Gwen Norrell: Top ranking woman in NCAA in 1980s
June 18, 2004 - Casey Munck, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

It was a series of firsts in Gwen Norrell’s life.

The Eudora native was the first in her family to attend college. Her first teaching job was also her first coaching job with her alma mater’s girls basketball team.

But she would have to first learn how to play the sport.

Norrell would later become both the first woman in the history of the Big Ten Conference to serve as a faculty athletics representative and the highest ranking woman in the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the 1980s.

Norrell, a former NCAA vice president from 1984-86, died of cancer at St. Lawrence Hospice Center in Lansing, Mich.

She was 84.

"She was like a pioneer," her niece Susan Cossey of Monticello said. "She worked hard for women."

Norrell was born and raised in Eudora. Her mother and stepfather ran Hart’s Department Store in downtown Eudora. After graduation from Eudora High School, Norrell attended and graduated from Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn., with a history degree.

After graduation, Norrell got a teaching job at Eudora High School. After she was hired, she learned she would also be coaching the girls basketball team.
"She had never played before," her niece said. "She told the guy who hired her, ‘I’m not sure about teaching these girls how to play basketball.’"

Despite not having any experience, Norrell checked out a how-to-play basketball book, studied the text and began coaching.

"They did win some games," her niece said.

She later received a master’s degree in counseling from Columbia University and her doctorate of education from the University of Colorado. She left Arkansas in 1945 for Michigan State University.

At Michigan State, Norrell taught classes, helped develop the psychology department’s counseling and testing center as assistant director of the MSU counseling center and recruited members of minority groups to the university.

In 1979, she was named MSU faculty athletics representative to the NCAA, making her the first woman in the history of the Big Ten Conference to hold the position.

Four years later, she was named NCAA vice president.

"She was at the forefront of integrating women’s athletics in both the Big Ten and the NCAA," said Sylvia Thompson, who worked with Norrell in the MSU athletic department.

Even after Norrell retired in 1988, she could be seen in the stands at MSU volleyball, basketball and football games, Thompson said.

In 2000, MSU inducted Norrell into its Athletic Hall of Fame.

"She was put on a pedestal," Thompson said. "She was highly thought of at MSU."

Twice a year, Norrell, who remained single all of her life, returned to Arkansas for visits with her sister, family and friends, her niece said.

"I think her roots were always in Arkansas, but she loved being up in Michigan," her niece said. "In Arkansas we have a tendency to bleed red. She was Michigan State green."

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