Richard Norville often talked of retiring.
Prior to every season, the Heritage High School volleyball coach would gather his team and tell them they would be his final squad. He just didn’t have it anymore, he would tell them. His kids were growing up. He did it so often, his players came to expect it, former Lady Mountaineer Kristie McCarter said.
“He talked of retiring every year,” she said.
Sadly, this time, it’s for real.
Norville coached his final game in his home gym on Tuesday as Heritage put away Seymour in four sets, 25-17, 21-25, 25-20, 25-17. Postseason opens next week. When it concludes, the Lady Mountaineer coach of 21 seasons will step down, leaving behind a legacy that goes far beyond wins and losses, far beyond the landmark teams he’s coached.
Norville’s off-beat humor often had them in stitches, former Lady Mountaineer Amy Cooper Cowden said. His stoic demeanor, like the time he cut his hand on net post following a match and didn’t let on how bad it was until he nearly passed out, provided a sense of calm in even the tightest matches.
Norville’s record at Heritage — 425 victories, seven Blount County championships, district and region titles, a substate appearance — say much of his coaching acumen. Something else, though, says more about the man better than anything, former Lady Mountaineer Kim McCaslin said.
“He’s just an awesome guy,” she said.
Judging by the large turnout of former players for a surprise farewell on Tuesday, McCaslin’s words were much, much more than just being nice. As Heritage athletics director Chip Fuller read a prepared statement to the assembled crowd, Norville fought back tears.
“I had no idea I could stay in it this long,” he said. “I’ve been trying to retire for the last 15 years. I was waiting for Heritage to run me off so I didn’t have to make that decision, but they never did.”
For good reason.
Norville did more than build a winning program at Heritage. He brought a work ethic, a genuine love for his players and a can-do spirit that’s left a lasting impact, not only at Heritage, but Blount County high school volleyball as a whole.
“He taught us more than volleyball,” said former Lady Mountaineer All-State star Amy Coppinger, now a nurse at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. “I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for him.”
When Norville took the Heritage job, he’d never played the sport. He knew nothing about coaching it. When the position was first offered, he wasn’t quite sure what to think.
“When he started volleyball, he didn’t know beans,” said retired teacher Allen Martin, who taught with Norville at Walland Elementary. “He started reading everything. He started going to clinics. He just lived it.”
Norville, whose budget in the early years often led him to purchase equipment out of his own pocket, never got down as his teams turned in losing seasons his first two years.
“I don’t remember him ever being discouraged,” Jody Norville, Richard’s wife of 18 years, said. “He’s too much of a competitor. He just kept putting more and more into it.”
To ease the learning curve, Norville said he would attend any coaching clinic he could find, talk at length with any peer and, as Martin alluded to, basically live the game.
“When I got here, we didn’t even have any lines (for volleyball) on the floor,” he said. “We had to tape them on.”
Not only was Norville new to volleyball, so were many of his players. Introducing an athlete to any sport at the high school level is no small task. If Heritage was to one day be a player in area volleyball, a Lady Mountaineer jersey could not be the first his charges would wear.
“I looked and saw there were absolutely no feeder schools coming into the program,” Norville said.
The same was true for the county’s other high schools. On cue, Norville had a solution.
He launched a middle school program at Walland, taking that team around to the county’s other middle schools for “play days,” a structured but laid back introduction to the sport. Soon, every middle school in the county had a team. By 1996, they’d formed a league.
“He’d go ‘round to the schools and teach them how to coach it and play it,” Martin said. “He got it all started because he knew to have a good program, he’d have to have a feeder system.”
As the years progressed, Norville’s Heritage teams closed the gap with area district powers. In 1994, they caught up.
There was no volleyball team anywhere in the area on par with South-Doyle’s Lady Cherokees back then. That fall, five Lady Mountaineer seniors — Cooper Cowden, Sheila Mynatt Newman, Jill Rogers Purvis, Michelle Myers and Heather Brooks — changed all that, in a match the Lady Mountaineers didn’t even win.
In its first appearance in the District 4AAA finals, Heritage had match point on its serve. Victory would slip away on a South-Doyle rally, a tough loss for Norville to this day. Still, it served notice the Lady Mountaineers had arrived. That year would come to define Norville not only as a coach but the man himself.
“Those five girls are still my best friends,” Cooper Cowden said. “That group of girls saved me in high school. We just had the best time.”
It’s that aspect of coaching, not the wins and losses, that he’ll remember, Norville said.
“Those five girls hung together for years,” he said. “I went to all their weddings.”
That’s what separates her mentor from many other coaches, Lady Mountaineer assistant coach Lisa Collins said. Norville pushed hard as coach, she said. He pushed even harder to make sure his players left the program with something they could use for the rest of their lives.
“He truly cares about his players,” Collins said. “He wants them to be successful in life. It starts with their education, then athletics. He’s genuine. He’s real.”
No more so than with former Lady Mountaineer setter Holly Sunderland.
Sunderland came up through Norville’s middle school program. She was good by the time she reached high school, but was she good enough to play in college?
Norville’s initial answer, she said, was, “No.” The response has since proven to be the beloved coach’s masterstroke.
Norville’s answer wasn’t intended to discourage Sunderland’s dreams of playing college volleyball. She had the talent. What he wanted, Sunderland said, was to see how hard she would push.
At the close of her Lady Mountaineer career, Sunderland signed a volleyball scholarship at Tennessee Wesleyan, where she would play four more years with Coppinger.
“When I went to school, he was so proud,” Sunderland said.
Today, Sunderland is a middle school coach, following in Norville’s footsteps.
“Actually, he’s never left me as a coach,” she said. “I talk to him every year. He’s made tremendous impact on my life.”
Heritage will miss the coach, former Lady Mountaineer Ashley Helton said. They’ll miss his humor. A prank Norville pulled during a timeout during a match her senior year in 2004, Helton said, cracks her up to this day.
“He was sniffing around in the air, and we were like, ‘What’s wrong with coach?’” she said. “He said, ‘I smell a doughnut,” the implication being an impending Heritage shutout.
“He made stuff up like that all the time,” Sunderland said.
As McCaslin said, “just an awesome guy.”