MSU pioneer Merritt Norvell, one of nation's first Black athletic directors, dies at 79

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Merritt Norvell, who during his tenure as Michigan State's athletic director oversaw three Hall of Fame coaches, died Monday in Lansing. He was 79.

Norvell served as Michigan State's athletic director from 1995-99, when Nick Saban was coaching football, Tom Izzo basketball and Ron Mason hockey.

Norvell's son, Jay, is head football coach at Nevada and flew to Michigan on Monday.

Former MSU athletic director Merritt Norvell died Monday at 79.

"The thoughts of the entire Michigan State athletics family are with the family and friends of Merritt Norvell," Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said in a statement. "Beyond his contributions at Michigan State, his impact was felt across college athletics, including at the national level. Over the last couple days, I've been particularly impressed with the number of athletic directors I've heard from who were impacted by his mentorship. It's quite a tribute to him professionally and personally."

Norvell was one of the first Black athletic directors in Division I, and long after his tenure he continued to promote college-athletics opportunities for people of color. Most recently, he was executive director of the National Association of Coaching Equity and Development. He left Michigan State in the spring of 1999 to become president of an executive search firm.

At Michigan State, he was known as a keen fundraiser, securing the money for the $7.5-million Clara Bell Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center and a $5-million renovation to Spartan Stadium and surrounding areas. He led the $3.8-million project to add suites to Munn Ice Arena. During his tenure, advertising and sponsorship revenue grew 183%.

He was best known for his contributions to another Big Ten school, Wisconsin, where he played for the 1963 Big Ten championship team and in the Rose Bowl. He served on Wisconsin's board, and did color commentary for Wisconsin football in the 1990s.

Norvell also oversaw the Special Olympics in Wisconsin, which, according to, earned him an invitation to Rose Kennedy's 100th birthday in 1990.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Merritt Norvell," NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. "His remarkable legacy in college sports began as a college athlete at Wisconsin and included serving as one of the country’s first Black athletics directors at Michigan State.

"Throughout his career, Merritt was a strong advocate for minority coaches and championed leadership and professional development. We appreciate the time and care he spent helping the NCAA develop leaders for our industry through his work with our coaching and minority development programs.

"Our thoughts are with the Norvell family during this difficult time.

Norvell's wife Cynthia died in May 2019, also at 79. They met at Wisconsin, were married 56 years and had two sons, Jay and Aaron, and two grandchildren.

Arrangements by Estes-Leadley Funeral Home in Lansing were pending Tuesday night.