What was always striking about 13-year Iowa football defensive coordinator Norm Parker is how he had both the affection and respect of his players.
Many coaches have attained one of those two. But to win both the hearts and minds of players — and Iowa’s fans, as well — means you won no matter what your won-lost record was. And Iowa won a lot in Norm’s time.
As much as they rely on words to instruct, leaders don’t lead with talk. They lead by what they put behind their words, how genuine they are. They lead by how they handle adversity themselves, not how they tell others to do so. They lead by being consistent, substantial and genuine.
Kirk Ferentz has made a lot of right moves in his tenure as Iowa’s head coach. None were better than hiring Norm, who died Monday at 72.
The health issues Norm dealt with over the last decade would reduce many of us to puddles. Norm coped, kept pushing forward. When he had part of a leg amputated prior to the 2010 season, it was far less of a personal blow to him than when his 33-year-old son, Jeff, died in 2004 after complications from strokes. Jeff had Down syndrome. He was a beloved member of the Hawkeye football family, a fixture in the football complex. “He was my best buddy,” Norm said.
It’s not a bit of a reach to say Norm was a brilliant defensive coordinator. But his players saw not only how he gave them great chances to succeed on the field with his breaking down of opposing offenses, but also how a person dealt with real adversity without wallowing in self-pity.
And they liked him. An age-difference? It mattered not. You either relate to people or you don’t. Norm did. Here is a sprinkling of quotes from Norm’s players and coaching colleagues over the years:
“We all look up to him. Whatever he says goes,” defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.
“He’s great at giving us perspective for real life, not just football, but what’s out there in the world,” linebacker Fred Barr said.
“He’s one of my favorite people,” said Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands, who playfully verbally sparred with Norm at I-Club events. “First of all, he’s a coach’s coach, or I should say, he’s a player’s coach. He’s about performance, so I think I relate to that. And he’s old-school, and I think I relate to that. I have tremendous respect for him for a lot of reasons. … He’s top-notch all the way.”
“Over the long haul, we’re better with Norm, no question about it,” Ferentz said at one point in Norm’s tenure. And no one did question it.
Time after time over the years, Norm deflected credit to the players, saying “There’s not a coach out there who’s ever made a tackle or completed a pass or done any of that stuff. It’s the players who play the game.”
The way many of those former Hawkeye players rushed to social media Monday to express their sorrow about Norm’s death spoke volumes. And not just Hawkeyes, but players he recruited and coached at other schools long ago.
“My respects to Norm Parker’s family and Hawkeye fans,” wrote former Iowa State quarterback Sage Rosenfels. “His players loved playing for him and opponents respected him. What more do you want?”
These comments from Norm in April 2010 may be as useful in defining him:
“One person asked me what’s the most exciting thing. Before it was winning a game, that was the biggest thing. I think the thing that makes you the happiest now is to see the look on the faces of the players after they’ve done something good.
“In other words, I don’t know if winning that Orange Bowl was the charge as much as it was seeing the look on the faces of the players when they knew they had done something, you know, see their satisfaction. It’s like the Penn State game. Our guys prepared hard, put a lot into it and when they won the game, to see their faces, that to me meant more than winning the game.
“Maybe that means you’re getting old. Maybe that means you’re seeing the game the way you should see it.”
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