For Nevada coach Jay Norvell, the journey took way too long
At 56, he’s one of only 14 black coaches in the 130-team FBS
RENO, Nev. — Jay Norvell’s Chrysler heads north on Virginia Street, under the Reno Arch (“The Biggest Little City In The World”) toward the University of Nevada campus. He passes the downtown casinos — Harrah’s, Silver Legacy, El Dorado, Circus Circus — where gamblers gather, hoping this will be their lucky day.
Norvell didn’t need to gamble on his coaching career. His resume was the coaching equivalent of a golden ticket. He played at Iowa for Hayden Fry, responsible for college football’s most significant coaching tree of the past quarter century. He worked for decorated college coaches such as Bob Stoops and Barry Alvarez, and at big-name programs such as Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Texas and UCLA.
He helped draft Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts and coached in Super Bowl XXXVII for the Oakland Raiders. He held offensive coordinator titles, usually the strongest prerequisite for college head coaches, at Nebraska, UCLA and Oklahoma and called plays for most of the 2015 season at Texas. He also had a unique perspective about the hiring process from his father, Merritt, the former Michigan State athletic director who later joined an executive search firm, where he focused on advancing the careers of minority coaches, like his eldest son.
Yet, every time Jay Norvell applied for head-coaching jobs, he came up empty. The noes began at Bowling Green in 2001, which instead hired a Notre Dame assistant named Urban Meyer. Then came the Power 5 denials: Boston College, Purdue, Iowa State twice. Norvell’s lucky number ended up being 53, well beyond the standard age for a first-time head coach, especially a first-time black head coach.
Of the 14 black coaches in the 130-team FBS, only Norvell and Syracuse’s Dino Babers landed their first head-coaching jobs after turning 50. Only three current non-black coaches got their first college head-coaching jobs — this includes FBS, FCS, Division II and Division III — after age 50. They are Temple’s Steve Addazio, Doc Holliday for Marshall and Nebraska’s Frank Solich.
The story of Norvell’s career illustrates the harsh truths and obstacles of the hiring process, especially for black coaches, who, despite recent gains, remain vastly underrepresented in college football. Norvell’s latest chapter provides hope for other black coaches who wait and wonder if their time will ever come.
His success at Nevada, meanwhile, could help change attitudes.
“That is a sense of responsibility,” Norvell said. “I want to do well. I want to be successful. I want to give the right example. When somebody of color has success as a head coach, certainly people who hire look at that and say, ‘Oh, maybe there’s more guys out there who we need to give an opportunity to.’ It’s important.
“I think college football is missing out on a lot of really quality people.”
A football life
Football has been with Norvell since the start. He was born March 28, 1963, less than three months after his father played running back for Wisconsin against the University of Southern California in the Rose Bowl, the first bowl to match No. 1 versus No. 2.
Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, Norvell watched Badgers games from the south stands of Camp Randall Stadium. He played little league with “Paulie” Chryst, now Wisconsin’s coach. Chryst got his first head-coaching job at Pitt at age 46.
“In the playground across the street, I used to pretend I was playing in the NFL or in college,” he said. “But I’d also pretend I was a coach.”
Norvell went to Iowa and played safety, the same position as Bob and Mike Stoops. In 1985, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, recording a league-leading seven interceptions. Iowa won the Big Ten, held the No. 1 ranking and went to the Rose Bowl.
“He was a coach on the field, got guys lined up, knew where everyone else needed to be,” Bob Stoops said. “You know those are the kind of guys who make really great coaches. He has that great intensity and competitiveness to go with the smarts of football.”
There’s a famous photo of Fry’s 1983 Iowa coaching staff, which includes Alvarez, a very young Stoops, future Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, future Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, future Iowa State coach Dan McCarney and other notables.
Norvell isn’t pictured, but, as a sophomore player, he absorbed all that wisdom.
“Head-coaching material all the way,” said Chuck Long, Norvell’s Iowa teammate, who later became San Diego State’s head coach. “He just has that presence and that demeanor about him.”
Added Alvarez: “He’s been around some very good coaches. He knows what it’s all about.”
Norvell’s coaching career began as a graduate assistant for Fry in 1986. He returned to the playing field during the NFL’s strike season of 1987, recording four sacks as a “Spare Bear” linebacker for Mike Ditka in Chicago. Then, he fully flipped from player to coach, landing his first full-time gig at Northern Iowa as wide receivers coach. Norvell spent the next decade at Wisconsin (with Alvarez) and Iowa State (with McCarney) before joining the Indianapolis Colts’ staff as wide receivers coach.
In September 2000, Bowling Green coach Gary Blackney announced his resignation. The school’s search narrowed to three finalists: Norvell, Meyer and Purdue offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Meyer, just 36, wanted to return to his home state and begin his head-coaching career. He also had key advocates such as Lou Holtz and former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce. Bowling Green athletic director Paul Krebs had been an Ohio State administrator.
“I wasn’t dying to be the head coach at Bowling Green, but I did want to be a head coach,” said Norvell, who was 37 when he applied for the job. “Hindsight’s always 20-20, but I was young and that was the first time, and I felt like there would be more opportunities. I wanted the job. I just didn’t feel like I had the inside track or the right people pushing me to get it.
“You never know when that time is going to come.”
It didn’t for another 16 years.
The realities of coaching while black
Norvell understands the realities for black coaches in college football.
“I pull for David Shaw. I pull for Willie Taggart. I pull for Dino [Babers]. I pull for ‘Summy’ [Kevin Sumlin], all those guys,” Norvell said. “I want them to do well because I understand what we all went through together.”
Babers, whom Norvell worked with at UCLA in 2007, didn’t become a head coach until age 50, at Eastern Illinois. He then coached Bowling Green to a conference title and led Syracuse to its first 10-win season in 17 years last fall.
Shaw has led Stanford to three league titles and five division titles, winning Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors four times. But Norvell wonders whether Shaw would have gotten the chance if Jim Harbaugh hadn’t left Stanford, Shaw’s alma mater.
“It’s just a challenge for minority coaches,” Norvell said. “People in power and authority want to hire people who remind them of them. You hear it all the time: They want to hire people that are like their grandson. I don’t know that it’s always deliberate. It’s just the way that it is. There’s not a lot of minorities in positions of power, hiring people, so it’s only natural.”
Norvell thought his time had come in 2006, when McCarney resigned at Iowa State. He had coached at ISU, played and coached at Iowa, and coached at Northern Iowa. He was a proven recruiter and coordinator. Nebraska had a top-15 offense that season.
Iowa State hired Texas defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who went 5-19 in two years before bolting for Auburn. Norvell thought he could replace Chizik, but Iowa State hired Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who had worked there with Norvell in the mid-1990s.
“I know he had been considered several times,” Stoops said. “Not everything fits everybody. It’s a difficult process, but I figured at some point, the right one would fit Jay.”
There were other rejections: Boston College hired Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski; Purdue hired Eastern Kentucky coach Danny Hope to succeed Joe Tiller; Western Michigan hired P.J. Fleck, a 32-year-old NFL assistant.
“I would be complimented a lot about my background, my experience, my leadership skills, but every time I would get in these situations, I would come up second or third,” Norvell said. “Many times the people that were hired did not have the resume that I had. As I started going through the hiring process, I could really see where myself and guys like me just never seemed to get enough tread. I wasn’t the only one.
“There were a lot of minority candidates, quality, quality coaches, who were in the same situation.”
Like father, like son
Merritt Norvell has seen the coach hiring process “from all sides.” While working for IBM, he served on Wisconsin’s athletic board when the school hired Alvarez. He joined Michigan State as just the second black athletic director in Big Ten history and held board positions with the Big Ten and the NCAA.
Norvell left MSU to work for DHR International, which has assisted many prominent schools in their football coaching searches. When the Black Coaches Association fell apart, Merritt Norvell helped launch the National Association of Coaching Equity and Development (NAFCED). As executive director, he worked to advance the careers of coaches like his son.
The irony of his son’s wait isn’t lost on Merritt Norvell. He’s not surprised either.
“He’s kind of a classic example of what happens to black coaches in this business, in the football part of the house,” Merritt Norvell said. “There’s a whole host of black coaches in particular, in that age group of 35 to 55, who are excellent coaches but just got passed over, never got a chance, and they’re very frustrated right now.
“People kept asking, ‘How come Jay’s not getting a head job? It’s long overdue! Look at his resume! Look what he’s done!’ And it just hadn’t happened.”
He held seminars for promising black assistants, where he provided advice: Be direct with your boss about your own career ambitions, don’t take trumped-up titles like co-coordinator if you aren’t calling plays. He also kept it real: “Careers are really dictated by access and privilege. It’s not always the best guy that gets the job.”
He didn’t agree with all of his son’s career moves, but he calls his son’s overall resume “impeccable.” He thinks his son wasn’t aggressive enough early on, but being let go at Oklahoma after the 2014 season “really sharpened his sword.”
“I’ve never been one to, I don’t know how to say it, butter up to those in power to get an advantage professionally,” Jay Norvell said. “That’s just not my nature. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to become a head coach. I just don’t have a lot of confidence in the hiring process. In a lot of situations, people hire on being able to justify somebody to their superiors. There’s very few people out there that are making decisions on productivity and character.”
Jay Norvell considers his dad a leadership model, a supporter and an asset for his career. He also wonders if his father’s success and visibility worked against him.
“Some people looked at me as, ‘Oh, that’s [Merritt] Norvell’s kid,’ instead of just looking at what I’d done,” Jay Norvell said.
In 2016, NAFCED proposed the Eddie Robinson rule, named after the legendary Grambling State football coach. It would require schools to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching vacancies. The rule paralleled the NFL’s Rooney rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coach and executive positions.
Both Norvells say the NFL is better at circulating strong candidates even if they don’t land certain jobs. Merritt thinks if his son had remained in the NFL, he likely would have become a head coach sooner.
The Eddie Robinson rule still hasn’t been adopted. Merritt Norvell said university presidents and their resistance to widespread hiring protocols remains the biggest obstacle.
“In this current racial climate in this country right now, it’s tough,” Norvell said. “We’ve had coaches threatened: ‘Why do you want to be a member of [NAFCED]? All you’re going to do is get your application ruined.’ I’m getting tired of being the angry black guy in the room. I take up all the oxygen and nothing happens.”
Norvell is in the chair at Tabu’s of Reno Barber Lounge, telling football stories. He comes every Thursday, after Nevada’s light morning practice, for a trim and to unwind. Barbershops are part of Norvell’s coaching odyssey, and Tabu’s became his spot soon after he moved to Nevada.
Jay Bruce, Norvell’s barber, shows Norvell the product he’ll use. “That’s the sauce,” Bruce says.
As Bruce goes to work, Norvell offers snapshots of a football life.
- Soon after joining the Indianapolis staff, Norvell flew on Colts owner Jim Irsay’s plane to Tennessee with coach Jim Mora, general manager Bill Polian, offensive coordinator Tom Moore and quarterbacks coach Bruce Arians for Manning’s pre-draft audition. During the workout, Norvell actually caught passes from Manning, who blew away the Colts contingent by asking detailed questions about their draft plans.
- When the Colts fired Mora after the 2001 season, Norvell planned to join Mike Stoops at Oklahoma. Then, he received a call from Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, a former colleague at Wisconsin in the early 1990s. “Al [Davis] just traded Jon Gruden to Tampa,” Callahan told Norvell. “I can hire one guy, and I want to bring you in.” A lifelong Raiders fan, Norvell agreed to coach the team’s tight ends.
- Norvell attended personnel meetings with Davis, who had a unique approach to evaluating prospects, and pushed everyone in the organization. Before the 2002 NFL draft, Norvell studied tight ends from the previous 20 drafts. “He wanted to see your convictions as an assistant coach,” Norvell said.
- Davis fired Callahan after the 2003 season and wanted Norvell to stay on. But then Callahan became Nebraska’s head coach, and he asked Norvell to be his offensive coordinator and install the West Coast scheme. “Nebraska had run the option for so many years,” Norvell said. “It was a real challenge to change the culture there and bring in a passing offense. It was a blast.” While at Nebraska, Norvell went to Butler Community College in Kansas to recruit a quarterback named Zac Taylor. Two years later, Taylor won Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors under Norvell and helped Nebraska to the league title game. In February, the Cincinnati Bengals hired Taylor, 35, as their head coach. “An amazing kid,” Norvell said. “It’s a small world.”
- After the 2007 season, Norvell finally joined Stoops at Oklahoma. He learned the Air Raid offense, which had originated with Hal Mumme. “I was in the West Coast [offense] with [Mike] Holmgren’s influence and Bill Walsh and Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan,” Norvell said. “It was genius because Hal simplified that and took the biggest concepts and turned it into his own system.” Norvell’s offensive coordinator at Nevada is Mumme’s son, Matt.
Told he’s the Kevin Bacon of football coaches, Norvell nods and smiles.
The door opens and Jackie Shipp, Nevada’s defensive line coach and the former first-round draft pick out of Oklahoma, walks into Tabu’s.
“I didn’t know you got your hair cut on Thursdays!” Norvell says.
Norvell and Shipp reminisce about barbershops from previous coaching stops — Oklahoma, Arizona State — as Bruce finishes up.
“Let’s do next week,” Norvell tells Bruce. “Same time.”
‘He’s seen the rainbow and he’s also seen the storm’
In 2013, Chris Ault visited Oklahoma for spring football practice. Ault is the godfather of Nevada football: three stints as head coach, guided the program from Division II to Division I-AA (now FCS) and then to the FBS. In 2010, he coached Colin Kaepernick and the Wolf Pack to a 13-1 record and a No. 11 ranking in the final AP poll.
Ault also created the “Pistol” offense, popularized around the sport. Oklahoma wanted to learn it and brought in Ault. Norvell, then the Sooners’ co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach, hosted Ault.
“It was right after we got our a– kicked by Johnny Manziel,” Norvell said, recalling a 41-13 loss to Manziel’s Texas A&M team in the 2013 Cotton Bowl.
Ault spent three days in Norman, providing intel about his scheme and watching the Oklahoma players and coaches.
“That’s how it all started, my interest in Jay,” Ault said. “I loved the dynamics of what he was doing with the kids. Bob Stoops thought the world of him. I wasn’t looking for a coach; I was just out talking with him. Jay is one of those guys, he’s very conscious and he’s very appreciative of where he’s been, and he’s had more stops than Santa Claus.
“He’s seen the rainbow and he’s also seen the storm.”
After the 2014 season, Stoops dismissed Norvell and co-coordinator Josh Heupel and hired a young play-caller named Lincoln Riley. At 51, Norvell thought his head-coaching window might have closed for good.
In November 2016, Nevada and coach Brian Polian announced they were parting ways. Athletic director Doug Knuth would handle the search and began collecting candidate names. Among those he contacted was Merritt Norvell, who often gets calls about minority candidates during searches.
“He said, ‘I’ve got three or four names,’ so I wrote them down,” Knuth recalled. “And then he says, ‘There’s one more name I want to give you. It’s Jay Norvell. I’m not giving you his name because he’s my son. He’s incredibly qualified, and he’ll run the program the right way.’ ”
“I had no idea that Merritt Norvell was Jay’s dad. Now we’re all friends. I laugh when I think of that story, when I cold-called Merritt.”
Knuth already had heard of Norvell, then an assistant at Arizona State. Others had raved about Norvell’s integrity and his way with players. Norvell’s football roots, both in college and the NFL, jumped out. Nevada often hires first-time coaches, but rarely those with Norvell’s expertise.
“Jay was coming to the table with vast experience, incredible mentors and coaches who he had been around,” Knuth said. “Barry Alvarez, Bob Stoops, Hayden Fry, and here’s Jay, in that cohort of people, an assistant coach for 30 years. Those are his friends. Those are people he can call for advice.
“I saw it as a very, very positive thing.”
Norvell had great connections, but he didn’t always have the strongest advocate for specific jobs. He learned that after his first rejection at Bowling Green. This time, he had the right man in his corner. “It was all because of Coach Ault,” Norvell said.
“I just look at myself as the guy who backed him 100%,” Ault said. “Again, somebody’s got to push the button. We talked to a lot of coaches. After the final interviews, I was asked who’d you like. I said, ‘I’d like Jay Norvell. He’s the guy we want.’ ”
Let’s make a deal
Knuth and Norvell met at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott, a hub for college coaches recruiting the area. Afterward, Norvell called his wife, Kim, telling her, “This one is different.”
But he still had doubts. The scar tissue had built. He didn’t want to be the token black candidate. Even after Nevada settled on three finalists — Norvell, Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin and Vanderbilt offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig — Knuth needed to persuade Norvell, who heard rumors he wouldn’t be the choice, to visit campus.
He flew up and visited with several dignitaries, including Ault. A 30-minute meeting became 90 minutes as they talked ball, leadership and outreach. Ault thought the program needed to reconnect with the community.
“Jay felt that he had been snubbed, no question about it,” Ault said. “He was 53. He was confident that he could be a head football coach. There’s a lot of good football coaches out there that never get the opportunity. Jay was one of those guys, up until this point.
“Thank God we were able to steal him.”
Norvell’s day ended in a room with Knuth, who had a question: Do you want to be the next head coach of the University of Nevada football team?
“It was kind of surreal,” Norvell said. “I thought he was messing around.”
Norvell fell silent.
“I could tell his mind was racing, his heart was racing,” Knuth said. “There was this emotion. One of us was going to break down and cry because the weight of the world was off his shoulders. He finally got a job. Someone was hiring him. It was a special moment. I’ll never forget it.
“He said, ‘Of course I want the job!’ ”
Norvell first called his wife, who has hopscotched the country with him while battling cystic fibrosis and surviving colon cancer. “It was awesome telling her,” he said. Norvell flew home to Arizona, collected Kim and their son, Jaden, and returned to Reno. Merritt and Norvell’s mom, Cynthia, flew in from Michigan.
On Dec. 9, 2016, Nevada introduced Norvell as its 26th head coach.
“His mom and I had our hopes up a long time,” Merritt Norvell said. “We both said, ‘Jesus, we hope we live long enough to see him get a head-coaching job.’ It’s one of the highlights of our life, to see him reach the pinnacle. It really is a blessing. We know how hard he’s worked and we know how much he’s sacrificed to get where he is.
“He deserves every bit of it.”
On a recent Wednesday, Norvell sits at a table inside Bully’s, a sports bar and grill in northwest Reno, near his home. Kim and Jaden are here for Norvell’s weekly radio show, along with football staffers and several dozen others.
Norvell later jokes that neighbors make up most of the crowd. But the show is another reminder of a career goal achieved. He has coached at bigger programs. His $500,000 salary ranks lowest among Mountain West coaches, behind Hawaii’s Nick Rolovich.
But finally, he’s the face of a program.
“He’s done it the hard way,” Long said. “Who knows why things happen or don’t happen in the coaching world? Now’s the time to have that seat, and I think he’ll be really good at it.”
Nevada went 3-9 in Norvell’s first season. Knuth knew the team likely would struggle, but he saw Norvell take the losing especially hard. “He carries a tremendous burden,” Knuth said.
Norvell isn’t just coaching for himself or his players, but for every longtime black assistant waiting for a chance.
“It’s very important,” Norvell said. “I’m not what’s qualified as a young coach anymore, but I sure would love to see some of the younger guys that are really bright and have great leadership skills get the opportunity to lead programs.”
Added Ault: “He leads that group in motivation. It tells you, ‘Stay with something you believe in, and opportunity can come.’ ”
For Norvell, the culmination came in December, when Nevada won the Arizona Bowl. A man who coached in the Super Bowl, played in the Rose Bowl and coached in every major college bowl game shed tears after his team rallied past Arkansas State, calling the game “by far my favorite victory. It’s not even close.”
“Just believe in yourself and your teammates and good things can happen.”
An emotional Jay Norvell talks to @JohnSchriffen about an emotional win for @NevadaFootball at the @novaAZBOWL. pic.twitter.com/S3o5ftG4Cu
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) December 29, 2018
“I wanted them to feel what it’s like to be a champion,” he said.
Norvell’s third season began with a historic rally against Purdue, just the program’s second win against a Big Ten opponent. The team is 4-3 entering Saturday’s game at Wyoming.
During decades as an assistant, Norvell always felt he’d make a better head coach. He had seen what works and what doesn’t. He just needed a chance.
“I felt like there was an opportunity out there for me, where the cards would fall right,” he said. “I’m just fortunate to be able to live my life’s work.”