and was reportedly going back and forth about where he wanted to coach, decided to stay at Navy. Unless BYU is somehow able to pull a massive upset and convince Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham to flip sides after the Las Vegas Bowl, BYU's next coach will almost assuredly be an assistant without head coaching experience.

In the short term, this should bring a level of clarity to the coaching search. Unless something very unexpected happens, BYU's next coach will probably be Oregon State defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. Sitake is the only other candidate that we know of that has formally interviewed, and according to a report earlier in the week, Sitake is who BYU planned to hire if things didn't work out with Niumatalolo. There are plenty of reasons for BYU fans to potentially be excited about Sitake becoming head coach as well, which I laid out last week.

Outside of Whittingham, the only other high level potential candidate is Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson. Anderson had been previously linked to Michigan's defensive coordinator position, but last night, he stated that he will not leave Stanford for another coordinator position. It's been reported that Anderson has had "some contact" with BYU, but "nothing official." If BYU plans to formally interview or pursue Anderson, it hasn't hit the news yet. In the unlikely event that BYU misses on both of those candidates, then things could get really interesting, but there isn't any reason to believe BYU would get to that point.

Perhaps the more interesting question at this point though, is what happened with Niumatalolo?

There might be some #wellactually-ing on Twitter or message boards today, or perhaps even from Utah news outlets, over whether BYU actually offered Ken Niumatalolo a position. ESPN's Joe Schad reports that they didFootballScoop agrees. Another source that I trust told me they did as well. BYU's behavior over the last few days would certainly lead one to believe they did as well. Even if one wants to cling to a pharisaical, hyper-legal definition of what an offer is and what paperwork was actually produced, it should be clear that BYU wanted to hire Coach Ken, waited to see what he would do before moving on, and did not get him.

In a vacuum, there's nothing wrong with that. Schools, even big name schools with fancy conference affiliations, get turned down all the time. Just ask Michigan, Tennessee or South Carolina. Heck, BYU was turned down by their first choice last time they needed a football coach, when Kyle Whittingham spurned BYU. I think all but the most ardent Bronco-haters would look back and think that BYU did just fine with hiring Bronco Mendenhall instead, especially given the difficult and transitory nature of the program during the end of his tenure. It's not like there aren't other potentially appealing options outside of Niumatalolo.

But the fact that BYU tried to get him and didn't does seem unusual. After all, Niumatalolo has a kid who goes to BYU. He's not a Naval Academy graduate. He wasn't at a power conference school, making $4 million a year. Navy isn't really a better job from a football perspective. And Niumatalolo said, in public, that he wanted to go to BYU. From the Washington Post:

But in the moments after beating Army, 21-17, early Saturday evening in Philadelphia, an emotional Niumatalolo said with regard to the BYU job: "My heart says go. My head says stay. I tend to lead with my heart."

If Niumatalolo was a high school football recruit, every recruiting analyst would have been putting Crystal Ball picks for BYU. All of that should bode pretty well for the Cougars to convince him to head back to the west, and yet, they didn't get him. What happened?

This is my best guess.

After the news broke that Niumatalolo was staying, I had multiple people tell me that one of the causes for concern was money. Not Niumataololo's salary, however. Even though he almost assuredly was making more at Navy than Bronco was making at BYU, and that it would be unlikely he'd be getting too much of a raise, the real issue was the amount of money he'd be able to pay potential assistant coaches. As a private school, and one especially protective of financial information, the exact terms of previous BYU assistant salaries was not disclosed. But given that Mendenhall's salary was reported to be substantially below market value, the idea of BYU not offering a big assistant pool does not seem hard to believe.

Assistant coaching salaries have become a bigger source of contention between head coaches and administrations. Concern over assistant pay was said to be one reason for the departures of Gary Andersen and Bret Bielema from Wisconsin, and it was a source of tension between Sonny Dykes and Cal. After all, a coach wants to make sure they will have the tools to get, and keep, coaches who can run their system, recruit effectively, and most importantly stick around a while.

I'm not sure if BYU's hesitance to throw around large sums of money for assistants is more about an actual lack of resources, institutional philosophical reasons, or a combination of the two, but it would represent a significant challenge in hiring an established head coach for a major sport. It may be why BYU hasn't typically hired established head coaches for major openings. Steve Cleveland came from Fresno City College. Dave Rose was a BYU assistant. So was LaVell Edwards. Mendenhall was a coordinator. Gary Crowton had coached at Louisiana Tech for a few years, but he came to BYU directly from the Chicago Bears. Tommy Hudspeth was a CFL assistant. The list goes on.

The other rumor that was swirling around social media is that BYU told Niumatalolo that he would have to change his offense at BYU. While Navy beat writers did say that Niumatalolo planned to run the option at BYU, I haven't heard anybody who would likely know tell me that concern over the offense was a reason Niumatalolo decided to stay at Navy, or that BYU issued an ultimatum. I could see why some BYU boosters or alumni would be adamant about not wanting to see the option, but I don't have a reason to believe that was the actual sticking point.

I personally believe that if that *was* true, it would be ridiculous. Many of the best college football programs have evolved their offensive identity over time to better take advantage of the changing sport, their resources, coaches or personnel. Oklahoma won championships running the option, and now they're in the playoff running a variation of the Air Raid. Ohio State won national championships with an I-formation, slow tempo power running game, and they won a national title using a tempo-based, spread option (one that in many ways does exactly the same thing Navy's offense does only out of different formations). Florida won titles with the Run and Shoot and the same spread option as Ohio State as well. The best tradition, after all, is winning, not doing the same thing that made you successful in the 70s.

Perhaps the only really compelling argument against switching to an option focused attack is that it wouldn't best fit the talents of Tanner Mangum, but even doesn't feel that strong of an argument to me. After all, Mangum will be 23 years old next season, and if he has designs on an NFL career, he'll need to leave BYU in a year or two. The 2016 BYU football team is almost assuredly not competing for a playoff birth, even with Mangum in a pass-first, more West Coast styled offense. It also seems reasonable to think there might be a way to adapt an option system to the strengths of Mangum, even if just for a season. And if not, well, if you really believe that this particular offensive system can help BYU in the long term, "losing a season" as it were isn't the worst thing in the world.

But hey, all of that is moot, since BYU won't be doing that, school mandate or not, and will almost assuredly run an offense fairly similar to what they've been doing the last several years. They have a chance to sign a strong recruiting class, and grab a coach who has the potential to be quite good. That all seems like good news.

If money really was the hangup with Niumatalolo though, I'd be a little concerned. If BYU couldn't swing a sitting head coach with all of the advantages that Niumatalolo has, when would they swing somebody? If they're unable to spend at a level to make a coach from The American feel comfortable about leaving, what would happen if they eventually join the Big 12? And in an era where Group of 5 programs like Houston, Cincinnati and Memphis are making public displays of their financial commitment to athletics in an attempt to gain favor for a possible conference invite, BYU's public failure to do so could invite questions. Not insurmountable questions, but questions none the less.

Maybe it's all nothing. Maybe BYU will be just fine. But the way this search played out could rear its ugly head the next time BYU needs a coach.