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Kansas State Football Coaching Search: Let’s talk about Mike Norvell

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Seth Littrell is officially off the board, so now, the discussion of who might replace Bill Snyder has shifted to two names: North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman and Memphis’ Mike Norvell.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Memphis
Mike Norvell has maintained the success of the Justin Fuente at Memphis, but could he be the one to replace Bill Snyder at Kansas State?
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Woo boy, Friday was fun, wasn’t it? If you’ve been living under a rock, let me get you up to speed. All signs were pointing to Kansas State signing North Texas coach Seth Littrell to replace Bill Snyder, but then, at about 9 a.m. Friday, Stadium’s Brett McMurphy broke the news that Littrell had withdrawn his name from consideration.

From there, things got a little out of hand. Tom Martin of KCTV reported a possibly dubious rumor that the deal fell through because K-State denied Littrell’s request to bring his entire North Texas staff to Manhattan, and there was a disagreement on terms of a buyout.

Then Football Scoop reported that North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman was the new top candidate, and K-State Twitter devolved into a squirming pile of primordial bile, filled with disgust and resignation at the idea of an FCS coach, even if he’s the very best one, being promoted to a Power 5 position as head coach of THEIR team.

(I may or may not have more on that in another article.)

As the day wore on, another name gained traction, Memphis coach Mike Norvell. So what’s the deal with Norvell?

Why Mike Norvell?

Norvell, like Littrell, is a hot name among Group of 5 (G5) coaches that could potentially (and likely will) ascend to a Power 5 (P5) position. He has significant P5 assistant experience and has maintained Memphis as probably the second best team in what is likely the best G5 conference—the AAC. Though Norvell has never led the Tigers to a conference title, he has led them to the conference championship game the past two seasons, only to lose to G5 juggernaut UCF.

Norvell led the Tigers to eight wins in 2016, then improved to 10 wins last season and a top 25 ranking last season. Though he’s never won a bowl, Memphis will face Wake Forest in the Birmingham Bowl Dec. 22 for a chance at a nine-win season.

Does he have any K-State ties?

No. Well, not really. Norvell is a Todd Graham disciple who followed Graham from Tulsa to Pitt to Arizona State. He coached wide receivers at Tulsa before Graham promoted him to OC at Pitt when Norvell was just 29. He remained in that role at Arizona State and was assistant head coach until replacing Justin Fuente at Memphis in 2016. So what does ANY of this have to do with K-State? Not much, except that Norvell retained Fuente offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey (son of former K-State head coach Jim Dickey and K-State QB from 1979-82). Father and son Dickey famously led K-State to the 1982 Independence Bowl, the first bowl in school history. Dickey moved from Memphis to Texas A&M in 2018.

What will he bring to K-State?

As with Littrell, Norvell has an offensive mind, but Norvell might be one of the elite offensive minds in the country. Norvell has built an offense which this year produced the FBS second leading rusher in both yards from scrimmage (1,909) and yards per attempt (8.9) in Darrell Henderson. Henderson also tied for the lead in touchdowns with 22. As Ian Boyd wrote last year, Norvell’s unique spread attack utilizes a tight end to create an extra gap for running backs to run through (something that might entice Alex Barnes to stick around another year).

I encourage you to read Ian’s article as he’s a lot more X-and-O intelligent than me, but essentially the system leverages the extra gap to open up an RPO attack that exploits confusion in linebackers, and can ultimately set up big gains from play-action.

Ian puts it even simpler:

“This is run-centric football in which the QB is set up to produce huge numbers because he’s being asked to make simple reads and throws to athletes operating in a lot of space.”

In other words, it’s not a terribly big leap away from things K-State has done successfully in Snyder 2.0, except it doesn’t rely on the quarterback run game.

Memphis finished 2018 eighth in offensive S&P+ and fourth in 2017, up from 37th in 2016.

Like Littrell, Memphis defense under Norvell hasn’t exactly been stellar, but, like Littrell, Norvell doesn’t have much to do with defense. The Tigers finished 74th in defensive S&P+ in 2016 before dropping to sub-100 level in 2017. The unit bounced back to 75th this year. But, as I said about Littrell, this is why there are coordinators, and the right hire could make all the difference.

OK, enough about the on-field product. What about recruiting?

K-State missed on Littrell and his solid Texas and Oklahoma recruiting pipeline, but Norvell isn’t a slouch in that area. As of this writing, Memphis’ 2019 class ranks 56th nationally, literally just behind conference-mates SMU and UCF. The Tigers were all the way down at 81 nationally and sixth in the AAC for the 2018 class, but their 2017 class was also 56th, finishing second in the AAC. Over that same period, K-State has finished consistently in the mid-60s to low 70s, near the bottom of the Big 12.

Memphis’ recruiting geography is heavy with in-state recruits, with other pickups peppered throughout the southeast and venturing slightly into Texas and Oklahoma territory. Like Littrell, if Norvell comes to K-State, it will be interesting to see what kind of classes he and his staff can manage with K-State’s current and future facility improvements.

So what’s the bad news?

I was criticized a little for not providing much of a downside in my Littrell article, but these things are impossible to forecast. These coaches are being pursued because they have had success, and with Littrell I thought the G5 coaching experience and only three seasons on the job spoke for itself. I guess not. So let me come out and say it with Norvell, since the circumstances are the same: he has only been a head coach for three seasons and only at a G5 school.

One knock I guess you could levy against Norvell is that unlike Littrell, he inherited a strong roster and a solid foundation, and yet has only managed a pair of eight-win seasons* and a 10-win campaign with no conference titles or even a bowl win. To me, Littrell was attractive in part because he built North Texas into a winner. Whoever takes over for Bill Snyder will have to do the same, as next year’s roster and the past few recruiting classes leave a lot to be desired. Norvell doesn’t have a history of building a team into a winner.

*He could win nine games this year with a bowl victory.

But as Drew so expertly pointed out yesterday, resume doesn’t mean a whole lot, necessarily. What matters is passion and having a plan. We don’t know if Norvell even plans to interview, let alone if he has a plan to turn K-State back into a consistent winner. At this point, all we can really do is hope that Gene Taylor has the foresight of Steve Miller and finds the next great coach to lead the Wildcats to success.