March 3, 2018
By John Heisler
Just when Nate Norman thought he had his life at least temporarily figured out, an old friend threw a monkey wrench into it.
Norman, recently named the University of Notre Dame’s new women’s soccer head coach, had been playing professional soccer and had his sights set on attending divinity school at Duke University.
Then Mike Avery, an Irish men’s soccer assistant coach during Norman’s first three seasons in South Bend (and now the head men’s soccer coach at Valparaiso), called that day in 2009.
“I was playing for a minor league league soccer team in Cary, North Carolina, at the time.
“Mike called and asked me if I was interested in coaching,” says Norman. “I was still playing a little bit and I was planning to go to Duke that next fall.
“He asked me the ‘why’ question: ‘Why do you want to do the divinity school thing?’
“And I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I always had a passion for serving and helping people.
“Mike said, ‘You realize coaching can be like a ministry as well.’
“So he kind of planted the seed. And then he said he had a friend who just got the men’s head job at a Division III school, Covenant College in Georgia, and needed an assistant.
“I thought, ‘Let me think about it.'”
Norman had been a volunteer assistant at Notre Dame the season following his 2007 graduation.
“But,” says Norman, “I had been injured when I was playing and I came back to do my rehab and train and Boss (former Irish head coach Bobby Clark) said I could help them out. But I was focused on my playing career then. I also did an internship at the Granger Community Church. And then I went back and kept playing.”
Avery’s proposal amounted to what Norman calls a “crossroads.”
“I talked to Boss for awhile. He said, ‘Coaching could be a really good thing for you. You have these organic opportunities to teach some life lessons. You maybe could have more of an impact as a coach than you could doing formal ministry work.'”
Norman had yet to catch the coaching bug on any serious basis.
“I wasn’t out searching for coaching jobs. I was going to go to Duke and run with it and see where that led me.
“But after Mike called I talked to a handful of people and thought maybe I do want to do this.”
So Norman took the job at Covenant and, in his one season there, helped the program to 13 wins and the national semifinals of the National Christian College Athletic Association Championship.
Then the phone rang again.
“I was engaged to Rachel and she was working in Michigan. We’d known each other since high school and were planning to be married in December 2010. We were engaged but we’d been apart for a while.
“One of my best friends, Ben Pirmann, was going to be the best man in our wedding. He was the men’s assistant coach at Western Michigan (he’s now the assistant men’s coach at Michigan State). He told me that the assistant women’s coach at Western had just left, and he said, ‘Do you want me to connect you with our head coach, Suzie Grech?’ So I did a phone interview, came on campus and she offered me the job.”
Norman spent one season in Kalamazoo, then one as an assistant women’s soccer coach at Miami (Florida) before returning to become the Western Michigan women’s head coach in 2012 after Grech left to join the women’s staff at the University of Houston.
And the Rochester, Michigan, product learned plenty from his first head coaching experiences.
“I had this vision, having worked for several head coaches, all of them very different,” he says. “As a young assistant you’re always the likeable guy. You think, ‘If I become a head coach I can get them all to like me.’ It was an unrealistic vision-and now I was making different decisions on playing time and disciplinary things.
“Everything kind of changes. I was making too many decisions based on, ‘How will they react to this?’ I needed to hold them accountable and hold them to standards. We needed to build a culture, we needed to raise the standards, we needed to ask a little more. The next fall I think we were picked last in the league by the coaches-but we won it, beat Marquette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and lost at Notre Dame in Randy Waldrum’s last year here in the second round.
“I learned a lot about myself. You understand how to run training sessions and how to coach a game. But that culture-building piece is different. Kids live life in college, and you have to help them through those adverse moments and the great moments. Until you’re in that moment, you can have the greatest mentors-and I did–but the first year is a big learning experience. If you do it right you can build a lot of trust.”
After two NCAA appearances in four seasons, Norman went to Liberty as head coach for a year in 2016.
“They sold me on building a top 25 program and giving me the resources that I needed to do it,” he says. “I had enjoyed the faith ministry aspect and at Liberty you could combine the coaching with that. Plus, I was kind of looking for a new challenge.”
Then a year later Norman came back to South Bend-a full decade after his graduation.
“Notre Dame was a special place for me,” he says. “I grew a lot, and it was a transformative experience. I loved Boss, I loved the staff here. It wasn’t always easy, there were peaks and valleys. But to work at a school when you really believe in the off-the-field experience the student-athletes are getting, that’s pretty unique.
“As a coach you become a little bit of a chameleon at any school you go to – trying to sell that vision and paint a nice picture. It’s really easy to do at Notre Dame, especially when you really believe in all the attributes that go into it–the faith side and the service side to go with the academics and the athletics. If you can get kids to buy into that, it can absolutely be a transformative experience.
“I wanted to coach at a Power 5 school, be at a top 10 program. I obviously knew Bobby Clark and (former Irish assistant coach) B.J. Craig very well, so it was a professional development opportunity having them in the office next door to us.
“I kind of went the backwards route. Some people will be an assistant for awhile and then move up maybe to a mid-major job. I was fortunate because I got the job at Western Michigan at an early age.
“Yet it was almost like I skipped a step. So I wanted to go back. I knew (Notre Dame senior associate athletics director and women’s soccer administrator) Mike Harrity and knew his vision. So it was not a difficult decision, other than I loved my players at Liberty.
“This was a special place for me and had a unique place in my heart because I know what it did for me.”
On a Sunday in January came another fateful phone call.
“I had worked a camp in Indianapolis that weekend, and I was driving back when Theresa (Romagnolo, the Irish women’s soccer head coach) called.
“She started, ‘How was the camp? Did you see any good players?’ And then she kind of cut me off and she said, ‘I want you to know that I’m going to step down tomorrow.’ She said it was something she had been thinking about for a while and that it was about spending time with her family.”
Norman spent the next hour in the car on the drive home processing the details:
“So what’s next for me? I left this comfortable situation at Liberty a year ago where I was the head coach. Now there are a lot of unknowns here and Rachel and I have got a baby coming in a few weeks.
“It was easy to pray to God and ask, ‘Can you make the paths clear as soon as possible? Can I learn patience and trust through this situation with a little uncertainty?’
“It was the same for the players. What can I do to comfort them? Yet there was another sense that this could be a great opportunity, and I’m already right here. I had a conversation with Mike (Harrity) and he asked me if it was something I was interested in pursuing. I said, ‘Yes, I can say without hesitation, this would be my dream job.'”
Ultimately, Norman admits there were some tough days during the search process.
“As dramatic as it sounds, every morning Rachel and I would wake up and say, ‘Today they could tell me I got the head job or they could tell me I have a few days to clean out my office until the new head coach comes in.’
“No one really says it quite like that, but that’s the reality.”
Meanwhile, baby Kinsley came calling.
“One Saturday evening, Rachel and I are watching the Kansas-West Virginia game and her water broke,” Norman says. “Then your whole mindset changes, and the job piece goes back into the background.
“It’s 8:30 at night and three hours later we have a new baby. The next 36 hours are euphoric. Sunday night Mike (Harrity) texted me and asked if he could come and see us at the hospital. I thought, ‘Well, I hope he’s not coming by to tell me we hired somebody else.’
“So he came to the Memorial Hospital and asked me if I wanted to walk down the hallway and chat for a minute. And he offered me the job.”
So Nate and Rachel (Notre Dame’s assistant director of sports nutrition) hit the daily double that weekend.
“We sure did,” he says. “Those 36 hours were pretty amazing.”
Norman now embarks on a path that he feels more than a little comfortable with-as a head coach at his alma mater (the third, joining Ryan Sachire in men’s tennis and Chad Riley in men’s soccer).
For now, Clark serves as Norman’s volunteer assistant.
“Nate was a tremendous player for me at Notre Dame,” says Clark, “and I am confident he will mirror this success as a coach. Notre Dame is a perfect fit for him.”
Next door is Riley, and those two were roommates on Irish soccer road trips in 2003 while Norman was a freshman player and Riley was a senior. When Norman came back to be a volunteer assistant coach in 2007, he lived with Riley, then a full-time Notre Dame men’s assistant.
“I am excited to have Nate right next door,” says Riley. “I have known Nate for a long time and we have grown in the profession together.
“He is someone I could always call for good advice when we were working at different schools, and I look forward to just having to walk down the hall to pick his brain now. I have continually been impressed with his skill and passion as a coach and I can’t wait to watch his Notre Dame teams compete on the field.”
Norman likes the comfort level in being back at his alma mater.
“We know this place. I feel like I know how to do business here,” Norman says.
“I know how to talk about Notre Dame. I can talk about it in general and I can give my personal experience. I can talk about how I grew from this place, even through some experiences that were hard.
“I understand that there can be some stresses going to school at a place that demands excellence. I also understand all the support that exists here.”
Norman loves a saying that his former head coach used to explain Notre Dame’s distinction from other schools.
“Boss always says, ‘Notre Dame has a soul.’
“That’s the best way I’ve heard anybody explain it. If you struggle here, you’re not going to be alone or pushed aside. There are people here to help you.”
Norman takes over a program with a storied history-including NCAA Championships in 1995, 2004 and 2010.
The Irish have been consistent NCAA contenders, earning their way into the bracket every season since the first Irish appearance in 1993.
Norman can’t wait for his chance to add to that list.