At Least, He Will Pass as Pro Prospect : But Norseth Didn’t Get Much Attention at Crescenta Valley

Times Staff Writer

This year’s example of football as an inexact science comes from Mike Norseth, one of college football’s most prolific passers and one of the NFL’s surest picks. Norseth, who could pass for more than 3,000 yards this season while restoring some Big Eight respectability at the University of Kansas, was, before all this, one of the Southland’s biggest unknowns. He had zero, as in zip, scholarship offers at Crescenta Valley High School in La Crescenta.

Hard to believe, as David Letterman might say, unless you happen to follow football on even a casual level.

This happens every year. Who is this Ken O’Brien who’s throwing for all those miles for the New York Jets? Just another Division II player at UC Davis. And who is Neil Lomax, the St. Louis Cardinals’ strong arm? One more kid who couldn’t find an interested college out of high school.


Exactly what films do college coaches look at when they go recruiting? Clearly, some of them ought to have subtitles, as in, “Coach, just because he’s playing for a 3-7, run-oriented team, you don’t have to overlook the fact that he has an arm that could boost Minutemen.”

Thankfully, football, if an inexact science, is often a self-correcting one, otherwise Mike Norseth might not have advanced much beyond the Southern Section.

It doesn’t appear that Norseth, at 6 feet 3 inches and 205 pounds one of the scenic highlights on these prairies, has ever truly contemplated such a doom. At the end of the season he’ll be going to the Hula and Senior bowls. At the end of the last senior season he played, he was going nowhere. Still, he was the last to accept that.

Norseth, though disappointed, never felt personally slighted that he was so entirely overlooked in high school. “Sometimes it’s hard to recruit high school kids,” he said, charitably enough. “Some reach their level there, and you just can’t tell if they’ll progress any further. With quarterbacks, it’s even harder. If he plays on a very good team he might look better than he really is.

“I played on a 3-7 team my senior year, and I’d say that had a lot to do with it. With all the high schools in California, there surely were enough teams with 9-2 records that had good quarterbacks, too.”

He is certainly accepting of the process that nearly kept him on the outside looking in. “I believe there are a lot of people who get recruited who shouldn’t, players who never amount to anything,” he said. “But it goes both ways, being in the right place at the right time, being needed.”


That Norseth found himself at the right place and at the right time is not exactly a matter of luck. He had an angel in Mike Sheppard, then an assistant at Idaho State, later one at Kansas, now the head coach at Cal State Long Beach.

Sheppard, while at Idaho State, was one of the few who looked Norseth over, although he admits he wasn’t impressed enough to sell his head coach on him. “He was difficult to evaluate,” Sheppard said. “He played for a team that didn’t throw a great deal, and when he did throw it was on the run, either by design or because of pressure. Also, the team was not very strong at the time.

“What you saw was a big raw kid, the kind that was tough to sell your coach on. You’d have to really project him as a player, not because he didn’t yet have the talent or skills but because you just didn’t have a chance to see them. You could see he had a strong arm, but you couldn’t see if he was accurate because he hardly ever had a chance to set up and throw.

“Anyway, at Idaho State, we were in a situation where we had to get this in-state quarterback, important because of our rivalry with Boise. If not him, maybe Mike.”

Well, maybe not Mike. Norseth was disappointed and toyed with the idea of college baseball as an entry into professional sports. He didn’t particularly care how he got into professional sports--he played basketball as well--but he did sense that football was his best shot. So he toyed instead with junior college football.

That is not necessarily the road for Heisman Trophy candidates, but then Norseth didn’t have any other roads to follow. So he looked over the bids from the jucos--and he had more than a few--and became as calculating an 18-year-old as the entrepreneur in “Risky Business.”


“He was lucky but he was also smart,” Sheppard said. “He could have gone to Pierce, Glendale, you name it, but he chose to go to Snow Junior College where he’d have a chance to throw. At the time they were throwing the dog out of the ball and getting a lot of publicity for it. So Mike was very calculated. He knew that if he went into that conference and became the top passer he’d get some attention. He created his own opportunity, which created the next one.”

Sheppard paused to let the idea of Norseth’s commitment sink in. “I mean, think about a California kid spending two winters in Ephraim, Idaho.”

Norseth did, in fact, throw the dog out of the ball there. In a passing offense, he blossomed and this big raw kid began looking like Roger Staubach. He threw for more than 3,000 yards his sophomore year there and suddenly coaches were asking their recruiters just when did Norseth enter this country and why weren’t they advised.

This time Sheppard, by then at Kansas, didn’t have to worry about selling his head coach on Norseth. He had to sell Norseth on Kansas, which was competing with the likes of Iowa State, Utah State, Hawaii and Colorado State. This is not like being courted by UCLA, BYU or Penn State but then Norseth wasn’t exactly used to getting his offers by the pound.

Norseth finally chose Kansas because it offered a pro-type passer all the opportunities he could hope for. As quarterback coach Bob Valesente said, “This is the place for a quarterback to be. What we’re doing here is establishing a pro-type attack. Mike gets the same type of (defensive) reads here as some pro teams. He hasn’t seen the whole bag yet, but he’s got a good start on it.”

So Norseth has done little but pass and otherwise prepare himself for a pro career. Again, he is being calculating about it. He stays on campus during the summer months and works with his receivers. He studies films on his own. “He is not a guy who stands still,” Valesente said.


The payoff has been impressive, from a Kansas point of view. Until the last four games, all losses, Kansas was being treated as a power aborning and at one point earlier in the season was the NCAA leader in passing offense. And impressive also, from a Norseth point of view, he had 509 yards total offense against Vanderbilt, and three other games in which he passed for more than 300 yards.

“And now, Mike is creating his next opportunity, in the NFL,” Sheppard said.

Apparently he is. No less a judge of talent than Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys said, flatly, “He’ll be a pro player. He’s got a pretty quick release and he throws a good ball.”

Brandt said Norseth is certainly not the John Elway type of passer and that he may not go in the first round of the NFL draft. Nevertheless, he is the type of player you want on your team. “He works so hard and he’s such a great leader, maybe I over-react to that,” Brandt said. “But character traits become pretty important in the NFL. You just like him.”

So we may get to add Mike Norseth, unwanted quarterback, to the lore of football, a game in which you don’t always get ahead by playing according to the rules but in which, nevertheless, you can get ahead if you want it enough.