The lives of players and coaches are often quite different.
But Ken Norton Jr. is doing everything he personally can to make sure they’re very similar instead.
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Norton, a renowned All-Pro linebacker for the 49ers and Cowboys during his playing days, is taking the same approach he had on the field to the sideline as the Seahawks’ first-year linebackers coach.
“I’ve been able to approach the games, teach and coach the same way as a player,” said the 43-year-old, burly-as-ever Norton, who comes to Seattle after six seasons at USC. “Coaching has allowed me to play football forever. I’m still playing — I’m playing through my guys.”
That approach worked in his first coaching job, so he’s carrying on with the unique style.
Norton, the first player to win three consecutive Super Bowls (1992-93 with the Cowboys and 1994 with the 49ers), spent the previous six seasons coaching linebackers at USC, helping produce nine NFL draft picks and three Rose Bowl defensive MVPs as the Trojans started encroaching on Penn State’s “Linebacker U” territory. Saying Norton “coached” would be a complete understatement, as his boisterous, loud and big personality that made him a special player is also turning him into quite the coach as well.
He’s the prototypical player’s coach because, well, he was a player — and still acts like one too.
Norton’s coaching career all started with Coach Pete Carroll, who was defensive coordinator of the 49ers while Norton was a defensive star on the team. In 2004, just a few years after Norton’s playing career had ended, Carroll invited Norton to join his staff at USC as a graduate assistant, an entry-level coaching position for colleges. In his initial conversation, Carroll set Norton on a trajectory that has taken him to monumental levels as a coach.
“When he first came to work with us at USC, I told him I didn’t want him to do anything different from when he was a player — act the same, speak the same, direct his efforts exactly the same — because I wanted that on the field,” Carroll said.
It wasn’t an entirely smooth transition from player to coach, though. As Carroll said, Norton “had to kind of find his voice at first,” and even Norton admitted that he “wasn’t quite sure how to approach it.”
But working with and learning from the USC head coach made all the difference as Coach Norton tried to be the same as Linebacker Ken.
“I was excited about working with Pete Carroll and I really like the way he ran things, his philosophies and how he treated people,” Norton said. “If there was any chance for me to do something special as a coach, it was going to be with him.”
Slowly over time, Norton grew into his role — the exact one Carroll desired for him. Part of the way into his first season, he started barking out trash talk to the offensive coaches and players during stretching before practice — the same thing he did as a player to the likes of Steve Young and Jerry Rice.
“He became exactly like he was as a player,” Carroll said. “He brought his energy and his level of awareness to the team.”
Norton, whose father is legendarily loquacious boxer Ken Norton Sr., describes his intense, energetic demeanor as anything but that of a typical coach.
“Sometimes coaches get a little stiff — they get a little coach-like,” Norton said with a smile that spoke volumes. “As a player, you don’t have to always communicate it — you listen, you learn, you do it. As a coach, you have to find words and you have to be a great teacher. You have to play through your players.”
Admittedly, Carroll took a chance when he offered Norton a coaching job six years ago. But it was the type of chance that was essentially a no-brainer.
“I was just counting on him,” Carroll said. “He was just such an asset to our team that if he could be like that as a coach, there’s no limit to what he could do.”
Seahawks defensive quality control coach Rocky Seto has seen the total development of Norton from plebe assistant to well-respected coach. Seto was the linebackers coach in 2004 when Norton was hired on as the graduate assistant, and he’s seen how effective Norton is with his troops.
“He was a player and connects with the players in a special way,” Seto said. “He knows what he’s trying to instill in the players.”
Seattle Seahawks Linebackers Coach Ken Norton Jr.
Now, six years after his first coaching gig, Norton is in the pros again as one of 32 linebackers coaches in the NFL. He’s reunited on staff with several familiar faces from USC — and one from his playing days. Special teams assistant Jeff Ulbrich was a rookie linebacker on the 49ers in 2000, Norton’s final year with the organization before retiring. While Ulbrich says Norton has grown tremendously as a teacher and coach, not much has changed when it comes to his demeanor.
“Same guy, same guy,” Ulbrich said of Norton the player and Norton the coach.
Norton’s distinctive player-to-coach crossover ability has given him some special talents, which include allowing him to relate to players in powerful ways. Many point to his understanding of the intangible side of the game as one of his strongest traits.
“I’ve learned so much about the mental side of the game from him — just getting your mind prepared to play the game,” said linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who played under Norton during his final season at USC. “He’s got that wow factor with him as a coach.”
Seto added that Norton coaches “the attitude needed to be a linebacker so well,” and Tatupu said Norton’s ability to prepare and excite his players for game day is what especially stands out.
“He knows when it’s time to play ball,” Tatupu said. “You’re already pumped up but now you’ve got this All-Pro, Super Bowl champ, intense guy yelling at you, and it really gets you going.”
Ulbrich echoes those sentiments as well.
“He has a great understanding of the emotional side of the game,” said Ulbrich, who enjoyed a 10-year career in the NFL. “In the modern game, there’s such a disconnect there with all the Xs and Os, computers, all that stuff. His value is relating to the players, the passion of the game and motivating those around him.”
Besides his intense passion, Norton’s followers and colleagues also cite his ability to lead — “he’s a true leader in every sense of the word,” Tatupu said. Carroll describes Norton’s almost indefinable characteristic as “a tremendous presence.”
“Having him here is awesome,” Tatupu said. “We’ve got to be on every day.”
So much about Norton is unique, but it’s his motivation for coaching that might be the most unique.
Asked why he coaches, Norton doesn’t answer directly. Instead, he immediately starts listing off the names of the famous coaches he played for — Carroll, George Seifert, Tom Landry, Jimmy Johnson, Ray Rhodes, Steve Mariucci.
“I was fortunate to play under great coaches,” Norton said. “All the great years I had and all the great memories I had, I thought it’d be silly to sit at home with that knowledge I had.”
Therefore, Norton’s common sense told him that “it was only fair to give back.”
“I had been receiving so many blessings, so it was important for me to give back to all the players and give them a chance to have a great life that I had,” he said. “That’s been my whole motivation — to give them a chance to have the great life I had as a player.”
Carroll puts it in a different tone.
“He’s dedicated to letting other guys experience what he’s experienced,” the head coach said.
As Norton continues to coach like he played — which allows him to give his players the same experiences he had as a player — he’s been developing exponentially as a coach.
“It’s been amazing how much he’s grown,” Carroll said. “He’s blossomed immensely as a coach in terms of learning schemes and how to teach.”
Norton himself admits he had to learn the instructing part of coaching from square one, and his colleagues point to his growth in that sphere over the last six years.
“As a teacher, you have to know what you believe before you can teach it to your students, and Kenny has done that over the years,” Seto said.
Norton has done plenty of learning and growing in the six short years since he started coaching. Perhaps the biggest lesson is how much he enjoys coaching itself.
“You start realizing coaching’s pretty nice,” Norton said with a grin. “You start to think, ‘Maybe I played all those years setting myself up to be a coach,’ because it really comes natural. I wouldn’t be able to be the coach I am without playing all those years.
“All those years as a player set me up to be a good coach.”