New assistant Ken Norton Jr. aims to help UCLA return to old times

The old linebacker teaches the new generation what it means to train like a bruin.

“Arrive, arrive, arrive!” he roars during a pursuit exercise. “Good intentions now. Great intention!”

The veteran linebacker wants his successors to understand what it means to be mean.

“See the ball, get the ball,” he howls. “Must have!”

The old linebacker…well, he’s not happy.

“No, no, no,” he says. “Come back.”

Ken Norton Jr. wants a rerun. This is not UCLA standard. The team’s new inside linebackers coach wiggles his fingers and waves Jake Newman back to the blocking sled.

As one of the last Bruins to win a Rose Bowl just weeks before the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986, Norton is forging a new legacy at his alma mater.

Half-hearted effort won’t do it. Norton crouches in front of the sled and shows Newman how to position his body and hit with more power. Norton takes a weak shot at the ball, mimicking the way Newman had tried to force a rally.

Norton throws several jabs of his right hand into the heavy late summer air to demonstrate power. The eponymous son of a heavyweight boxing champion seems ready to go the distance.

“Get in there!” Norton commands. “Hands up. Walk!”

It’s time in Westwood thanks to what might be the greatest Bruins linebacker of them all. He has returned to reclaim the blue and gold glory, a 55-year-old with a problem in his stride that makes the stride of players who are about a third his age springy.

“I just want to do my part,” he later told The Times on the same training ground, “to help us regain that glory.”

“I just want to do my part to help us regain that glory.”

– Ken Norton Jr., UCLA’s new inside linebackers coach

Norton hasn’t watched the Bruins closely since the one-time All-American left UCLA for the NFL more than three decades ago. He didn’t miss much. UCLA has only been to the Rose Bowl twice, in 1994 and 1999, and lost both times.

Meanwhile, Norton continued to thrive. A three-time Pro Bowl selection, he became the first player to win three consecutive Super Bowls, two with the Dallas Cowboys and one with the San Francisco 49ers. As a coach, he was part of the USC national championship in the 2004 season and another Super Bowl title with the Seattle Seahawks in the 2013 season, feats achieved under longtime UCLA nemesis Pete Carroll.

The Cowboys' Ken Norton Jr. reacts after bringing down Bill's quarterback Jim Kelly on January 31, 1993 in the Super Bowl.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Ken Norton Jr. reacts after bringing down Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly in Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl January 31, 1993.

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Along the way, Norton never stopped clapping an internal eight.

“Everywhere I’ve gone on my journey,” Norton said, “UCLA has always been in my heart.”

Some shudder to think that Norton could have stayed a bruin all along. After Karl Dorrell’s hiring prior to the 2003 season, he made strong overtures to join the UCLA team, but a misunderstanding resulted in Norton becoming a Trojan. Dorrell said at the time that his only job was full-time and that he wasn’t sure if Norton just wanted to try the profession, his first job as an assistant at Los Angeles Hamilton High.

Ken Norton Jr., UCLA's new inside linebackers coach, directs the players at practice on August 18, 2022.

“Everywhere I’ve gone on my journey, UCLA has always been in my heart,” said Ken Norton Jr., who won three straight Super Bowls as a linebacker with Dallas and San Francisco.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

By the time Dorrell offered a job as an assistant, Norton had already taken the same job across town. Maybe it was just as good, Norton said this week.

“I was very involved emotionally at the time,” he said, “but things have changed for the better. You know, I’ve had a really exciting coaching career and it’s been really fun, so it didn’t happen for any particular reason, because I’ve had so many different things to grow and experience and be touched by so many players and coaches and situations.”

One of those coaches was UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel, who was trying to bring Norton back to Westwood as an assistant head coach ahead of the 2008 season. Norton said no, telling reporters it wasn’t the right time to come home.

The awkwardness compounded later that year when Norton claimed Bruins coaches were trying to lure recruits by telling them Norton would join the UCLA staff if defense coordinator DeWayne Walker left for another job.

When asked about the situation this week, Norton said he had forgotten the details, the passage of so many years had clouded his memory. Doesn’t matter. He’s back now, Carroll is finally doing UCLA a favor earlier this year by firing Norton as Seattle’s defense coordinator.

Chip Kelly, the Bruins coach familiar with Norton’s value as a rival in Oregon and the NFL, jumped at the opportunity. It helped that UCLA had a vacancy in Norton’s place after Don Pellum’s retirement.

Linebacker Ken Norton Jr. of the UCLA Bruins runs across the field against the Oregon Ducks in Pasadena.

Ken Norton Jr., right, was a standout linebacker at UCLA and helped guide the Bruins to their final Rose Bowl victory in January 1986.

(Getty Images)

“Ken was probably the first guy we thought of and brought him over to visit for a bit,” Kelly said. “He still has a house here [in Marina del Rey]so this is kind of an off-season home for him, so it’s just lined up and fitting.

Memories of Norton’s time as a Bruin are – and aren’t – everywhere. The gleaming Wasserman Football Center and swanky practice field are part of an athletics overhaul that makes the coach feel like he might as well be on Mars and not back at his alma mater. But the majestic academic buildings still have the same impact on him as he strolls to other parts of campus.

The old rivalry hatred was also revived. Referring to USC as “the other school,” Norton suggested the Bruins could be close to a return to their home stadium soon after the calendar changes to 2023.

“I think we’re due soon,” Norton said. “We’re about to make some new memories at the Rose Bowl.”

You will certainly not go down quietly. Norton’s voice is the one that regularly carries across the practice field each morning, words that might startle others, enlivening the newest group of Bruins.

“He’s hard on us [but] It’s not hard feelings,” said linebacker Darius Muasau. “At the end of the day, he’s just getting his message across through all the shouting. You know, he’s an old-school coach – he’s been here, he’s played here, been in the league, trained in the league, been there, done that, so it’s just his way of coaching and we’re fitting in everyone just looking at him and we love every second of it.”

UCLA inside linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. instructs his players on August 18, 2022.

New inside linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. is “hard on us, [but] It’s not hard feelings,” Bruins linebacker Darius Muasau said.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Well, maybe not every second.

After mastering his lengthy tutorial, Newman threw himself into the sled, lifting the metal base off the ground before landing with a heavy thump. He stepped towards the ball carrier and slammed the ball onto the turf before picking it up.

It still wasn’t good enough for the old linebacker who knows how it should be done.

“Okay, okay,” Norton said, “now we’re working on it.” New assistant Ken Norton Jr. aims to help UCLA return to old times

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