Norwood’s Call to Coach
By BJ Bennett
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From the banks of the Chesapeake to the beaches of Waikiki, from the desert to Happy Valley, Brian Norwood has seen college football from a wide perspective.
Over the next few weeks we will release various stories on a handful of talented minority coaches, featuring their stories and chronicling their growth through the coaching ranks.
For Brian Norwood, experience has been a fluid catalyst for progression in both his life and his career. His tale has been one written word-by-word. The current associate head coach at Baylor, Haywood has seen a lot and done a lot over the years. He's lived on different sides of the world, stood on different sides of the field. He's had moments of great fortune lead him down his path, moments of sheer frustration as well.
Norwood has spent the last four years in Waco, Texas, helping the Bears go from four wins to seven wins to a school-record ten wins this past fall. Baylor had historic wins over both Oklahoma and Texas, finished the season on a six-game winning streak, and won the Alamo Bowl against Washington. Quarterback Robert Griffin III became the first Bear-ever to win the Heisman Trophy.
"It's really been exciting. From coach Briles getting here and putting together a staff, everybody, strength and conditioning and so forth. Then the school embracing the vision. Then having the players over the last few years sort of see the football culture change has really been a blessing," Norwood explained. "Being apart of it, seeing the excitement each year, seeing the growth...it's been exciting for the university, but also for the community. It's been fun to be around."
Being on the staff during Baylor's famed turnaround is just one of the many accomplishments on Norwood's impressive resume. Career stops include the U.S. Naval Academy, Texas Tech and Penn State. Norwood was, in fact, one of the leading candidates for the opening in State College before the Nittany Lions settled on former New England Patriots' offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as the successor to Joe Paterno.
While Norwood comes from an athletic family background, his ascension into the college coaching ranks was hardly a traditional one.
"It wasn't when I graduated from college I was thinking I wanted to go into collegiate coaching," Norwood stated.
Instead, the then-defensive back for Hawaii soaked up as much knowledge as possible from his instructors. The plan wasn't initially to become a football coach. Life then had its' say.
"When I moved to Hawaii I played for John Velasco, a tremendous coach, a legendary coach out there. He passed while I was in college but really instilled a lot of coaching values as well as James Alegre...a lot of people that coached me, so I was impacted by coaches," Norwood recalled. "When I graduated from college I had a short opportunity to play professionally over in the CFL. At the end of the day I tried to do some career deals with United Airlines, some different things. I just had a void. My dad had always been saying to me 'get into coaching' and then one of my supervisors at United Airlines as I was making my moves shut the door and pulled me into his office. He said 'Brian why do you want to do this, why don't you get coaching?'."
In 1990, Norwood reached out to some of his former coaches for a proverbial roster spot. Raised in Maryland, having played in the Aloha State, Norwood found a new home out west.
"Dick Tomey, who coached me in college. Duane Akina, who was my position coach," Norwood remembered. "I reached out to them, I went out to Arizona. A little later they presented me with an opportunity to coach. I really felt like from a blessed standpoint that as people poured into my life, God blessed me with the opportunity to coach, to impact young people in a positive way or in the best way I know how for great things. It's more of a give-back deal. As much as I love winning and competing and those things, I think football allows you to do a lot more. For young people I think it's a great vehicle to grow in."
Still a young man, and an emerging name in the coaching ranks, Norwood was offered a chance to further himself at one of the nation's most respected institutions. There, he would in some ways fulfill a goal that he was never able to accomplish. After serving as a graduate assistant at Arizona and coaching outside linebackers at Richmond, Norwood was hired as the defensive backs coach at Navy.
"That was a valuable experience. At that time Charlie Weatherby was the head coach. I was very blessed and fortunate to get an opportunity to be on his staff there and work with a lot of tremendous coaches," Norwood acknowledged. "I was in ROTC when I was in college my last two years. I was hoping to go to OTS afterwards. I'm diabetic, I'm insulin-dependent diabetic, that's juvenile-onset which happened when I was in the CFL. It changed my military aspirations, I couldn't do that. When I got into coaching and went to the Naval Academy, for me, that was sort of like my opportunity to be in the military although I was a civilian."
A military dependent, Norwood was no stranger to sacrifice. Even for someone who had lived the lifestyle, though, his time in Annapolis helped broaden his perspective.
"The young people there...it was just great. Everything they stood for, because it was guys who were playing the game knowing that after they graduated they were making a commitment to our country. Seeing what some of those men have done up until this day, some of them paying the ultimate price for their commitment, but also a lot of them doing very successful things all over the world. That was a very valuable time for me."
After a successful stint with the Midshipmen, major college football came knocking. First, Texas Tech. Then, Penn State. And when Joe Paterno calls, you answer. Norwood was hired as the safeties coach in Happy Valley back in 2001, a position he would hold until 2007. During his tenure the Nittany Lions would lead the Big Ten in pass defense efficiency twice. Late in his career at PSU, he would help lead the team to an Orange Bowl victory over Bobby Bowden and Florida State.
Like any coach, Norwood learned all he could from the legendary Paterno. Ironically enough, he would have a front row seat.
"I was one of the new guys, most of the guys there had worked with Joe for years. I was there for seven years and I sort of got set up when I was there on my first staff meeting. Everybody was there, Joe hadn't arrived yet. I'm trying to think 'OK where do I sit, this is the staff room, the staff table'. Everyone told me 'hey sit right there'. This was before everybody sat down. When everybody sat down and I sat in my chair, I realized there was an empty chair right next to me there to my left. I felt there was a big setup," Norwood laughed.
The practical joke proved to be quite the benefit for Norwood, who spent invaluable time with one of the greatest coaches in football history.
"For seven years in all those staff meetings, which we happened to have almost every day, I had a chance to sit and hear coach Paterno and hear his knowledge for the game and growing young people. It was just very, very valuable," Norwood added. "The small things that he did that impacted people's lives and the positive influence that he was with young people, with parents and how he changed with time, with the different cultural experiences and the dynamics of young people growing from him being there from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and into the 2000s. It was a very, very valuable experience."
From the banks of the Chesapeake to the beaches of Waikiki, from the desert to Happy Valley, Norwood has seen college football from a wide perspective. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, he saw the landscape of the game change. The BCS, social networking and conference realignment still have purists looking for a instruction book. Of all of the changes college football has gone through, however, one has had a truly lasting legacy.
"I think that there have definitely been major steps taken in that direction," Norwood explained of the opportunities that have opened up for minority coaches. "At a lot of the Division I institutions, if you look at as a whole it when I got into coaching and this is for no reason because I think it just the way it was, the way the climate was and also the way relationships were...at that point there may have been one or two African-American or Polynesian coaches on a staff. At that time even the Polynesian coaches were definitely small in regards to numbers. I think what happened over time is that more and more coaches that got into the game had a chance to impact their staffs in what they did and how they worked and how they brought value to staffs. I don't believe it was always a condition of color as much as it was people that wanted opportunities and African-American coaches that wanted opportunities at all levels."
This past season there was a record 28 minority head coaches in Division I football.
"I think the programs that the NCAA has installed over the last 10 or 12 years or so have opened the doors for opportunities for African-American coaches to be viewed in the light of head coaches, that was probably the biggest thing over the years from every aspect. Just coaches being viewed and being spoken about as potential head coaches, then light being shined upon what they have done and what they have accomplished in the game. I think things have come a long way. I think there is still progress that needs to be made, but a lot of things have changed. There are definitely more opportunities for coaches, but I still think there are a lot of qualified coaches out there that are African-American that can do a great job as head coaches."
Norwood is now preparing for his 23rd season as a college coach, his second as associate head coach at Baylor. The Bears will be looking to maintain the new status quo after finishing last year ranked as high as 12th in the national polls at 10-3. As Norwood continues his veteran coaching career, he will do so knowing college football, in a number of ways, remains work in progress. That, with chapters still to come, is a story he knows well.