I was sure Iowa would defeat Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl two seasons ago in the days leading up to the game.
The buzz was that Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker was almost giddy in the weeks leading up to the game, loving the challenge Tech’s spread option offense presented. This was an offense Parker hadn’t faced in a long, long time, but he had indeed faced it before. By all accounts, it sounded like he relished the task of teaching his players and assistants how to crack the Yellow Jackets’ codes.
Then, I watched Parker at an Orange Bowl press conference, trying to explain the Yellow Jackets’ blend of a wishbone and a run-and-shoot.
He used water bottles, a plastic bottle half-full of orange juice, a paper cup, and an empty drinking glass to try to explain Tech’s attack, and he did so with a gusto. He was into it, all right.
The underdog Hawkeyes won the game convincingly. The 24-14 score didn’t reflect the domination. Tech’s average of 307 rushing yards per game meant nothing in the Miami chill. Parker’s defense held the Yellow Jackets to just 155 total yards and one offensive score.
Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn got the Defensive MVP award that night, but he quickly passed the praise.
“I give all the props to Coach Norm Parker for putting together a great game plan,” Clayborn said.
That was a typical comment from a defensive player in Parker’s 13 years as Iowa’s DC. The number of times I heard a Hawkeye player question Parker’s wisdom or strategy in that time, during or after their careers: Zero.
Ask Chad Greenway about Norm. Ask Jonathan Babineaux, Sean Considine, Bob Sanders. Ask Clayborn.
Parker never reinvented any wheels. He used a 4-3 front with occasional nickel packages and minimal blitzing. When he had the horses, which was often over the years, it worked. Because those horses got trained. They got better as seasons got older.
OK, not so much last year when Iowa had a wealth of future NFL talent on defense, although it had an injury-ravaged linebacker corps. But you can always wonder if the Hawkeyes would have shored things up a bit more last fall had Parker not missed seven weeks of the season because of surgery, hospitalization and rehabbing.
With Parker back in the saddle for the bowl game preparation last December, Iowa did find a way to end up getting the best of quarterback Blaine Gabbert and Missouri. Now Parker gears up for Oklahoma and talented quarterback Landry Jones in the Insight Bowl, with three weeks to figure some things out.
Iowa is again an underdog, but the Hawkeyes won’t lack for motivation to perform well on Dec. 30 in Tempe.
What we should remember more about Parker’s time at Iowa than the many great defensive performances his units gave and the many players who were molded into all-Big Ten stars is this: He showed true toughness, not macho nonsense, and without a trace of self-pity.
His son, Jeff, died in March 2004 after complications from a number of strokes. Jeff, who was 33, had Down syndrome. Jeff was a fixture in the Iowa football complex.
“That took a lot out of me, I’ll say that,” Parker said nine months after Jeff’s death. “He was my best buddy, and that hurt.”
Parker, a diabetic, had vascular surgery in August 2004 to improve circulation in his left leg and foot. He had a toe amputated in 2004 and another in 2009. At the beginning of the 2010 season he had a leg amputated. When did he ever say “Woe is me?” He just wanted to get back to coaching, and he did.
But the time to leave comes for everyone. Parker’s retirement brings to mind words he uttered seven years ago:
“I would never do it just to have a job. … I won’t insult the game.”
When Parker was 57, he left Vanderbilt to join Ferentz at Iowa. What was this, some wondered. An old coaching crony of Ferentz’s coming here to retire?
Absolutely not. It was Ferentz hiring someone with similar sensibilities, someone as solid as the proverbial rock the Hawkeyes said they were trying to break.
That rock was broken, a long time ago. Norm Parker, however, remained solid. Solid gold, really.