Often facing an uncertain future, college football coaches learn to live in the moment with winning the only acceptable long-term option.
That’s how Norm Parker dealt with his coaching career until he became the defensive coordinator at the University of Iowa before the 1999 season.
Once he joined Kirk Ferentz’s staff at Iowa, Parker allowed himself to peek ahead at the future just a little bit.
Parker was 57 years old when he came to Iowa and he already had coached at seven different colleges, beginning with Eastern Michigan in 1968.
His passion for the game was still as strong as ever, but Parker wanted to shed his nomadic lifestyle and plant roots.
“I wanted it to be (my last coaching job),” Parker said of the Iowa job. “And I certainly hoped that we would last long enough that it would be.”
Parker, 70, has made Iowa his last coaching stop, and he did so by building the Iowa defense into a hard-hitting and fundamentally sound force.
It’s been Ferentz’s team for the past 13 seasons, but it’s been Parker’s defense.
Together, they helped lift the Iowa program to unprecedented success, but the journey will end for Parker on Friday when he retires after coaching against Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
“I liked the fit from the beginning,” Parker said of coaching at Iowa. “You don’t want to go bouncing around forever. I mean, how many times do you want to move?
Parker uses the phrase College-town USA to describe his affection for Iowa City. He enjoys the lifestyle so much that he plans to stay in Iowa City during his retirement, at least when there isn’t snow on the ground.
“I don’t ever want to see snow again,” Parker said, only half jokingly.
Parker owns property in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and he has friends and family living in his home state of Michigan.
Being retired will give him the freedom and flexibility to experience new things and make it easier for Parker to deal with his ongoing battle with the advanced stages of diabetes.
Parker had part of his right leg amputated in 2010, making it hard to be mobile without assistance. He hasn’t recruited on the road for quite a while and now it’s to the point where just getting from one place to another is a major production for him.
“I just can’t do it anymore,” Parker said. “It’s time.”
‘He taught all of us how to live’
Soon his time at Iowa will become fond memories of winning two Big Ten titles, having four double-digit win seasons, playing in 10 bowl games and having 45 players selected in the NFL draft, including 21 on defense.
Parker’s fondest memory, though, will be how the Iowa football program embraced his son Jeff, who is died in 2004.
Parker and his wife, Linda, had four grown children already living on their own when Norm was hired to coach at Iowa.
But they also had a son named Jeff, who died in 2004 from complications after a series of strokes. Jeff lived until he was 33 years old despite having Down syndrome.
And he lived in a way that touched others, especially his father.
“Jeff taught the people in our family more about how to live than everybody else did,” Norm said. “Jeffrey was this Down syndrome kid, but in the end, he was a great teacher.
“He taught all of us how to live. He didn’t know how to lie. He didn’t know how to hate. He didn’t know how to do those things. He taught everybody how to live.”
Jeff worked in the Iowa equipment room, mostly folding towels.
“He really identified with that,” Norm said. “I mean, that was his life, working with the Hawkeyes.
“He loved being a Hawkeye. He was a Hawk from the word go. Win, lose or draw, Jeff was on your side.”
Jeff is still often on his father’s mind, and probably will be even more so after Parker retires and has more time to think about his son’s legacy.
“It’s been very tough,” Norm Parker said of life without Jeff. “It’s without question one of the hardest things that I’ve ever gone through. And I miss him. I probably think about him some every day.”
Finding his life’s calling
Norm Parker’s life has revolved around football and family.
A native of Hazel Park, Mich., Parker feels fortunate to have had a father that encouraged his children to pursue their dreams, but without pressuring them.
“He didn’t push us into (football) or anything like that,” Norm said. “He encouraged us. And I don’t think it would have mattered if it was playing the trombone or playing football. It would have been the same thing to him.”
Norm Parker was interested in sports, especially football after watching his older brother excel in the sport.
Norm lettered four times in football at Eastern Michigan, graduating in 1965 with a degree in special education. He also wrestled for two seasons at Eastern Michigan and was the head football coach at Ypsilanti High School, which is near Detroit, for three seasons from 1965-67.
Parker knew once he started coaching football that he had found his life’s calling.
“I think I knew I always wanted to do it,” Parker said.
A one-year stint as the offensive line coach at Eastern Michigan in 1968 was the start of Parker’s near half-century trek through the collegiate ranks.
He moved to Wake Forest and coached the tight ends and receivers for three seasons from 1969-71.
He then moved to Minnesota where he coached the defensive line for five seasons from 1972-76.
Parker has been coaching defense ever since, with stops at Illinois, East Carolina, Michigan State and Vanderbilt along the way.
He has no regrets about not becoming a head coach in college, although, he used to think about it every now and then while rising up the ranks.
“I think everybody at some time likes to think (about it),” Parker said. “But it wasn’t a thing that I was terribly disappointed about.
“I was just happy being a coach. I was truly happy being a coach. I just enjoy being a coach.”
What you see is what you get
Working for Ferentz has added to his happiness.
Parker describes his soon-to-be former boss in glowing terms. He especially admires the way Ferentz treats people from all walks of life.
“I think he treats everybody with the same exact respect,” Parker said of Ferentz. “In other words, I don’t think it makes any difference if it’s the president of the university or the janitor that cleans this building; they’re all going to get treated with the same respect.”
Parker was no stranger to the Iowa football program when he accepted Ferentz’s offer to run the defense. Parker had coached against Iowa at three different Big Ten schools, including at Michigan State from 1983-94, serving as defensive coordinator his last five seasons.
His time at Michigan State coincided with some of Iowa’s best seasons under former coach Hayden Fry.
But it was more than just Iowa’s success in football that stood out to Parker.
His oldest son, Jim, was a student manager for the Michigan State football team and Norm said the managers were always excited about playing Iowa on the road because it meant spending a night in Iowa City.
“Those managers, they know every town,” Parker said. “They’re on the road, but they all go out every Friday night before a game.
“And he always thought that Iowa City was the best place. They enjoyed Iowa City more than any other city they would travel to.”
Parker’s approach to coaching defense is similar to his approach to life in that what you see is what you get.
He doesn’t try to fool opponents with unorthodox defensive schemes, nor does he try to put on an act to impress people.
Parker has a dry sense of humor without trying. He creates laughter whether addressing his players or a room filled with reporters.
And he’s serious about what he does, but without taking himself too seriously.
“Norm had an outstanding sense of humor,” said former Iowa defensive tackle and West High graduate Tyler Luebke, who played at Iowa in 2003 and 2004. “Norm had a great connection with the players through his coaching style. The sense of humor definitely was a big part of that.
“He had a great sense of sarcasm, and we really enjoyed having him around. His explanations were always very witty, but in the end, you just sort of nodded your head and said that makes total sense.”
Parker’s defenses at Iowa have had a reputation for being tough, physical and well coached with regard to fundamentals. He’s relied mostly on a 4-3 defensive alignment and some have called his approach conservative because Parker will sacrifice yards to prevent big plays.
His approach has been described as bending without breaking on defense. But more times than not, it’s worked at Iowa.
“Giving up big plays was definitely a big pet peeve of Norm’s,” Luebke said.
Under Parker’s direction, Iowa has finished ranked among the top 10 nationally in rushing defense five times.
His 2004 defense led the Big Ten in rushing defense and turnover margin while also leading the conference in red zone defense for the second consecutive season.
“They’re just seemed to be something special about Norm’s defense,” Luebke said. “You can’t really put it into words.
“He gets the players to want to play his defense. He is a student of the game, maybe a philosopher more so.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football