CSU’s new football coach Jay Norvell pushes passion and perseverance

– By Jared Fiel –

One of the most frustrating parts of interviewing Colorado State University’s new football coach Jay Norvell is also something that is one of his most endearing qualities. 

Norvell doesn’t often say “I” or “me.” It is “we” and “us.” He might be talking about himself–not like the “royal We,” but more like all those with him. He might be talking about his new Ram team. Could be his family. Could be his previous team at Nevada. And it could mean any of those things from one sentence to another. You just have to figure it out. 

 

Norvell’s focus on the “we” exemplifies his mantra that this Rams team isn’t his team. “This is our team,” he says. “I’ve always felt that as a head coach, it is not my program. I’m the caretaker of the program while I’m here. 

“One of the things we are trying to instill in our players is that we want to make the jersey better than when we got it, which means they have to understand they have a responsibility to live up to the history of this school and they are playing for something bigger than themselves. I think that humble mentality is important to understand.” 

That’s also apparently just what CSU sought when they went looking for their third new coach in four years at the end of last season. It took just four days to find the guy they wanted. He happened to be coaching for the Nevada team that beat CSU in the last game of last year. 

“From the outset, the interest in our coaching position was significant, but one name and resume stood above the rest from the very beginning–Jay Norvell,” said Director of Athletics Joe Parker in an announcement regarding Norvell’s hire. “When you combine his wealth of coaching experience as an assistant at programs like Nebraska, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Texas, as well as five years as a successful head coach in the Mountain West, the choice was clear.”

Coach Norvell’s version of the pre-game Ram Walk, done by players past and present before every game. Photo courtesy of CSU Athletics Department.

Norvell definitely had the experience. He has spent time in the Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders, a period that included an AFC Championship and appearance in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002, under head coach Bill Callahan.

“I’ve been a part of a lot of great programs. I’ve coached at 10 different universities. Coached in 23 bowl games. Coached in the National Championship and the Super Bowl,” says Norvell, before adding, “And the one thing I have found is that our game is about character and discipline. You have to have those qualities off the field before they show on the field.”

And through his travels, Norvell had come to realize Fort Collins might be a great fit for him. 

“I grew up in Big 10 country, and I always heard about Colorado State and the strength of their programs. And then over the last five years, we competed against Colorado State three times. The first time was 2017, my first year as head coach in Nevada and the first year the stadium was open.  It was a great back and forth game, and we fell short,” he says. “But I was so impressed with the stadium and the fans and the atmosphere. And then this past season, we came here for the last game of the season. [I] always thought, ‘Boy, it would be amazing if we had the opportunity to be here and coach here.’”

Norvell really did grow up in Big 10 country, in the college town of Madison, Wis., and his father attended and worked for the University of Wisconsin. This influences him as a head coach to this day. 

“I understand the place a college program has in the hearts and minds of a community and how our success really affects the pride of the people who went to school here,” he says, “but also to people in the community.”

Norvell is the first African American head coach at CSU, which he says adds to his responsibilities. “Very proud of that,” he says. “I think there are a lot of great African American coaches who deserve an opportunity. I want other African American coaches to get the same opportunity and because of that, I want to do a good job and help others follow in my footsteps.”

Norvell has a challenge beyond his color: He’s trying to create some stability for a team where some of the seniors were recruited by a coach that’s twice removed. 

“I read a great book that talked about culture and the first sentence was that the most important quality in a culture is that people in the organization know you care. I think that is so important that people know they are in a caring environment where they feel comfortable and where they feel safe. That leads to stability,” Norvell says.

Of course, when you talk about coaching stability at CSU, the first name that comes to mind is Sonny Lubick. “I invited him over when I first got the job. We talked for about an hour and a half. I had never met Coach Lubick before, but it’s amazing how many people we know in common. We could have talked all day,” Norvell says. “He has come by practice. He’s been a great resource for me in understanding the history of CSU and the community and how you recruit here. We take our recruits to his restaurant. He didn’t have steak fries on the menu and he put them on the menu for me. He’s a great guy and his career has been amazing here.”

And what is Coach Norvell going to bring to CSU this year? “As far as our style of play, it is very different. We are a wide-open offensive team. We love to throw the football. There are only two teams in America who threw the ball more than Nevada last year and that was Mississippi State and Western Kentucky. Now, I don’t know if that will be the case this year, but we’ll see. We love to throw the football. We really work on that. Throwing the football is a skill that has to be worked on,” he says. 

“I’m not just a coach, but I’m a fan,” he says. “One of the things I mentioned in my press conference was the worst feeling, as a fan, is when you go to the stadium and watch your team play and you realize that your quarterback can’t throw. I always felt like I wanted to teach our teams how to throw first and then learn how to run. Throwing is a much more difficult skill to learn.”

Fans can expect a very different look on the field. “We want a tough-minded team. A team with grit. That’s our mantra. We call in Ram Grit. That’s our passion and our perseverance and our long-term commitment to that goal. So, that’s No. 1,” he says. “Being successful is not complicated, but it’s not easy. We really do two things: We try to recruit the very best people and we put them in the environment where they do the right things over and over again. If you do those things, you will be successful.” 

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Jared Fiel is a writer in Northern Colorado who had one son who went to CSU and another who went…elsewhere. He has a lot of green and gold in his closet, and maybe even some ram horns.