FERRUM – Wilbert Henry (Hank) Norton Jr, who came to western Franklin County in 1960 to guide a five-year old Ferrum College football program to national acclaim, has died.
Christened with the nickname “Big Daddy’’ by his first full-time assistant coach the late Rick Tolley, Norton, 91, passed away Wednesday at the home of his youngest son, Jack, in Ferrum. He had been in declining health for the past several weeks.
A memorial service has been scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 2 in Vaughn Chapel on the Ferrum campus.
Norton is survived by his three children: Patti and husband David Gunter, Will and wife Jodie, Jack and wife Kristi, 10 grandchildren and one great grandchild.
“Coach Norton meant so much to so many people,’’ Ferrum Director of Athletics Abe Naff said. “ It’s hard to put into words the impact Coach Norton has had on Ferrum College, the Panther athletic program and Franklin County, Virginia.”
Norton’s passing comes on the heels of the deaths of two other prominent Ferrum head coaches – long-time golf mentor Ray Corron and Sam Webb, the Panthers’ first head football coach – and University of Virginia head football coach George Welsh.
“Ferrum College morns the passing of Coach Norton, whose influence on our community and on generations of young athletes was monumental,’’ Ferrum President David Johns said.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to have watched Panther football this past season with Hank and to hear his many stories of games and players through the years,’’ Johns said. “We send our heartfelt condolences to Coach Norton’s family.’’
One of the last accolades Norton received came in December 2017 when he was presented the Ray Tate Memorial Award by the Touchdown Club of Richmond. The award is given to a person in Virginia who has made “significant contributions and provided exceptional leadership in collegiate football,’’ according to officials with the Touchdown Club.
Norton patrolled the Panthers’ sidelines for 34 years from 1960 to 1993.
During that time, he steered Ferrum to four National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championships (1965, 1968, 1974 and 1977), a national runner-up showing (1966), 15 NJCAA Region X titles, four consecutive berths in the NCAA Division III playoffs, back-to-back South Region championships (1988 and 1989) and consecutive appearances in Division III national semifinals.
Many of his players reacted to Norton’s passing on social media.
“One of my favorite things that Coach Norton used to tell us was “Remember who you are.’’ By that, he meant that he wanted us to lead by example. He wanted his young men to be pillars of their community, that people could look up to and be proud of,’’ Andy Edwards said, “And he certainly cranked out many men like that.
“I try to live by the lessons he taught me still today. I got to visit with Coach at Ferrum’s homecoming game this past year. It was the last time I ever spoke to him. I will always treasure that,’’ Edwards said.
Norton was 66 years old when he retired following the 1993 campaign. His career record was 244-77-11.
“Coach Norton was a true gem in this world and I had the privilege to have been coached by him,’’ former player Chris Glascock said. “He will be missed. Two of my favorite quotes he would always say are, “Is that right?’’ and “We are practicing at 5:32 a.m.’’
Former player Henley Green recalled part of his recruitment to Ferrum.
“I was fishing at New Point in Matthews (Virginia) and a boat pulls up next to mine and it was Coach Norton,’’ Green said. “He said, ‘Henley Green from Ark (Virginia), you’re an OK football player, do you want to play on a great team.’
“I was in shock, but said, ‘Yes.’”
Ferrum was 5-4 in Norton’s last year, but the season climaxed in dramatic fashion with triumphs in the Panthers’ last two home games of his coach tenure.
The Panthers rallied to defeat Montclair (New Jersey) State University on homecoming when quarterback Millard Vining completed a ‘Hail Mary’’ touchdown pass to receiver James Williams.
The following week, Ferrum rallied for an 8-7 triumph over Mansfield (Pennsylvania) University when the Panthers, down 7-0 in the fourth quarter at the time, blocked a field-goal attempt and returned it for a touchdown. Then, the Panthers made a game-winning 2-point conversion.
Norton’s career ended with a three-point loss to Emory and Henry College, Ferrum’s long-time gridiron rival. The Wasps were coached by Lou Wacker and their sideline coaching rivalry dated to their years as high school football coaches in the Richmond area. Both are members of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
Norton’s 90th birthday was celebrated during the Panthers’ 2017 football campaign and this past fall, he returned to campus to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his 1968 national championship squad.
Upon his retirement, Norton served as an ambassador to the college and all of its sports programs, but he kept a keen interest in football, which has been led by three head coaches since his retirement: Dave Davis, David Harper and current sideline leader Rob Grande.
Davis came to Ferrum from East Carolina University to serve as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator and he held that post until 1994, his first year as head coach.
Harper came to Ferrum as a player in 1984 and remained with the school as it transitioned from NJCAA to NCAA Division III. Harper was the Panthers’ first Division III All-American and he succeeded Davis as head coach following the 2010 season.
Five years later Grande replaced Harper as head coach. In 1988, Grande, a freshman at Salisbury (Maryland) University, played in his first college road game against a Norton-coach Ferrum club at W.B. Adams Stadium.
Norton’s 244 wins ranked him alongside many of the game’s greatest coaches. He achieved his 200th career victory in 1988 in classic style when the Panthers traveled to Stanton Island, New York and defeated reigning Division III national champion Wagner College 40-13.
In its preseason football publication that year, Sports Illustrated prepared a 12-page feature on Wagner’s program, but the Panthers were able to defeat them in their first game as national champions.
When asked after the game if the victory made his team No. 1 in the nation Norton said, “Right now we are, but we’ve got Salisbury next week and they’re very good.’’
Ferrum would win 11 consecutive games that year, a season that ended when the Panthers returned to New York and lost 62-28 to eventual national champion Ithaca College in the Division III semifinals.
Norton’s coaching tree includes many college and high school coaches.
During his tenure, Norton served alongside many coaches several of whom became legends in their own right. Among those are former college coaches Jim Grobe and Phil Elmassian and current University of Pittsburgh assistant Kevin Sherman.
Elmassian returned to Ferrum briefly in 2014 as assistant coach at the behest of Norton. He said his recruitment was the same as it was in 1969 when he came to the college as a player.
“I couldn’t tell Coach Norton no,’’ Elmassian said. “If he wants something, you are not going to say, ‘No.’
“It was just like 1969 all over again. He took me on a tour of the campus. He took me to the cafeteria. It was still all the milk you can drink. What else would you want. That was his recruiting line,’’ Elmassian said.
Former high school coaches Bo Henson (E.C. Glass) and the late Ed Martin (Brookville and George Washington-Danville) became legends in their own right.
Seven of his former players became head coaches at Franklin County: Richard Foutz, Miller Bennington, Melvin Martin, Horace Green and Jerry Little guided the Eagles football team; Kris Kahila built the school’s decorated wrestling program; and Dan Hodges was the head coach of FCHS’s 1977 Group AAA state runner-up baseball club.
This past fall former player Tom Hall guided Manchester High School in Richmond to the Class 6 state championship and a perfect 15-0 season, while former player Paul Scott White left Virginia for an assistant’s position at Pearman High School in Odessa, Texas. That was program was the basis for the novel “Friday Night Lights.’’
Norton served two terms as athletic director. He has two buildings and part of a state highway named in his honor.
One of those buildings, the Norton Center, opened in 2012. It was proposed in 2005 and ground was broken for the facility in 2010.
“Everyone who walks on this campus will have the opportunity to know who Hank Norton is. His name will be with Ferrum College forever,’’ Naff said on the day the Norton Center was dedicated. “Athletics is very competitive. This building is probably named after the most fierce competitor I’ve ever met in my life- Hank Norton.’’
The Norton Center sits adjacent to Adams Stadium.
“The building, it has my name on it, but it’s not about me. It’s about Ferrum College. It’s about Ferrum people,’’ Norton said at the dedication.
“If you look around (Ferrum), at all the buildings, this is not the state of Virginia doing this. This is people coming together, people who have given of themselves (doing this),’’ Norton said.
“(Ferrum) is a special place. In that stadium, in the fall when the leaves are turning, there is not a prettier place in the United States to watch a football game. It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful,’’ Norton said.