(Legendary Ferrum football coach Hank Norton died in January at age 91. Norton’s legacy as long-time coach included a major impact on thousands of young men, including many from our area. Part one of this two-part series looks at Norton, the coach and the discipline he demanded in his program.)
I never saw a U-Haul hitched to a hearse. I don’t remember who told me that or who it was about, but I understood the meaning.
There was a memorial service held at Ferrum College Saturday afternoon for Coach Hank Norton and sure enough no U-Haul was needed for what he left behind. That is, unless you count a legacy that will impact generations for years to come.
I didn’t know Hank Norton, but I know what he stood for because I know the men who called him “Coach.”
Norton died January 16 a short time after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He was 91.
Norton came to Ferrum from the high school ranks in 1960 and built a dynasty in the junior college ranks. From 1960 to 1984, Norton led the Panthers to four National Junior College Championships. His teams recorded a record of 181-46-10 before joining the Division III ranks in 1985. From 1985-1993, Norton’s Panthers went 63-31-1, making the playoffs four times before Norton retired after the 1993 season.
Lawson “Slick” Andrews, a long-time teacher and coach at Gretna, pre-dated Norton’s appearance at Ferrum. Slick went to Ferrum in 1959 and the Panthers finished 2-8, signaling the start of the Norton regime.
“In 1960, we played the same schedule as in 1959 with pretty much the same team and went undefeated,” Andrews said. The difference? Deltaville.
“When Coach Norton got the job, it was the spring of 1960. He met with the players and told us that we were going to go to football camp that summer,” Slick recalled. “He said we are going to Deltaville. It’s right on the water and you can fish and swim. We’re going to have a good time.”
Bear Bryant must have made similar claims when he took the Aggies to the Quonset huts in Junction, Texas. Andrews said the closest they got to swimming and fishing was when Norton talked about it that day at Ferrum.
“We practiced three times a day, once in the morning and twice in the afternoon with a skull session in between. We learned right there he meant business,” Andrews said. “The camp made our season.”
There were guys who wanted to play football and guys who thought they wanted to play football. Deltaville separated the two. Andrews said they took 50-60 guys to camp, but played the season with 38. “We went to camp with four or five quarterbacks and came back with one. I was going to start at running back, but Coach Norton told me before the first game I would have to quarterback.”
In one of the first games that season, Ferrum played VMI and Andrews said a young man showed up on the sidelines named Jay Blackwood. Blackwood had started his football career at SMU, but was not fond of the program. “Jay showed up at VMI and asked Coach Norton if he could come to Ferrum. Coach Norton said yes and Jay started at quarterback the next week. I called the plays, told Jay what to do and then lined up at running back.”
The Panthers never returned to Deltaville, but the toughness demanded there became a mainstay of Norton’s teams. Gretna native Greg Craddock was first introduced to those expectations in 1987.
“Coach Norton was coming off a subpar season and it was evident to everyone in camp that he had no intention of repeating that result…ever. The level of intensity at camp was incredible, and the coaching staff demanded a kind of focus that I had never experienced. Our team turned it around however and started a run of four consecutive NCAA playoff appearances.”
The early days of Ferrum football came with few perks. Andrews remembered that football equipment was sparse. “I remember driving to VMI to pick up football shoes for us to wear,” he said. “I went back to Gretna and found a pair of shoulder pads.”
I asked Andrews about the great turnaround from ’59 to ’60. “Coach Norton was a disciplinarian. We had a breakfast check every morning, and if you missed breakfast, you would have to stay after practice and run the mountain.”
Dave Davis, Norton’s longtime assistant and successor to Norton as head football coach, said the breakfast check served two purposes. “We knew if they came to breakfast, they would most likely go to class,” said Davis. “We also knew that once they got a job, they would have to get up every morning and we wanted them to get the in the habit of just that.”
“The Mountain” was part of the football lore that makes up Ferrum College and Hank Norton. As if the mountain grew to serve his purpose, it was a part of the Ferrum tradition as was Norton. The mountain was an asphalt road behind the football field that went straight up hill for almost a mile.
Missing breakfast check led to a run up the mountain, but Davis said there were other reasons for having to take on the mountain.
Dennis Craddock played for Norton in 1963-64. Craddock said he recalled an incident that led to he and several teammates seeing more of the hill than they wanted. Craddock said one Friday night that several Ferrum football players drove over to Rocky Mount to the Franklin County High School football game.
At some point in the evening, the players ended up in a brawl with some locals and the police were called in to escort the players back to campus. “We weren’t near as worried about the police as we were facing Coach Norton when we got back,” said Craddock. “I spent a lot of time looking up at the mountain and looking down at my shoes when I was throwing up.”
Davis said the mountain served as a deterrent for bad behavior. “For normal offenses, players had to run to the top of the mountain, but for more serious issues, players had to run all the way down the other side to the Pigg River. If you had to run to the river, you were guaranteed to miss dinner.”