Aug. 21, 2012
By Jeremy Hawkes, ASU Media Relations
Things haven't always come easily for Mike Norvell. But that hasn't stopped the Arizona State University offensive coordinator from fast-becoming one of the most exciting young coaches at the Division I level in the nation.
As you watch him pacing the sidelines and working with the student-athletes at a typical ASU practice, its hard to believe just seven years ago he was one of those young men, complete with the pads and the jersey as he strung together an impressive career as a wideout at Central Arkansas. A four-year starter at receiver, he finished his career as the school's all-time leader in receptions (213) and ranked third in receiving yards (2,611).
And now, several years down the road, Norvell displays himself in a manner that betrays the fact that he was a collegiate athlete less than a decade ago. And it is that attitude, presence and will to be successful that has taken the Irving, Texas, native from a graduate assistant making 400 dollars a month to a Division I offensive coordinator in the span of just six years.
Passion is a word you will hear a lot when the topic of Norvell is brought up. Whether you are watching him on the sidelines, asking him to describe himself or asking others to describe him, passion is the recurring theme of the conversation.
"Coach Norvell is probably one of the most passionate coaches I've been around and probably the hardest working coach I have been around," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "He's extremely smart. Dynamic is how I would describe his style."
And it was that passion that created what some might call a match made in heaven when Graham and Norvell first linked up at Tulsa several years ago.
"When I finished playing, I knew I wanted to be a coach but I didn't know anyone in the business," Norvell said. "I told one of the head coaches (at Central Arkansas) and they brought me on as a graduate assistant and that's where I got my feet wet."
After a year with the Bears, Norvell got a phone call from someone he couldn't even classify as a friend - just an "acquaintance" - letting him know that Tulsa might be looking for someone. Norvell had never met Graham, but was familiar with him as he had been a high school coach in his home state of Texas for several years and had even almost taken the head job at Allen High while Norvell was still a student-athlete there.
Graham had just finished up his single-season turnaround at Rice and was set to start a new page in taking over at Tulsa. Norvell explained the interview as something that was only supposed to last a couple minutes that went well beyond that. It was a relationship that just clicked and has seen both reel in the fruits of the spoils since.
"We are both really similar and both really passionate about what we do," Norvell said. "We both love what we do and I have a lot of respect for him. It's not hard to be friends with him."
Graham hired Norvell as an offensive graduate assistant and receivers coach. In his first year, Norvell helped guide three student-athletes to 1,000+ receiving yards as the Golden Hurricanes led the nation in total offensive that year. They repeated the feat in 2008 as the numbers continued to pile up as the team averaged 569.9 yards per game to lead the country while finishing second in points per game with 47.1.
Norvell would eventually move up to passing game coordinator at Tulsa before assuming the role of co-offensive coordinator on Graham's staff for the 2011 season in Pittsburgh. When Graham took the position at Arizona State, Norvell said the decision to join him was a no-brainer.
"In this profession, you've got to find people you believe in," Norvell said. "I love coming to work every single day and coming to work for a guy that's in it for all the right reasons. We're going to work each day with one goal and that's to win."
But while winning is important to Norvell, he will be the first to tell you that it's the relationships with the kids and seeing them succeed that means the most to him.
"I would say my proudest moment was looking at a young man at Tulsa, a junior college receiver named Brennan Marion that all the research said wouldn't make it," Norvell said. Despite what others were saying, Norvell brought Marion in to play. "I was on him every day even if it meant knocking on his door at five in the morning or calling him just to check in."
Marion ended up becoming an All-Conference player and a back-to-back 1,000-yard receiver at Tulsa. What was more impressive than his accolades on the field, however, was the work he put in off the field. He never failed or dropped a class at Tulsa and ended up earning his degree in two years.
"It's those stories and building those relations that are important to me," Norvell said. "Regardless of where you are at or where they are in the future, it's important they know they can have somebody to count on."
"A lot of people see you running out of the tunnel or standing on the sideline and they think that's what college football is all about, but it's not.
And Norvell is a young man who truly believes what it means to be an important role model in the lives of his student-athletes. Having grown up in a single-family home with his mother from the time he was an infant, Norvell had to "work his butt off" for everything he has achieved. Despite the maybe less-than-ideal circumstances of his youth, Norvell praises his mother for the sacrifices she made for him to be able to play and enjoy football and not let the lack of another parental figure impact his growth.
"To be able to never use that as an excuse to not be successful and follow my dreams is something I take great pride in," Norvell said. "It's an obstacle that a lot of people call an obstacle but it has made me who I am today."
And with Norvell's commitment to football, it takes a steady backing in the home life to support the lifestyle. In that sense, Norvell says he has been blessed in his wife Maria. Having met in college, the two have been together through all the shifts in Norvell's coaching career and she has been his rock.
"Probably the best thing about me is my wife. We are a football family," Norvell said. "That's been the greatest thing in my life, to be able to find her."
"She has always been supportive. As high as my expectations are, she believes just as much in me," he added.
Norvell says that being in this profession is a sacrifice on family at times but Maria is just as much a part of what he is doing as anything, and accepts and encourages his passion. Because at the end of the day, Norvell will tell you, it's not enough to just love the game.
"A lot of people talk about football as their passion and as a game that is dear to a lot of people's hearts," Norvell says. "But if you truly love this game and want this game to be a livelihood for you, you've got to go into it with everything."
"If you want to be the best, it's got to be in your heart and in your mind and you really have to go after it."
It's the vision on the game that is the reason that Coach Graham hired Norvell in the first place.
"Coach Norvell is a guy I'm extremely close to. I see a lot of myself in him," Graham says. "I hope that I'm still as passionate as I was when I was 30."
And at just 30, Norvell has many years of coaching to come and will be one of the young coaches in nation worth keeping an eye on as the years roll by and successes continue to pour on.