During his time in Annapolis, Bears GM Phil Emery was a leader among Midshipmen
By Sean Jensen firstname.lastname@example.org February 8, 2012 8:40PM
Updated: March 11, 2012 8:39AM
Shortly after Navy hired him as running backs coach in 1995, Ken Niumatalolo chatted with a player in the Midshipmen’s expansive sports-conditioning facility.
Soon, a tall, sturdy man approached them and politely interrupted.
“Very stern and direct, he said, ‘Don’t talk to the players during their lift. They’re focused,’ ” Niumatalolo recalled. “There was a focus about the man I had never seen before.”
That was Niumatalolo’s introduction to Phil Emery, then, for all intents and purposes, the czar of player performance. Niumatalolo is now Navy’s football coach and Emery is the Bears’ general manager.
Niumatalolo considers Emery, the onetime strength and conditioning coach at Navy, one of the greatest leaders he has ever worked alongside, and others who’ve worked and coached with Emery agree.
“I learned many leadership skills from Phil Emery when I first came here as a 29-year-old coach,” Niumatalolo said. “There’s a leadership about him that you can’t deny.
“It hits you right in the face when you meet him.”
Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli hired Emery as his college scouting director based on the recommendation of his friend Thomas Dimitroff. When he took over as general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, Dimitroff hired David Caldwell as college scouting director and demoted Emery, but he was impressed by the veteran scout’s professionalism and talent.
“I’m going to miss him dearly,” Pioli said late last week. “He’s one of those guys who is a good teammate, all across the board.
“He’ll be successful. I really do believe he’ll be successful.”
Despite a nontraditional route to his current position, Emery’s past is highlighted with distinctions: two Southeastern Conference championships while at Tennessee, an NFC South title with the Falcons and an AFC West title with the Chiefs. And, most notably, he helped lead the Midshipmen to the 1996 Aloha Bowl, Navy’s first postseason appearance in 16 years and its first postseason victory since 1978.
A Michigan native, Emery was an offensive lineman at Wayne State University in Detroit. The Warriors’ coach was Dick Lowry, and he recalled Emery as an ideal student-athlete.
His Division II program wasn’t known for football, so Lowry emphasized education with his players.
“We wanted them to graduate,” Lowry said. “That was our No. 1 priority.”
Emery was quiet, but he worked extremely hard in the classroom and weight room. In fact, Lowry said Emery wasn’t a natural athlete.
“He was strong because he made himself strong,’’ Lowry said. ‘‘He was the first to come [to the weight room] and the last to go. And people followed his work habits.
“As far as leadership goes, he was one of the top leaders I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach.”
Emery was awarded the Ron Solack Memorial Award, the Warriors’ most prestigious honor.
When he arrived at Navy in 1993, receiver Astor Heaven didn’t consider himself much of an athlete.
“I wasn’t the fastest dude,” Heaven said, “and I wasn’t the strongest.”
But Emery — as he did for every player in the program — customized a workout program for him and constantly evaluated his progress.
In Heaven’s mind, he didn’t have a choice: Emery intimidated him.
He was big and bulky, and he never seemed to take any time off.
One offseason, the players figured their 5 a.m. run would be canceled because of a snowstorm. But, just in case, they headed to the track.
“I said, ‘There’s no way he’s going to be there.’ We thought we’d go back to our room,” Heaven recalled. “But he was sitting there with coffee in hand.
“It was a very disappointing run.”
In his mind, Heaven can still recall Emery yelling, “Hands down!” then the players preparing to sprint on his preannounced snap count.
“It was his trademark thing,” Heaven said. “We joke about it now, but we feared hearing, ‘Hands down!’ back in the day.”
Heaven credits Emery with his personal development as well as that of the entire program.
“He was basically the rock of the program,” said Heaven, now an antitrust attorney in Washington, D.C. “If you ask the players on the team, the single most influential factor we were at the Aloha Bowl was because of Phil.”
Niumatalolo recalled Emery’s presence in meetings.
“When he spoke, it was like a general or admiral,” Niumatalolo said. “So smart. Very articulate. Very commanding.
“He coached our young men as hard as anybody I’ve seen. He was very demanding but also very fair, and he’s also very loving.”