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Growing up, Jay Norvell heard the stories—about how his mother and father had to use segregated bathrooms and water fountains in certain parts of the country. About how some teachers wouldn’t educate his grandparents because they “weren’t worthy of learning.”
When asked when he first came to realize the role race plays in society, the first-year Colorado State head football coach can’t help but chuckle. Norvell’s been aware of it for as long as he can remember. “My parents told me growing up that, a lot of times, I would have to be twice as good at a job to get it,” he says. “I’d have to be more prepared. Those are just the realities everybody growing up in that era had to understand. Those stories aren’t new.”
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They are what he credits for his professional successes, though. And by heeding to his parents’ careful guidance, Norvell hopes he can help revive a once-proud Colorado State football program that has languished in recent years—to the tune of an 11–29 record (and no bowl appearances) in the four years leading up to his hiring.
For a lingering problem, Norvell might provide a much-needed solution. He was brought aboard last December—the Rams’ first-ever Black head football coach. But as he nears the end of his first season in Fort Collins, the enormity of the challenge he inherited is painfully obvious: The Rams are 2–9 going into their final contest, an afternoon tilt with conference foes, the University of New Mexico, today.
Jay Norvell watched his father, Merritt, rise up the leadership ranks in business and higher education. A former Wisconsin football standout who helped lead the team to the 1963 Rose Bowl, the elder Norvell served as an assistant dean and assistant vice chancellor at his alma mater in the 1970s before moving on to IBM, where he was a national manager of market support for 17 years. He became one of the first Black athletic directors in Division I sports when he was hired at Michigan State in 1995.
Meanwhile, the younger Norvell spent three decades as an assistant coach. He logged time at his alma mater, Iowa, before helming the offensive coordinator ranks at two of the 10 winningest programs in college football history: Nebraska and Oklahoma. By the time his father was hired at Michigan State, Norvell had already been building his own coaching resume for nearly a decade, including a stint in the National Football League. He was a tight ends coach for an Oakland Raiders squad that made the Super Bowl in 2003. Through it all, he had what he estimates to be dozens of head-coaching interviews at places like Purdue, Iowa State, and Arizona, but was never hired.
In 2015, less than a week after Oklahoma scored just six points in a 34-point drubbing against Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Norvell was fired as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator. Though Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops insisted his former college teammate at Iowa wasn’t a scapegoat, Norvell was dealt a potentially devastating setback. In his early 50s by that point, would the jobs he once clamored for still be there for him?
It would be nearly two years before Norvell would get his next opportunity: as the head football coach at the University of Nevada Reno. In December 2016, he was hired to lead the Wolf Pack, which was coming off a disappointing 5–7 season. “He should have become a head coach much earlier in his career,” says Tim Cassidy, Colorado State football’s chief of staff. “If you look at his resume of where he had been and what he had done, it’s amazing. It should have been sooner than it was, but I’m glad he is where he is right now.”
Norvell flourished in Reno, going 30–19 in his final four seasons and winning with a certain flair. Using a pass-happy offense, the Wolf Pack averaged 35.7 points per game in Norvell’s final season in 2021, the 17th-best mark among the 131 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams.
But for all of his team’s accomplishments, Norvell grew restless. The football facilities at the school were subpar, by his estimation, and Norvell believed he and his coaching staff weren’t compensated commensurate with their successes on the field. So when the position at Colorado State opened, he threw his name into the hat for consideration. Financially, it was a sensible move. During the 2020–’21 academic year, Colorado State shelled out $25.9 million on its football program while Nevada spent just $9.26 million, according to Department of Education data. (Norvell makes $1.26 million this year—after bringing in $625,000 in his final year at Nevada.) And, as readers of 5280 know, relocating to Colorado has its other benefits, of which Norvell was aware.
The interest between the two parties was mutual. “We hadn’t seen anything like him,” says Colorado State athletic director Joe Parker. “Sure enough, as we fulfilled all the interviews, we didn’t see anyone that felt like him.” Norvell’s hiring was unusually speedy, as he was named the Rams’ coach just four days after his predecessor, Steve Addazio, was fired. Over two days, a search committee interviewed 12 candidates. Norvell was the third interview of the first day, a Saturday. By Sunday evening, he had been presented with a term sheet that he signed later that night. On Tuesday, he was formally introduced at a press conference.
It wasn’t until then-university president Joyce McConnell’s remarks at the presser that Parker fully realized the historical significance of Norvell’s hiring: He is the first Black head football coach at Colorado State and just the second in the history of the Mountain West Conference.
Entering the 2022 season, just eight of the 65 head coaches in the Power Five conferences—the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and Southeastern Conferences—were Black (12.3 percent). Of 131 FBS programs, only 15 came into the 2022 season with a Black head coach (11.5 percent). Moreover, at the time of the 2020 census, just 1.5 percent of Fort Collins’ population was Black. During the last academic year, Black students accounted for just 2.3 percent of Colorado State’s undergraduate enrollment. It’s a fact that isn’t lost on Norvell.
“I did feel like [getting the job] was less likely just because of the odds,” Norvell says of his head-coaching career. “But I never stopped preparing myself. I think that’s one of the things I’ve learned over the years. We can always learn. We can always get better. We can always prepare to become better coaches. Whatever my job title was, I always took a leadership role and tried to affect others around me. That’s just the way I was raised.”
Under coach Sonny Lubick, the Rams were one of the steadiest winners outside of the Power Five, making nine bowls in 12 years from 1994 to 2005. As recently as five years ago, they had made a bowl game every year in a five-year stretch, from 2013 to 2017.
Since then, though, the program fell on hard times. Coach Mike Bobo was fired in 2019 after going 7–17 in his final two seasons. In a puzzling move, he was replaced by Addazio, who had never coached west of Indiana and had just been fired at Boston College, where he never won more than seven games in his seven seasons there. His tenure proved to be disastrous and controversial, ending after just two seasons and a 4–12 record.
Those past missteps have helped make Norvell’s first season a difficult one. The Rams have had to transition from Addazio’s run-based, ground-and-pound approach to Norvell’s Air Raid offense. They lost their first four games, the last of which was a 31-point shellacking at the hands of Sacramento State, a Football Championship Subdivision school. Fifteen scholarship players have left since the start of the season.
Still, the team has rebounded somewhat, winning a couple of contests in its past seven games. Of those most-recent five losses, two have come by a combined five points. But if the Rams can’t pull out a victory today, they will conclude the 2022 campaign with their lowest win total in a full season since 1988.
“One of the things you learn is that when you get an opportunity to be a head coach, they’re hiring you for a reason,” Norvell says. “They’re hiring you because there are problems and those problems need to be addressed. I realized it when I went to Nevada. I realized it when I came here to Colorado State. We’re addressing those here, and I think we have a really good understanding of what the problems are now.”
Though a fan or spectator may be inclined to think the program’s win total is the clearest evidence of positive change, the higher-ups at Colorado State would disagree. Step one for Norvell is, according to Cassidy, “to create a culture.” For coaches and administrators, “culture” is an oft-repeated, sometimes intentionally vague word that can describe any number of things around a football program. Do the team members get along? Do they stay out of legal trouble away from the field? Do kids want to play for Coach Norvell?
One consideration: The Rams’ recruiting class this year is ranked 61st nationally by Rivals.com—their most talented incoming class in 13 years. Another: Norvell’s first team at Nevada went 3–9 before the Wolf Pack was invited to bowl games in each of the following four seasons.
Beyond that, there’s Colorado State’s latent potential. The school spends more on football than any Mountain West school by a substantial margin. There’s a proud, not-too-distant history. There’s also Canvas Stadium, the Rams’ five-year-old, $220-million jewel of a home that’s more luxurious than many Power Five venues.
All the pieces are in place for Colorado State, at least in theory. It just needs a capable set of hands leading it.