Legendary coach Merl M. Norcross, a longtime resident of Holden, Mass., died Jan. 7, 2017, at his home in upstate New York, after an illness. He was 89. In his five decades as associate professor of physical education, including 42 seasons as head track and field coach, he formed warm bonds and inspired generations of WPI students.
Merl Norcross arrived on Boynton Hill in the fall of 1952 as an assistant coach in football, basketball, and track. Under his leadership, WPI celebrated many winning and undefeated teams, and he counted eight Division III All–Americans among the students he coached. The Engineers posted a winning record in each of his final 26 years as head coach, while amassing a .700 winning percentage during his entire standout career.
In 1953, he stepped up to replace head track coach Frank Sannela, who left WPI for a position as superintendent of schools in Oxford, Mass. In 1978 Norcross took the reins as assistant men's cross country coach, and in 1980 assumed head coaching duties. In all, he spent 53 years with the track program, remained with the football program for 25 years, and assisted with basketball for 10 years. Highlights include serving as assistant to the undefeated football team of 1954, and assisting the basketball team’s stand against Bob Knight in Knight's first career victory in 1965. He also served on the NCAA Track and Field Rules Committee for seven years.
Beloved by students, Norcross was tapped for Skull with the Class of 1960. He was inducted into WPI's Athletic Hall of Fame in 1986, and was honored as Division III New England Coach of the Year in 1987.
In fall 2007, when WPI dedicated the newly renovated Alumni Field complex, the eight-lane, state-of-the-art synthetic turf track was named for the longtime coach, in at halftime ceremony during the Homecoming game. The previous track had been installed in 1987. In the early years of his career, Norcross could be seen each spring working alongside groundskeepers to drain puddles and patch the turf.
His steady, low-key devotion to his students was captured in a 1990 WPI Journal story on the Institute's longtime coaches, called “The Secrets of Their Success.” He said, “I have something to say to every kid, every day. That makes them feel that it’s important that they’re there.” In a 1987 profile in The Wire, a tabloid published by WPI, he elaborated on the importance of a “sensible” athletics program for WPI, one that keeps athletics as an adjunct to academics. “Here, you know students compete because they want to, not because they may have financial obligations to fulfill,” he said, adding that although good coaches don’t win all the time, they do get the most out of their players, through perseverance.