Jonathan Norton keeps winning tradition alive for Columbus State women's program

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 13, 2014 

Joe Paull/jpaull@ledger-enquirer.comColumbus State women's coach Jonathan Norton has compiled a record of 85-52 in five seasons.

Five years ago, Jonathan Norton had emerged as the top candidate to become the women's basketball coach at Columbus State.

As he had at previous stops, he consulted with family members as well as members of the coaching community whose opinion he valued before making a decision. When it became all but certain Norton would accept the offer, he had one more back-and-forth conversation with his wife.

"I made a comment in jest, 'You know, you probably want to take over a program that has been struggling, because there's nowhere to go but up,'" he said. "She brought that up, too. 'You sure you want to do this? Because now there's nowhere to go but down.'"

In the years since, Norton hasn't had a problem maintaining the Lady Cougars' storied tradition. He has finished above .500 in every year of his tenure, extending the school's streak to 10 straight winning seasons. In five seasons, he has compiled a record of 85-52. This season also marked the first time the Lady Cougars won the Peach Belt Conference tournament under Norton, which they hadn't done since 2001.

The Lady Cougars open the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional at 8:30 Friday night against North Georgia.

No matter how much he accomplishes, though, Norton said one thing will never change: it's not his program. That belongs to Jay Sparks.

"He's never said anything to me about, 'This is your program now' or whatever and he certainly hasn't said anything as arrogant as 'my program,' but I consider it Coach Sparks' program," Norton said of the school's athletic director. "He built the program. He set the foundation."

In his two decades at the helm of the Lady Cougars, Sparks compiled staggering numbers.

Ten 20-win seasons. 367 victories. Two NCAA Division II final fours. And 21 of his players were named all-conference performers, including a pair of All-Americans in Kenesha Harden and Phebe Smith.

"I said when I got the job, my job is to simply carry on the tradition," Norton said. "You can't say, 'Take the program to the next level' when we've already been No. 1 in the country. I was an assistant at the time and he was running the show, and No. 1 in the country is about as high as you can go. We went to the final four. We didn't win the national championship, but we were right there."

After 18 years as a coach, Norton said he's confident in his own abilities. But he always knows you can never learn enough. He got his start as an assistant under Sparks, and isn't shy about seeking out his boss for advice. But he made one thing clear: Sparks doesn't offer it unsolicited.

When he feels the need, he'll just knock on his mentor's door.

"North Georgia's 1-3-1 defense gave us problems in the second half of our game up there," Norton said of his opponent in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday. "I (asked Sparks), 'Let's talk about how to attack a 1-3-1 with my team,' as the personnel dictates what you do. We met about it for 20 minutes and he drew up some stuff, I drew up some stuff and we bounced ideas off each other. We do that often."

When asked whether he feels any extra pressure not to let Sparks down, Norton laughed. No one exerts more pressure on him than himself. Besides, he said, you only feel pressure "when you're not prepared."

"I feel like I'm prepared and I feel like (Sparks) has prepared me," Norton said. "I feel like our athletic department and administration gives us what we need to be successful."

For the first time in seven years, Columbus State is back in the NCAA tournament. Even after winning the conference tournament -- snapping a streak of three straight losses in the first round of the PBC's annual event -- Norton wasn't worried about getting his team moving past the league championship.

"The celebration is over. You've been patted on the back for two days," he said. "Now it's time to get back to work and refocus and not just be satisfied with just winning a Peach Belt Conference championship. Let's set our sights on a Southeast Region championship and advance to the Elite Eight."

Still, winning the conference tournament was a major accomplishment, and a definite boost to the team's confidence. And they couldn't have drawn a better opponent Friday to test themselves against, as North Georgia has won both meetings this year.

"We need to prove we can beat them and then we'll look at the next game," Norton said. "I think with some teams, if they had fallen short in the conference tournament, it would have made them mad, angry, more hungry. But I think with this group it's just one more challenge. I think they'll be plenty focused."

As always, Norton won't render his verdict on the season until it has concluded. Each year, he evaluates every aspect of the program -- himself, his assistants and his players. He breaks down the team to see what they did well and where they lacked. This involves going back and watching every single game of the season -- win or loss -- to see what happened.

What mistakes were made? Where can they get better?

In previous seasons, Norton has seen different returns. Last year, the season was a success, Norton said, since they went as far as they could with an under-sized, undermanned roster.

The same couldn't be said of 2011, when Norton believed the squad "underachieved" by having its season come to a close in the PBC tournament.

"Unfortunately, those things happen in coaching, whether it's you not playing your best at the wrong time or (the opposing) team gets hot," he said. "So I think we could have done better, and that drives me to make sure we do those little things better and ensure it doesn't happen again."

If that means this year ends with a loss in the NCAA tournament, so be it.

As long as they expend every ounce of energy they have, Norton will be able to rest easy.

"If I feel like whenever that last loss -- or hopefully we win that last game, as only one team gets to do -- happens, if I feel like we got the absolute most out of these young ladies and went as far as we could, it will be a success," Norton said. "If we fall short, the challenge will be for myself, my coaching staff and our returning players to get back and go further and reach that pinnacle next year."

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