Norvell’s thoughts turned to his late parents, who would be ‘beaming with pride’ about his new CSU job
story by Mark Gokavi
photos by John Eisele
published Dec. 8, 2021
Jay Norvell’s father died at the start of the week of Nevada’s first game in 2020 — an emotional 37-34 overtime win against Wyoming. Sometime later, the 24th head football coach at Colorado State University was cleaning out his dad’s belongings when he came across an old photo.
There was his father, Merritt, and his mother, Cynthia, standing with Muhammad Ali. One parent in the picture is the one Norvell tries to emulate; the other gave him his personality. To Jay, all three people in the photograph were the greatest.
“My father was a great man,” Norvell said Tuesday after his CSU introductory press conference. “He got his Ph.D. from Wisconsin. He was a social worker. He was a community worker.
“He came up in the late ’60s, and my father was on the Wisconsin campus when Muhammad Ali was traveling and speaking on college campuses; when Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were speaking; he was the point person (for those speeches).”
Most in the college sports world knew Merritt as a Wisconsin running back in the early 1960s when the Badgers played in two Rose Bowls. He later became Michigan State University’s first African-American athletics director, overseeing Tom Izzo and Nick Saban from 1995-99.
But Norvell first focused on his father’s work with Madison’s Urban League; Merritt also was the chairman of Wisconsin’s Special Olympics and advocated for minority coaches.
Thinking about the old photos in his father’s boxes made Norvell pause about taking the first job he couldn’t share the news about with his parents. Harriette Cynthia Norvell died in May 2019. The coach wore his mother’s initials HCN on his visor during the Fall 2019 season.
The Iris and Michael Smith Alumni Center was packed for the introduction of Jay Norvell as CSU’s 24th head football coach.
“He did so much work in the community, moved on and later on got into athletic administration,” Norvell said of his father. “He was a giant in athletic administration, so I’ve spent my life trying to fill his shoes. … I miss him every day, but he would be very proud today.”
As for his mother, Norvell said the former model and tennis player was amazing. “I’m probably most like my mom,” Jay said. “My mom was just very thoughtful, very mannerly. … She volunteered a lot; did a lot for the community. She had millions of friends.
“He did so much work in the community, moved on and later on got into athletic administration. He was a giant in athletic administration, so I’ve spent my life trying to fill his shoes. … I miss him every day, but he would be very proud today.”
— Jay Norvell remembering his father
“I think the social aspect and the personality that I have probably comes mostly from my mom. That’s where the manners come from. She was really big on that and taught that to me and my brother (Aaron). She was an amazing lady and I miss her dearly as well.”
The future Iowa Hawkeye defensive back said he grew up “in the south end zone at Camp Randall Stadium,” which he called a “cathedral.” Norvell’s football odyssey took him to play not at Wisconsin, but at Iowa.
That started him on a three-decade path that crossed with some of college and professional football’s biggest names — Hayden Fry, Barry Alverez, Mike Ditka, Walter Payton, Sean Payton, Al Davis, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Tom Moore and Bob Stoops, among others.
Norvell stressed that everyone on CSU’s team will be a gentleman and that manners matter, from players and coaches to custodians. He said he stresses respect, accountability and hustle.
New head football coach Jay Norvell with CSU Athletic Director Joe Parker and CSU President Joyce McConnell during his introductory press conference on Dec. 7.
While introducing Norvell on Tuesday to the packed crowd at the Iris and Michael Smith Alumni Center, CSU AD Joe Parker called the Rams’ new boss “a special human being … And what a special coach he will be for us.”
CSU President Joyce McConnell said Norvell has had “a long coaching career and an impeccable pedigree” and mentioned that the 58-year-old recently was named coach of the year by the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches.
He was Nevada’s first Black head football coach and will be CSU’s as well. Norvell teared up when mentioning his wife Kim, saying that she is his best friend and soulmate.
“She’s the most important person in my life,” Norvell said of his wife, who battles cystic fibrosis. “We are very proud to make your home our home.”
His wife and son, Jaden, weren’t able to attend the press conference, but will be checking out Fort Collins soon enough. As for his parents, Norvell said they would have been beaming with pride and connected with members of the CSU “Ramily.”
Most college football coaches routinely jet all over the country for games, interviews and recruiting. Merritt James Norvell III will remember the times he flew to Michigan as a grieving son, but also that his parents did get to see him become a head coach.
“They were with me when I got the job at Nevada, and I was so proud to have them there, and they were very proud,” he said. “They’re not here, but they are … I know they’re here and feel their presence today and am thinking about them.”
5 other things to know about Coach Norvell
- Norvell, along with current New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, were part of the “Spare Bears” who played during the 1987 NFL strike. Norvell, who had four sacks in the three games he played, impressed coach Mike Ditka enough to make the active roster for three games long after the regulars returned.
- Norvell caught passes from Peyton Manning during Manning’s pre-draft workout for the Indianapolis Colts. Norvell worked that season with receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Terence Wilkins.
- Norvell’s younger brother Aaron had a long acting career in TV and film, often playing a police officer, firefighter, military member or guard. Aaron spent time on both “Days of Our Lives” and “General Hospital” playing a cop. He also appeared in movies such as “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Point Pleasant” and “The Last Ride.”
- Noting he was in Broncos country, Norvell twice apologized for bringing up Al Davis. But Norvell used the terms “vertical passing” and nearly copied the Raiders’ longtime leader’s mantra that opposing quarterbacks “must go down hard.” Norvell said, “The passer must get hit. The quarterback’s got to get hit.”
- Though he played defense in high school and college, Norvell said Barry Alvarez told him to coach offense because he would get a head coaching job faster, though a story by Adam Rittenberg detailed Norvell’s long journey to that position.