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

The old linebacker is teaching the new generation what it means to practice like a Bruin.

“Get there, get there, get there!” he hollers during a pursuit drill. “Great intent, now. Great intent!”

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

“See ball, get ball,” he howls. “Gotta have it!”

The old linebacker … well, he isn’t happy.

“Naw, naw, naw,” he says. “Come back.”

Ken Norton Jr. wants a do-over. This isn’t up to the UCLA standard. The team’s new inside linebackers coach wiggles his fingers, beckoning Jake Newman back to the blocking sled.

A member of the last batch of Bruins to win a Rose Bowl, only weeks before the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986, Norton is forging a new legacy at his alma mater.

Halfhearted effort doesn’t cut it. Norton crouches in front of the sled, showing Newman how to position his body and strike with more force. Taking a feeble slap at the ball, Norton mimics the way Newman had attempted to force a turnover.

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

“Get up in there!” Norton commands. “Hands up high. Go!”

It’s go time in Westwood, thanks to maybe the greatest Bruins linebacker of them all. He has returned to recapture blue-and-gold grandeur, a 55-year-old with a hitch in his stride putting a spring in the step of players roughly one-third his age.

“I just want to do my part,” he told The Times later on the same practice field, “in helping us regain that glory.”

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

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

Since the onetime All-American left UCLA for the NFL more than three decades ago, Norton hasn’t watched the Bruins closely. He hasn’t missed much. UCLA has been back to the Rose Bowl only twice, in 1994 and 1999, losing 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 coming with the Dallas Cowboys and one with the San Francisco 49ers. As a coach, he was part of USC’s national championship in the 2004 season and another Super Bowl title with the Seattle Seahawks in the 2013 season, successes that came under longtime UCLA nemesis Pete Carroll.

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

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

(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Along the way, Norton never ceased an internal eight-clap.

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

Some shudder at the thought Norton could have remained a Bruin this whole time. He made strong overtures about joining the UCLA staff upon Karl Dorrell’s hiring before the 2003 season, but a misunderstanding led to Norton becoming a Trojan. Dorrell said at the time that his only opening was for a full-time position and he wasn’t sure whether Norton just wanted to dabble in the profession, his first job coming as an assistant at Los Angeles Hamilton High.

Ken Norton Jr., UCLA's new inside linebackers coach, instructs players at practice Aug. 18, 2022.

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

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

By the time Dorrell dangled a graduate assistant job, Norton had already taken the same post across town. Maybe it was just as well, Norton said this week.

“At the time, I was very emotionally involved,” he said, “but things turned out 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 a reason because I was able to grow and experience so many different things and be touched by so many players and coaches and situations.”

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

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

Asked about that situation this week, Norton said he had forgotten the details, the passage of so many years fogging his memory. No matter. He’s back now, Carroll finally doing UCLA a favor early this year by dismissing Norton as Seattle’s defensive coordinator.

Chip Kelly pounced on the opportunity, the Bruins coach familiar with Norton’s value as a rival at Oregon and in the NFL. It helped that UCLA had an opening at Norton’s position in the wake of Don Pellum’s retirement.

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

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

(Getty Images)

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

Reminders of Norton’s time as a Bruin are — and aren’t — everywhere. The gleaming Wasserman Football Center and fancy practice field are part of an athletics overhaul that make the coach feel he might as well be on Mars, not back at his alma mater. But the regal academic buildings still have the same hold on him when he strolls to other parts of campus.

That old rivalry hatred has also been revived. Norton referred to USC as “the other school” and suggested the Bruins might be on the verge of a return to their home stadium shortly after the calendar flipped to 2023.

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

They certainly won’t go down quietly. Norton’s voice is the one that regularly carries across the practice field each morning, words that might frighten others invigorating the newest batch of Bruins.

“He’s hard on us, [but] it’s not any hard feelings,” linebacker Darius Muasau said. “At the end of the day, he’s just getting his message across through all the yelling. You know, he’s an old-school coach — he’s been here, he played here, been in the league, coached in the league, been there, done that, so that’s just his way of coaching and we’re all just adapting to him and we’re loving every second of that.”

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

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

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Well, maybe not every second.

After absorbing his lengthy tutorial, Newman launched himself into the sled, the metal base lifting off the ground before landing with a heavy thud. He stepped toward the ball carrier and slapped the ball toward the turf before picking it up.

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

“OK, OK,” Norton said “Now, we’ll work on that.”

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