Joe Santoro: Jay Norvell’s School of Football |

Joe Santoro: Jay Norvell’s School of Football

Joe Santoro
Nevada head coach Jay Norvell watches from the sideline in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The Jay Norvell School of Football reduces everything to a basic, stern set of values.

Grit. Grind. Grapple. Gruff. Growl. Grow.

There’s nothing fancy or pretentious about the Jay Norvell School of Football. No shiny computers and calculators. Just pencils, paper and erasers. No magical internet with centuries of the world’s knowledge a click away. Just volumes of dusty old encyclopedias with three volumes missing. No refreshing air conditioning. Just windows that have been painted shut for six decades.

The uniforms at the Jay Norvell School of Football would make a monk cringe. Dark, dreary jerseys over drab gray pants with splotches of white that look like they were left by a pigeon flying overhead. You want fashion? You want eye-opening splashes of color? Go watch Project Runway. This is Project Jay Way.

The Jay Way is grit, grind, gruff. Norvell learned that in the cold of Wisconsin and playing college football in the unforgiving Big Ten. He’s the type of guy who endures the waiting in line at the DMV with a steel-reinforced resolve because he knows that’s the only way he can get a new driver’s license. Stuck in traffic? Slow internet connection? Stop complaining. Deal with it. Work hard. Make it happen.

The Jay Norvell School of Football is where you build resolve. You don’t get to sleep or daydream during study hall. You don’t get to hide in the back of the class, stick earphones in your ears and your cell phone in a book and check your e-mails.

“We have to do a better job at meetings,” the Nevada Wolf Pack head coach said recently. “We need to sit up straight, have wide eyes and ask good questions.”

Just grit, baby.

“We’re trying to build a football program here,” Norvell blurted out a week or so ago.

It sounded so basic, so matter-of-fact. It was a nobody-seems-to-understand-what-we’re-doing-here sort of moment. But it reminded all of us who get so wrapped up in the winning and losing, the touchdowns, ESPN highlights and Fremont Cannon blasts, of what, exactly, the job of head football coach at a school like Nevada truly entails.

It’s about rolling up your sleeves and building, brick by brick, a football factory. And that, unfortunately, doesn’t happen at the precise moment the freshmen students run across the field at Mackay Stadium, recording every moment with their phones to post on Instagram, as they usher in another football season.

It’s a process that never ends.

“We’ve come a long way from a year ago,” Norvell said.

There’s still a long way to go. This Pack football team is still, more often than not, stuck in traffic and waiting in line at the DMV. But we did see a lot of positive signs last Saturday night that the Norvell School of Football students are indeed listening to their teachers.

“This was a great lesson for our guys about how hard you have to play to win,” Norvell said, referring to the 37-35 victory over Oregon State last Saturday night at Mackay Stadium.

Yes, Wolf Pack fans, we’re a full 15 games into the Norvell School of Football era at Nevada and the students still haven’t learned how to play hard each and every week, let alone each and every play. It didn’t really happen against Oregon State.

“We need to do a better job of playing all four quarters,” defensive lineman Korey Rush said. “We have a tendency to lay off the gas at times.”

Now, maybe, we know a little bit more about how difficult it is to coach football at a school like Nevada. It was only a few weeks ago, after all, Norvell had to stop a practice in August because he didn’t like what he was seeing.

“I kind of got upset with the team one day,” he said. “We had to start practice over. I made a point that we had to get a full practice in.”

Some of the Pack players were running about as hard and with as much determination as those freshmen with their phones scooting across the field before the home opener. And Norvell wasn’t going to let any of them get away with it, even during a hot, boring and tiring practice in August when nobody was watching.

Well, nobody but Mr. Grit and Grind.

“In the meetings that day I told them, ‘If you’re a linebacker, I shouldn’t have to tell you to run to the football and hit somebody,’” Norvell said. “If you’re a running back, I shouldn’t have to tell you to run hard. When you’re a good football player, you just do those things naturally.”

All the linebackers, running backs and everyone else in those drab, dark uniforms did exactly that last Saturday against Oregon State. Well, most of the time. The Pack came out and built a 30-7 lead against the Beavers of the Pac-12 just a few minutes into the second quarter. It was the most points scored by a Pack team in the first 20 minutes of a game since through the 2000 season (the 1999 season and before is not available on the school’s web site).

It was 20 minutes of grit, grind and growl. The results over the final 40 minutes were, well, a bit less impressive. Oregon State outscored the Pack 28-7 and came within a 33-yard field on the game’s final play of stealing the victory.

“We were fortunate,” Norvell said.

The Pack learned the important lesson grit and grind isn’t a sometime thing. It’s a do-it-until-your-heart-explodes kind of thing.

Beating Oregon State was all well and good. But Wolf Pack football isn’t really about the wins and losses right now. If all the Pack was trying to do was win games, well, they’d drop out of the Mountain West and schedule a dozen Portland States, sprinkled with a San Jose State now and then for flavor, every season.

The lesson learned from Oregon State isn’t about winning. It’s about running to the football on every play and hitting someone. It was about the grit and grind. Norvell, no doubt, would have talked about how hard his team played late Saturday night even if Oregon State kicker Jordan Choukair had made that seemingly easy 33-yard field goal on the final play. It would have taken all his resolve and determination to get the words out but we would have heard them just the same. We wouldn’t have listened, but he would have said them anyway.

“It was an important game for our kids,” Norvell said. “Our kids made a decision to really play all out and physical for four quarters. We really had guys playing hard to the very last snap.”

Nobody is going to put the tape of the Oregon State game in a time capsule for future generations to study. The Pack defense couldn’t make a play to get off the field as Oregon State drove 55 yards in a dozen plays in the final 3:25 to set up Choukair’s field goal attempt. The offense also did its part to give the game away.

The Pack led 37-28 and had just run the ball three consecutive times with freshman Toa Taua for 37 yards down to the Oregon State 32 with just more than six minutes to play. Instead of continuing to run the ball and eat up the clock, the Pack decided to throw three consecutive passes with the third one getting picked off by Oregon State’s John McCartan at the Oregon State 30 with 5:41 to play.

The Wolf Pack’s fascination with the forward pass continued on its next drive. Now up just 37-35 with 4:40 to go and standing at their own 25, the Pack had quarterback Ty Gangi throw a pass on first down (it was incomplete) and on third down (a 1-yard gain when they needed five). In between was a 5-yard run by Taua.

The Pack punted, giving Oregon State the ball at its own 30 with 3:25 to go. At the end of that 3:25 the Pack was seen holding its breath and covering its eyes as Choukair attempted his field goal.

So, yes, simply playing hard doesn’t always lead to a victory. Well, at least a victory that you deserve. Sometimes playing hard is simply playing hard. Think a chicken that just got its head chopped off.

But, we remind everyone, Pack football isn’t about wins and losses right now. It’s about the grit and grind.

It’s about playing hard. We also remind you of the first year of the Norvell era when the Pack laid down for Washington State, Boise State and Fresno State. They didn’t even play hard against Idaho State for most of the game. It was just a week before the Oregon State game Norvell said only “one or two” Pack players played every down hard in a 41-10 loss at Vanderbilt.

“(Wide receiver Kaleb) Fossum was the one guy on the field (at Vanderbilt) that was fighting every snap,” Norvell said. “You could see his competitive fire on every play. We need more guys to have that kind of confidence.”

When a 5-foot-9 wide receiver is the only one playing with competitive fire, well, it’s obvious the students of the Norvell School of Football didn’t do their homework that week.

But that changed against Oregon State, for the most part.

“We corrected a lot of the issues we had,” Norvell said.

The way the Pack won against Oregon State — 20 great minutes, 40 chicken-with-its-head-cut-off minutes — isn’t going to help them this Saturday at Toledo. But that grit and determination they showed at times throughout the game will help them this week and every week thereafter. Vince Lombardi once told his Green Bay Packers the dictionary is the only place where success comes before work. Norvell is a guy who could have played for and coached with Lombardi.

“Our players poured their heart and soul out for their teammates and when you do that you don’t ever want to play any other way,” Coach Grit and Grind said, beaming with pride. “It was a big step for our guys. They needed this.”

That’s how you build a football program. You don’t build it with hollow victories based on the accuracy of the skinny leg of a 195-pound kicker.

You build it with resolve, grit and grind. The Jay Way.