Norm Chow was a celebrated coordinator, but did he get a fair shake as a head coach


Norm Chow was the USC offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll. The Trojans won two national titles and three of his players would win the Heisman Trophy / Photo courtesy of USC Athletics

By Leighton Ginn

 The list of players Norm Chow has worked with as one of the top offensive coordinator in college football is long and impressive.

Yet as distinguished and storied as Chow’s career was, it’s an oddity that Chow only had one head coaching opportunity, taking over the Hawaii program in 2011. While Hawaii has been a strong program, it has never been on the level of Brigham Young or USC, two schools Chow helped to win national titles and produce a who’s who of legendary quarterbacks.

Heisman winners and prolific arms: the quarterbacks (and a tailback) Norm Chow coached

At 70, Chow knows there might not be many opportunities coming his way because of his age.

But the real question is why Chow didn’t have more opportunities to run his own program.

Chow, a Chinese-American, said sometimes athletic directors and others in a university who makes the hiring decisions have a certain prototype in their mind of what their football coaches should look like, a friend of him told him.  

“What he was telling me was, ‘I guarantee you, they aren’t looking for a middle-aged fat Chinese guy,’” Chow said. “That’s not who an AD has in mind. That’s not who he perceived he had to find. We laugh, chuckle, chuckle, but I remember that. There’s a lot to that.”

College football has long had issues with diversity in the head coaching position.  For years, college football has been hammered for the lack of minority coaches, particularly African-American coaches.

Yet when stories come out about the lack of minority candidates, people tend to forget about Chow.

If you take away color and focus solely on achievement, it’s hard to think of any coach who has a resume as impressive as Chow, who might be the best quarterbacks coach ever in college football.

Chow led Ty Detmer, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart to Heisman Trophies. He also coached tailback Reggie Bush, who won his Heisman the year after Chow left. 

And arguably the three Heisman-winning quarterbacks might not even be the best Chow has worked with, when you consider Jim McMahon and Steve Young. In the one year Chow was at North Carolina State, he coached San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers, who was a freshman.

In 1984, BYU won it’s only national title, and USC added national titles in 2003 and ’04. Neither school has won a national title since Chow left each school.

In his stint as an offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans in the NFL, quarterback Vince Young won offensive rookie of the year honors in 2006, and then reached the playoffs in 2007.

Chow did reportedly interview for head coaching jobs at Stanford, UCLA and the Arizona Cardinals.

“As you go through it, sure you’re discouraged,” Chow said. “But you can’t do anything about it. You wallow around or you just keep going to work and hope something will happen.”

But Chow’s only head coaching job was Hawaii, which came in 2011 when Chow was 65. By accepting the job, Chow became the first Asian American to become a college head coach.

While being an accomplished Asian American in college coaching, Chow said it wasn’t his focus.

“That wasn’t the dream, if you will. The dream was just to be the best football coach you could be,” Chow said. 

Chow was 10-36 at Hawaii, as the challenges coaching on the islands turned out to be tougher than he had anticipated.

While still getting paid by Hawaii, Chow has been living in Los Angeles this season, spending quality time with his wife and grandchildren.

He hasn’t ruled out a return to coaching, but he knows age is a factor.

“Pete Carroll told me the year he took off was the best year in his career. He was able to step back and see some of the things other people were doing. Unfortunately, I’m stepping back at 70,” Chow said. “Is it  possible to get back in? I don’t know. Do I want to get back in? I don’t know that either. That’s where I am, trying to figure it out.”

Chow’s son Carter, an agent who handles his father’s career, said they would look at opportunities, including ambassador and consultant spots similar to what Steve Spurrier has at Florida.

Another possibility would be with the NFL as it looks to expand into China.

Chow said he’s not worried so much about his legacy. A Utah Jazz fan, Chow pointed to something one of his favorite NBA player has said.

“Karl Malone said don’t define me by the fact I never won a world championship. I felt the same way, don’t define me for what I haven’t done,” Chow said. “What I’ve done, what Karl Malone has done, that’s plenty enough.”

And if Chow doesn’t get back into college football, he said he’s comfortable with what he’s done in his career.  

“In the end, you want to be known as a good guy, a good husband, good father and a good friend to these kids. I’ve stayed in touch with them,” Chow said. “In the end, the scores don’t matter, it’s the relationships you make.”



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