This echoes most of what you’re read, heard or said about 13-year Iowa football defensive coordinator Norm Parker since the news came that he died Monday morning.
I thought it couldn’t hurt to re-run a column I wrote in late 2004. Celebrating any decent person’s life is never a bad thing. This essay quoted Norm’s wife, Linda, and his son, Jim. It’s seldom when you get to interview family members of these coaches, so that was one of several aspects of writing this column that I enjoyed.
ORLANDO, Fla. – A coach can preach toughness 24/7. He can command his players to fight back from adversity day after day after day.
Or you can be Norm Parker, and not have to say a word about such things. You just live it.
Parker, the 63-year-old defensive coordinator of Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa football staff, had a year that would break many people. On March 2, his son Jeff died at 33 due to complications after a series of strokes. Jeff worked in Iowa’s football equipment room. He had Down syndrome.
“That took a lot out of me, I’ll say that,” Parker said Tuesday after Iowa practiced for Saturday’s Capital One Bowl at the Florida Citrus Bowl complex. “He was my best buddy, and that hurt.”
Then in August, Parker had a toe amputated because of complications caused by diabetes. An infection set in during the Hawkeyes’ preseason camp, and he needed vascular surgery to improve circulation in his left leg and foot.
The recuperation kept Parker from Iowa’s first three games. Yet he is among six finalists for the 2004 Frank Broyles Award, determined by a panel of distinguished retired head coaches to their choice as the top Division I-A assistant coach of the year.
Parker ’s defense ranks fifth nationally against the run and ninth in total defense.
The award will be given at a ceremony in Little Rock, Ark., on Jan. 11.
“I’ll probably go there and watch another guy get a trophy,” Parker shrugged.
This guy’s good at shrugging off credit. He’s also adept at coordinating a defense, as other Big Ten coaches can painfully concede.
Coaching is game planning, film-study, teaching, motivating, and, of course, what you do during those four quarters on Saturdays. Possibly more than anything, though, it’s leading by example.
Because of Parker, said Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe, “there wasn’t a person in that program that didn’t gain strength.
“It’s what we talk about in athletics all the time. At some point in time, you’re going to take what you used in the game to handle those real-life situations. These were real-life situations the guy handled.”
“We all look up to him,” Iowa defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. “Whatever he says goes.”
That’s not just talk. Those players shuttled from the football complex to Parker ’s room at University Hospitals in September.
“The defensive players were there every night,” said Norm ’s wife , Linda Parker. “And then once he got home he set up meetings on the sun porch. They brought the film out for him and the guys came out. I’m not sure he felt he helped them very much, but they sure helped him feel like he was in the game.
“And Kirk was there constantly, all the time, telling him, take your time, take your time. We want you back, we need you back, but we want you to be well when you come back.”
But you don’t make a full recovery from a serious surgery in a week or two, especially when you’re in your 60s. Parker’s first game back was Sept. 27 at Michigan. That began three solid months of work. He admitted he needs time this offseason for physical rehabilitation.
“He just gets tired,” Linda said. “Every week he feels a little stronger. It’s going to take a while.”
“I’m alive,” Parker said. “I get worn down. I get tired. I thought I would get better faster. But it didn’t work that way. You get a little bit better very slowly.”
“He’s been a tremendous example of toughness, courage, for our guys this year,” O’Keefe said.
In case anyone had doubts, Parker plans to direct Iowa’s defense next season and beyond.
“These few years have been the most satisfied I’ve seen him in coaching,” said Parker ’s son, Jim, CEO of a Detroit construction company.
“One thing I’ve said is that I would never do it just to have a job,” Parker said. “The day that it wasn’t fun or the day that you didn’t enjoy it – I won’t insult the game.”
Still, did he consider retiring at any low point this year?
“No, no, no, no,” he replied. “You can’t walk out. That never entered my mind.”
Plus, as was vividly evident in October and November, the man can still coach. He could leave Arkansas in a couple weeks with the Broyles Award and a 100-pound cast bronze statue worth $5,000.
Predictably, Parker swatted away the notion of winning that award.
“I’ve probably got a better chance of being Miss America,” he said.
“You’re honored by it, but really, any of those things are really the other coaches having more to do with it than I do. Then it’s the players. 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.”
But those players wouldn’t have clustered in that coach’s hospital room night after night had they not respected him. They probably wouldn’t have played Big Ten championship-type defense without his guidance.
“He never blinked, he never flinched,” O’Keefe said. “Never.”
“The players saw how tired he was, how hurt. They saw.
“The guy’s got guts, and he’s got everything it takes to get us where we need to go.”
Getting that big hunk of a trophy in Little Rock would be nice. But for showing a team what real dedication and perseverance are all about and getting the job done to boot, Parker is the Coach of the Year. Period.
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