Ken Norton leads by example for Seahawks' linebackers

Why have the linebackers become such a huge part of the Seahawks’ success? The players point to their position coach, Ken Norton, Jr., who won three consecutive Super Bowls as a player before helping the Seahawks win their first Super Bowl last February.

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When Pete Carroll hired Ken Norton, Jr. as a defensive assistant at the University of Southern California in 2004, he wanted Norton to bring the same intensity to coaching his linebackers that Norton had displayed as a linebacker in the National Football League.

And Carroll had a front row seat for everything that entailed, because their paths had crossed in San Francisco – where Carroll was the 49ers' defensive coordinator in 1995 and 1996, while Norton finished his career with the team (1994-2000).

"Oh, he was really something," Carroll said of Norton the linebacker after Friday's practice. "He was a player that just wore his heart on his sleeve. Just a tremendous intensity guy. Cheerleader. Fired up. Aggressive. All of the things that you love about football and defense and being a linebacker, he stood for. And he was just as tough as you could get.

"When I asked him to be a graduate assistant years ago, I said, 'I don't want you to change anything. I want you to just be exactly the way you've always been. Have the same perspective and let these players feel you as you teach them their stuff.' "

After coaching on Carroll's staff at USC for six seasons, Norton followed Carroll to Seattle when he was named coach of the Seahawks in 2010.

And how has that worked out? The Seahawks are heading to their second consecutive Super Bowl, after playing in one during the franchise's first 37 seasons. And Norton is looking to win his fifth, as he is the only player in NFL history to play on three consecutive Super Bowl winning teams – with the Dallas Cowboys in 1992 and 1993 and the 49ers in 1994.

"He's been a tremendous part of our staff in so many and ways and he's grown tremendously as a coach," Carroll said. "But it's just his nature, and his personality is so unique. He's such a champion guy that he's been just invaluable to us."

In his five seasons with the Seahawks, Norton has molded one of the best – if not the best – linebacker groups in the league. And it's been a building-block process, just like the rest of the team under Carroll and general manager John Schneider.

The 2011 NFL Draft brought K.J. Wright (fourth round) and Malcolm Smith (seventh round), and Mike Morgan was added as an undrafted free agent. In 2012, the Seahawks used their top two picks on Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner. Brock Coyle was signed as an undrafted free agent last year.

Wagner led the team in tackles his first two seasons and was second this season, behind Wright. And Irvin has gone from being a situational rush-end as a rookie to the starting strong-side linebacker. Smith was the Super Bowl MVP last season, while Morgan and Coyle are core special teams players.

What's it like to play for a position coach who played the position at a Pro Bowl, All-Pro and Super Bowl-winning level?

"First of all, he's one of the only coaches I've known," said Smith, who also played under Norton at USC. "But it's just his attitude toward the game, his attitude toward the players. It's the way he's allowed us to grow as individuals. He has encouraged our group to grow and take on more responsibility, on the field and off the field.

"I mean, he's done a great job turning us into a good group of professionals."

Wright can only second that notion.

"Everything," he said when asked what he likes about Norton as a coach. "That's my guy. He's taught me everything I've known since I've been here. He's been the one to mold me, both on and off the field. He gives me a lot of life lessons, in addition to all the football knowledge, so he's just been great since I got here."

And Norton has done all this under the radar and out of the limelight, even in this week when the national media descended on Virginia Mason Athletic Center as the Seahawks began preparations for their Feb. 1 matchup against the New England Patriots at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona.

"I don't know why people don't pay more attention to him," Wagner said. "He's a great coach. He definitely knows what he's doing. He's been here before. So it's always good to learn from a guy who's been in the position. He's the only guy in this league who's ever won back-to-back-to-back championships. I think that plays a role in why we're doing what we're doing, because we have somebody that we can talk to who's done it.

"And as far as being a coach, he's just really, really good. He sits there and explains everything to us. And if you look at our linebackers and how they've improved from the moment they got here to where they're at now, it's night and day. And that's because of him. It's not just a business to him. He cares and he wants to see you succeed, probably just as much as you want to see yourself succeed."

Smith, Wright and Wagner aren't the best sources to talk about Ken Norton the player, however, because they were born in 1989 (Smith and Wright) and 1990 (Wagner). So when Norton left the game after the 2000 season, they were 11- and 9-years old and not yet students of the game.

But Heath Farwell, who is on injured reserve, is 33. He remembers watching Norton play, and loving the way Norton played.

"I appreciated him as a player, just the way he played the game and what he brought to the game," Farwell said. "He was tough as nails. He had the passion, the energy, the physicality. He just wanted to hit, and that's why I enjoyed watching him play in all those big games for the Cowboys and 49ers."

As for his part in all of this, Norton is just trying to do his part.

"It's certainly a different feeling," Norton said. "As a player, it's just a matter of getting yourself ready to play in a game like this. It's the game you kind hold out there as your goal. It's the top of the top, and you're at the top of the mountain when you're playing for that Super Bowl. It's about getting your mind set and playing at a high level.

"On the coaching side, it's about getting guys ready and giving them all the information they're going to need. So you've got to worry about everybody, as opposed to just worrying about yourself as a player. And I'm not going to ask them to do anything that I haven't done already."

Take it from someone who's seen it – and done it – from both sides.

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