New CSU football coach Jay Norvell aiming to win over Rams faithful

New CSU Rams football head coach Jay Norvell, center, is presented with a team jersey by CSU athletics director Joe Parker and university president Joyce McConnell during a press conference, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, at Colorado State University's Iris and Michael Smith Alumni Center. Ftc 1204 Ja Csu Coach 038

FORT COLLINS — New Colorado State coach Jay Norvell won the introductory news conference / pep rally Tuesday as decisively as his Nevada Wolf Pack manhandled the Rams two weeks earlier at the same Canvas Stadium site.

And Nevada won 52-10 that night, helping chase the churlish Steve Addazio – who was thrown out of the game and off the sideline for habitual jerkdom – out of the CSU job.

(Habitual jerkdom? That’s not what the referee called it; but I will.)

The sparse crowd for the final home game was a threatening preview of things to come if Addazio stayed.

With CSU loyalists invited and wedged into the room at the stadium’s Iris and Michael Smith Alumni Center, Norvell’s introduction was in a pep rally atmosphere that discouraged both cynicism and sharp-edged questions from the scribes in front and broadcasters in the camera bay at back.

Why spoil the party?

But, still, it didn’t require a complete intellectual sellout to walk away thinking even more strongly than the day before that the Rams had gotten this one right.

As background, here’s my Monday commentary on the hiring of Norvell.

A perusal of the Madison, Wisconsin native’s broad-based resume, with him working under many of college and NFL coaching gliterati, begged the question: Why wasn’t he a head coach sooner than at age 53, with Nevada? I am very sheepish for bringing this up, but it’s most reminiscent of former CU coach Mel “Midnight” Tucker.

I asked Norvell what made this more than a parallel move, from one Group 5 and Mountain West Conference program to another. As a question, it was a juicily hanging curve. Truth is, it came down to money – his CSU contract calls for him to earn $9 million over 5 years – better facilities, an appreciably higher football budget, and a faith in the Stalwarts’ credo that this is a Mountain West and Group of 5 perennial power waiting to happen. And maybe, just maybe, more than that.

“What makes this better is the resources,” he said. “The resources of our football program. I grew up in the Big Ten, grew up watching Big Ten football. Football is really important. It has weight in the community. [Wisconsin’s] Camp Randall Stadium is like a big cathedral. It’s been for decades.

“I was in my father’s basement, cleaning out all those old boxes, and you see everybody showing up on Saturday at the stadium. This place supports football. This place is committed to football. This place wants to have a championship program. I looked at this place. It’s similar to Cincinnati in the top Group of 5 programs in the country. That’s the type of support we have here. We have very high goals. I’m excited about that.”

He rattled off some of his high-profile coaching stops, then continued.

“High expectations come with the territory,” he said. “So I’m excited. I’m really excited about the opportunity we have here.”

I was smiling during the first part of that answer, given that my father, Jerry, played for Wisconsin’s glory-drenched 1942 team, with Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch as one of his teammates — the same Crazylegs who was the Badgers’ legendary athletic director and Pro Football Hall of Famer when Jay was growing up in Madison. His father, Merritt Norvell Jr., played for the Wisconsin 1963 Rose Bowl team that lost a thriller to USC, then became a successful businessman and civil rights activist in Madison.

I met Merritt Norvell Jr. in 1995, when I was shadowing a young first-year Michigan State coach named Nick Saban for a Sporting News story about a year a program’s coaching transition. While I was working on the story, MSU hired Merritt Norvell Jr. as its athletic director. He said he was comfortable with his inherited coach before adding: “It’s important to win. It’s also important to make sure your kids graduate, important you get leadership within the department from the coaches, and important that people conduct themselves properly. But if winning wasn’t important, we wouldn’t have a stadium that seats 72,000 people.”

He was engaging and impressive. He died in October 2020.

Yes, CSU stalwarts, like father …

“My dad’s presence is here today,” Jay told me in our brief 1-on-1 talk after the news conference. “He would have loved this. He would have loved meeting you again. He was a people person. He would have been the last guy in that room today. He would have talked to everybody until they left. If they stayed, he’d stay. He was just a special man who really cared about people. He wanted to help people.

“I think I got some of my qualities from him, for sure. My dad, even though he’s gone, I talk about him all the time, I share lessons with the team that he gave me. So his spirit lives with us, and lives with our players. I think that’s one thing about legacies. Those qualities are passed down.”

During the news conference portion of the show, I asked Jay Norvell about his aggressive roster turnover in his first year at Nevada. By the 2018 opener, only 36 players remained from the 2017 roster he inherited. Norvell had emphatically outlined his three principles – respect, accountability and hustle – and I asked if: a) that attrition was the result of players being held to my way or the highway standard; b) he had imparted that message when he met with the Rams’ players Tuesday morning.

“I did not tell them that,” Norvell said. “Today I did tell them what our expectations were, though. I think that’s important to clarify expectations. I think you have to stand for something. We have standards that we expect. I just mentioned them to you. Be respectful. Accountability. And work and hustle.

“Yeah, we started off with the same principles at Nevada and there were some people that didn’t live up to them. We had some people that weren’t respectful. We had people that couldn’t get along with people. There’s an old saying … I don’t know if I should say it. I probably shouldn’t. But I’d rather have a thousand enemies outside the tent than one inside.”

We’ve heard some of that before. It is not revolutionary football sentiment. Steve Addazio even preached those types of principles, hinting that he had inherited a mess — before proceeding to make it worse with his boorishness.

Norvell’s approach just seems more artful and a much better fit. He was hired quickly — suspiciously quickly — with the four-person search committee first meeting Friday and conducting however many interviews there were on Zoom.

I still believe Tony Alford — in part because of his CSU connections in a time when Stalwarts need to rally — would have been a good choice, too.

But now it’s Norvell’s job to make CSU forget the Addazio era.

Terry Frei is a contributing writer for Mile High Sports Magazine. He is a seven-time winner of a state’s sports writer of the year award in peer voting conducted by the National Sports Media Association — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. Among his seven books are novels Olympic Affair and The Witch’s Season; and non-fiction works Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming; Third Down and a War to Go; and ‘77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age. His web site is www.terryfrei.com

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