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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Feb. 12 – Retired Executive Director Vern L. Norris, who led the Michigan High School Athletic Association from the fall of 1978 through the summer of 1986, died Monday in Lansing. He was 89.
Norris joined the MHSAA staff on July 15, 1963, as Assistant State Director of Athletics under longtime Executive Director Charles E. Forsythe and then-Associate Director Allen W. Bush. Norris was promoted to Associate Director when Bush was appointed Executive Director in 1968, then took over as Executive Director upon Bush’s retirement in 1978.
Norris brought to the MHSAA a wealth of experience having coached at Traverse City, Rockford and Hillsdale high schools. He served as Assistant Director of Placement at Western Michigan University for the five years prior to joining the MHSAA staff, and during that time Norris built a reputation as a highly-regarded game official in the Kalamazoo area – and worked as a referee during the 1963 MHSAA Class A Boys Basketball Final.
Norris served on a number of national rules-making bodies during his 23-year tenure with the MHSAA, and as president of the Executive Board of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) during the 1983-84 school year. But he was best known for his work with Michigan’s coaches and especially officials. An award bearing Norris’ name is presented by the MHSAA each spring to a veteran official who has been active in a local officials association, has mentored other officials, and has been involved in officials’ education. The award has been given since 1992 at the annual Officials’ Awards & Alumni Banquet, which was begun during Norris’ tenure in 1980.
“Vern was respected and admired widely by contest officials, and it was because of that that I asked the Representative Council to approve an award for leaders who were especially involved in mentoring and training officials,” said MHSAA Executive Director John E. “Jack” Roberts, who succeeded Norris in 1986. “A total of 26 officials have received the Norris Award, and more than 10,000 officials have been honored at our annual banquet recognizing a group of contributors especially close to his heart.”
Norris shepherded a number of key advances during his tenures both as associate and executive director. The early 1970s saw the addition of MHSAA tournament events in girls sports, and football playoffs were added in 1975. Membership also grew during his time with the association; the MHSAA had 682 member high schools at the start of 1963-64, and 713 when Norris stepped down.
During his time at the MHSAA, Norris also served as a member of the NFHS Basketball Rules Committee from 1978-82, on the NFHS Constitution Revision Committee in 1979 and as a member of the editorial staff of the NFHS Rules Committee from 1980-82.
He served on the NFHS Executive Board representing Michigan’s section of five Midwestern states during a four-year term that concluded with his year as president, and he also served as chairperson of the NFHS Telecommunications Committee in 1972.
In retirement, Norris kept in touch with counterparts from other states and also with the MHSAA staff. Roberts noted he always was impressed with the amount of detail Norris could readily recall about the people he’d met along the way. And, “he could not have been more gracious when he retired and I was hired. He gave me total support and just the right amount of advice,” Roberts said.
A graduate of Grand Rapids Godwin Heights High School, Norris earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education from Western Michigan University and a master’s in school administration from the University of Michigan.
In addition to his MHSAA and NFHS work, Norris served as a football or basketball rules clinician in various states and multiple provinces of Canada, and served on amateur basketball’s rule-making body at the time – the National Basketball Committee of the United States and Canada – from 1972-76. He contributed during the late 1960s and 1970s on the National Alliance Basketball Advisory and National Alliance Football Rules committees. Norris also served on the United States Olympic Committee’s House of Delegates in 1985.
After leaving the MHSAA, Norris served as Commissioner of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference from fall of 1987 through the close of the 1991-92 school year.
The MHSAA is a private, not-for-profit corporation of voluntary membership by more than 1,500 public and private senior high schools and junior high/middle schools which exists to develop common rules for athletic eligibility and competition. No government funds or tax dollars support the MHSAA, which was the first such association nationally to not accept membership dues or tournament entry fees from schools. Member schools which enforce these rules are permitted to participate in MHSAA tournaments, which attract more than 1.4 million spectators each year.