Nevada Wolf Pack football hires Jay Norvell for head coaching position
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO —Jay Norvell has already made a very clear and definite promise to Nevada Wolf Pack football fans.
“The University of Nevada is the flagship football program of this state,” said Norvell at a press conference at Mackay Stadium on Friday where he was introduced as the 26th football head coach in the history of the Wolf Pack. “It is our charge to also make this the flagship of the Mountain West.”
Norvell, who has been an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, UCLA and Nebraska, replaces Brian Polian, who compiled a 23-27 record as the Wolf Pack head coach the last four seasons. Norvell, the wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator at Arizona State this past season, comes to Nevada after 31 seasons as an assistant coach at nine different schools and two NFL teams.
“We’re all excited to bring Jay in as our head football coach,” Wolf Pack athletic director Doug Knuth said. “I know how excited he is. We told him we’re trying to win as fast as possible and that’s what he wants also. He is exactly what we were looking for.”
Norvell’s contract is for five years with a base salary of $525,000 a year to start, said Nevada media services director Chad Hartley. It is the same base salary, Hartley said, that Polian was due for what would have been the last year of his original five-year contract in 2017. Polian, who led the Pack to a 5-7 record this season, is owed $569,000 by the university (if he doesn’t land another job) because he left the program with one year and a month left on his contract. Norvell was making $380,000 a year at Arizona State, according to USA Today.
The 53-year-old Norvell will be the oldest head coach in Wolf Pack history behind only Chris Ault, who was 66 when he retired after the 2012 season. Norvell was one of three finalists for the Wolf Pack’s top job along with Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin and Vanderbilt offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. Norvell was the last of the three to interview with Knuth this week. Knuth offered him the job during his interview on Wednesday and Norvell accepted it almost on the spot.
“We didn’t want him to leave town without taking the job,” Knuth said with a smile.
Knuth said that he only offered the job to Norvell.
“As we talked to him and got to know him it was obvious that he was the right person for this job,” Knuth said. “As I talked to people all around the country when I began this search, the name I kept hearing was Jay Norvell, over and over. These people were leaders of our industry, leaders of college football, leaders of the NFL. They all remember Jay as a man of great character, a man of unreal integrity, a great teacher and role model and a coach who is loved by his former players.”
One of those college football leaders that Knuth consulted was Ault. Ault, who has been a consultant with the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL and has coached semi-professional football in Italy since he left the Wolf Pack, gave his stamp of approval on Norvell. Ault met Norvell in the spring of 2013 when he went to Oklahoma to teach the Sooners the pistol offense. Norvell was the Sooners’ offensive coordinator at the time and hosted Ault on his three-day visit to Norman, Okla.
“When Doug mentioned the name Jay Norvell to me one day I just told him, ‘This is someone you need to check out,’” Ault said. “We talked a lot of football when I was there (in 2013). I watched spring practice and saw how organized he was. The thing that I’m most impressed with Jay is that he was not only just an assistant coach at some of the places he’s been. He was a coordinator. He was someone the head coach trusted to manage a group.”
Ault is convinced Norvell can get the Wolf Pack headed in the right direction.
“Jay is the surge this program needs right now,” Ault said.
Norvell is arguably the most qualified coach and certainly the most experienced to ever become head coach at Nevada. He is also the oldest coach by far to ever be hired as Wolf Pack head coach. The oldest Pack coaches hired to take over the program before Norvell were Jake Lawlor, Chris Tormey and George Philbrook, who were all 45 when they coached their first game for the Pack. Norvell will be 54 when he coaches his first Pack game in 2017. Ault was 29-years-old when the Pack hired him in December 1975.
“He’s experienced,” said Ault of Norvell. “He knows how to coach. He’s been around big-time football programs and he’s been around big-time football coaches. And he was an important part of those programs.”
Norvell has coached in 14 bowl games in his 25 seasons of college coaching, including the Rose Bowl with Wisconsin, the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Sugar Bowl with Oklahoma and the BCS championship game with Oklahoma (2009). Norvell also coached (tight ends) in the 2003 Super Bowl for the Oakland Raiders against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Wolf Pack will be his first head coaching position.
“They (Nevada) were looking for a man of fiber,” Norvell said. “I am very humbled they chose me.”
Norvell said his Wolf Pack offense “will be a spread attack that will be very aggressive. We will be very up tempo and we will be very creative.”
Norvell added that his Wolf Pack teams will utilize concepts of the pistol offense but that his offense will clearly be a spread offense, heavy on the passing game.
“On defense we’re going to pressure and take the air out of the quarterback and play tight coverage,” Norvell said. “When our fans come to watch us play I want them to not be sure about what they are going to see. In a positive way.”
Other than mispronouncing the word Nevada once, Norvell’s first Wolf Pack press conference seemed to be a success.
“We will be active in the community,” he said. “Our job as coaches is to love our players. Their (the players) job is to love each other. If we do that there is nothing we can’t accomplish.”
Norvell talked to the Wolf Pack players Friday morning.
“I’m excited,” said Wolf Pack running back James Butler, who rushed for 1,336 yards and 12 touchdowns this season as a junior. “I can tell how excited he is, too. We all just told him, ‘We want to win right now.’ I can’t wait to get started.”
Butler is well aware that Norvell is coming from a pass-heavy spread offense background.
“I asked him, ‘Does that mean I need to learn how to play wide receiver for you?’ Butler said with a smile. “He just laughed.”
Norvell also had another message for his players.
“I told them, ‘I don’t care if you are a 2,000-yard running back,’” Norvell said. “Don’t be surprised if you find yourself running down on kickoff teams and covering on special teams.”
“The players all got a kick out of that,” Knuth said.
Butler is one of 18 juniors off last year’s roster who will play their senior season for Norvell in 2017.
“We all will get a fresh start and a fair shot to play with the new coach,” Butler said. “I think that’s good. That’s the way it should be.”
Norvell had one other promise for his seniors.
“I promised our players that we will hit the ground running,” Norvell said. “I can tell they want to win now.”
Norvell was an All-Big Ten Conference defensive back with the Iowa Hawkeyes in 1985, leading the conference that season with seven interceptions. His NFL career consisted of six games with the Chicago Bears during the strike shorted 1987 season. Norvell’s father, Merritt Norvell, played three years at Wisconsin and went to the 1963 Rose Bowl with the Badgers. Norvell’s brother Aaron was a linebacker at Wisconsin from 1989-92 and is now an actor, mainly in television.
Merritt Norvell is also a former athletic director at Michigan State, leaving the school in 1999. Knuth was hired as an assistant athletic director at Michigan State in 2000 under athletic director Clarence Underwood and said he never met Merritt Norvell before this week.
“I think our paths just missed each other,“ Knuth said. “I never met the man until today (at the press conference) so, no, my relationship with him (Merritt Norvell) had nothing to do with this hire.”
Knuth said that it was important that the new Pack coach be hired this week.
“It was important for recruiting (National Letter of Intent signing day is Feb. 1) and it was important that the new coach meet our players face to face,” Knuth said. “Next week is finals and they will all be gone after that. I wanted them to meet the new coach instead of just reading about it.”
Norvell said he hopes to quickly put his Wolf Pack coaching staff in place.
“I am very excited to think about the staff that I know I can put together here,” he said. “I have been flooded with interest already from coaches who want to come here and be a part of this.
“I have a lifetime of networking and a lifetime of relationships that I can draw from. The people I hire to come here to coach with me will also have those type of relationships. We will not be starting from scratch.”