ANN ARBOR, Mich. — As Ken Niumatalolo prepared for the 2015 football season at the United States Naval Academy, a member of his support staff approached him with a set of data that related to a specific facet of the Midshipmen’s game.
Niumatalolo, in the ever-secretive manner of football coaches, didn’t publicly disclose the particular data point. But Sean Magee piqued his attention as he pointed out the facts and figures to Navy’s head coach.
“If we can improve here,” Magee told Niumatalolo, “we can win three more games.”
Niumatalolo initially questioned the approach of Navy’s director of player personnel, but he didn’t question Magee’s keen analytical skills. Navy implemented the data. Navy won eight games in 2014. It won 11 games in 2015, won the Military Bowl and the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy, awarded to the winner of the three-team series between Navy, Army and Air Force.
Magee, it appeared, had strengthened his niche within the Navy football program. But earlier this week, Michigan announced it had hired Magee to join the staff of third-year coach Jim Harbaugh in the same role he held at Navy. Magee replaces Tony Tuioti, who held the same position on Michigan’s staff.
“It’s a huge loss for us,” Niumatalolo told Land of 10 this week. “But it doesn’t surprise me. He’s really good at what he did. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve been around. He was a smart midshipman, a person with great people skills, and he took our recruiting to another level with his organizational skills and his technical savvy. He was a complete package.”
In five seasons with Navy football, Magee’s responsibilities included giving assistants recruiting assignments, coordinating recruiting visits and managing Navy’s recruiting database.
“Sean brings a strong recruiting history and an experienced personnel background to the University of Michigan,” Harbaugh said in a university statement. “We are excited to have his military experience, leadership skills and organizational talents help make our program great. Throughout the interview process, I felt that Sean answered my questions about how to improve our program before I could even ask them.”
Many recent strong adds to our staff. Among them, @UMichMagee, one of best recruiters & personnel guys in the country. The future is bright.
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 24, 2017
But in Magee, Niumatalolo said that Navy had not only a staff member with a diverse background but also a data cruncher with a knack for organization and analysis. That gave the Navy football program a new perspective that allowed the Midshipmen to maximize not only the program’s potential but its productivity.
“Sean, I don’t know exactly what he would do, but I knew he had a beautiful mind,” Niumatalolo said, chuckling.
Soldier and scholar
Magee brought a different insight to Niumatalolo’s staff. Magee wasn’t just a former football player who got into coaching. He was also a soldier, an MBA candidate who considered working on Wall Street, an administrator at the Naval Academy and a recruiter for the United States Navy.
Magee was an offensive lineman for the Midshipmen who graduated in 2004 with a degree in economics. He was commissioned as a surface warfare officer and deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Magee was a Navy analyst in Southern California, then became a recruiter in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia.
He returned to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 2010, and managed the school’s service assignment program.
Then, Niumatalolo said, Magee was about to complete his MBA in 2012 and weighed taking a corporate job in New York City. But Niumatalolo had another job possibility for Magee, a convergence of Magee’s background as a military recruiter, a college administrator and his prowess for data analysis.
— Connor Stalions (@CPStalions) February 22, 2017
And his background in football.
Magee, Niumatalolo said, organized 15 years of Navy player and recruiting data. Some of the data he analyzed: players who graduated from the Naval Academy versus players who dropped out; grade-point averages of players when they were in high school; the courses they took in high school; their SAT scores; and geographic regions that produced strong players and strong students.
Then, he presented it to Niumatalolo, who described it as a thorough report regarding not just the players Navy needed to target in recruiting, but also on the type of students and people it needed to target in an already selective admissions process by the academy.
“When you have to recruit all 50 states for players, it can be an overwhelming task. I wanted to be way more efficient in recruiting, and I gave him a blank canvas and he designed a program,” Niumatalolo said.
“He created a filter from nearly two decades of data, and I can’t imagine how long it took to input that data. But he took our recruiting to another level, and there’s no doubt in my mind our success is linked to that.”
Value of a support staff
Support staffs are growing and growing in college football, and more coaches see a value in adding non-coaching personnel to their staffs. In addition to eight assistant coaches and two coordinators, Michigan lists 30 football staff members in its online directory, including an assistant director of football operations and player engagement, a junior recruiting assistant, a head video coordinator and a director of player development.
One of the coaches who revolutionized the use of a support staff? Nick Saban at Alabama. According to a 2013 Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News report, Alabama paid its 24 non-coaching personnel, not including graduate assistants, an aggregate total of $1.6 million. Alabama currently lists 19 non-coaching personnel on its online directory.
In December, ESPN reported that Florida’s staff included directors of football administration, player personnel, player development and external communication, as well as graduate assistants, quality control coaches and program assistants.
There’s a bottom line to a support staff.
“They allow football coaches to coach, to focus all their time and energy on game planning,” said Niumatalolo, whose staff has only seven non-coaching personnel listed in its online directory. “This is a hard profession. In college football, there’s only 128 FBS teams and FBS head coaching jobs. It’s super, super competitive.”
In that hyper-competitive world of college football, the Naval Academy is a no-frills school with a successful football program. But, Niumatalolo acknowledged, “We needed to find an edge.”
That meant brainpower instead of simply manpower, and in four years, Magee gave the Midshipmen that quiet yet analytical edge.
Then, a few weeks ago, Niumatalolo got a call from a 734 area code, inquiring about one of his support staff members.
“It kind of surprised me when Sean got the call about Michigan,” Niumatalolo said. “Jim (Harbaugh) called me and we had a great conversation about Sean, and the thing about Jim is that he’s always pushing the envelope, and he’s always trying to find a cutting edge. I’ve always tried to do that as well.
“But what Sean did, he made us cutting edge in a lot of ways, too.”