Norm Parker, mastermind of Hawkeye defense, dies
Originally published on 1/13/2014
The news of Norm Parker's death left members of his Iowa football family dazed.
This, after all, was a man who stymied quarterbacks, defied diabetes — and emerged as the most beloved assistant coach in Hawkeye history.
"It's hard to put into words," said Jordan Bernstine, a Des Moines Lincoln alum who played defensive back for the Hawkeyes from 2007 to 2011. "Just because he coached for so long, touched so many players.
"I'm still trying to even wrap my head around it."
Parker, Iowa's defensive coordinator from 1999 to 2011, died Monday at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics at age 72. A cause of death was not provided by the university.
Parker spent much of his life in a dimly lit film room, or doodling on a board. Conversations were typically brief and blunt.
Yet, Parker's bond with players was unbreakable.
"He was that coach who would prefer not to be in the spotlight," Bernstine said. "His coaching method was unorthodox, but he gets his point across, none the less."
While other assistants — such as Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez and Joe Philbin — used Kinnick Stadium as a launching point, Parker made Melrose Avenue his final destination.
"Norm was just a staple," said Sean Considine, a Hawkeye safety from 2001 to 2004. "It was really impressive to see a guy his age who coached so long, still be able to relate to kids a couple generations removed from his era.
"Kids really wanted to play for him. They wanted to play hard for him."
Kirk Ferentz, who took over the program on Dec. 2, 1998, was the head coach and lead actor. Parker was the scene-stealing curmudgeon.
Together, they guided Iowa to four top-10 finishes in the Associated Press poll and two Big Ten titles (2002, 2004).
"Norm played a major and key role in any on-the-field success we experienced during his 13 years as our defensive coordinator," Ferentz said in a statement. "More important and valuable, is the strong and positive impact that he had on our players, staff, support staff and fans — everyone he interfaced with during his 15 years in Iowa."
Parker was named assistant coach of the year by the American Football Coaches Association in 2011.
His defenses ranked among the top 10 against the run five times, and were among the top 10 in scoring three times from 2008 to 2011.
"The guy was a defensive genius, but within that was the fact he never carried himself like (a genius)," said Anthony Herron, a defensive lineman from 1997 to 2000. "He never tried to feel like he could outsmart every other coach in the country by coming up with all these exotic blitzes or these new fronts no one else was running."
Parker, a native of Hazel Park, Mich., began his career in the 1960s, and spent time at Eastern Michigan, Wake Forest, Minnesota, Illinois, East Carolina and Michigan State. He joined Ferentz's original Hawkeye staff after two seasons at Vanderbilt.
"By the time Norm got to Iowa, he had already been around the block a few times," Herron said.
Iowa's defense allowed 31.5 points per game in 1999, ranking 98th out of 114 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
In the 2003 season, Parker assembled a unit that ranked seventh nationally in scoring (16.2 points), eighth against the run (92.7 yards) and 16th in total defense (314.5 yards).
In 2010, Iowa was fifth in total defense (332.1), sixth in rushing (101.5) and seventh in scoring (17.0).
"This game's not rocket science," Parker once said of his philosophy. "We sort of do what we do, and believe in what we do."
There were moments when nobody did it better:
–Nov. 11, 2000 amounted to a coming-out party, as the Hawkeyes upset No. 12 Northwestern 27-17. The Wildcats averaged 36.8 points for the season, 10th best in the nation.
–Oct. 26, 2002, Iowa humbled No. 8 Michigan 34-9 in the famed Big House. The Wolverines managed just 22 rushing yards.
–Jan. 5, 2010 may have marked Parker's masterpiece. The Hawkeyes smothered Georgia Tech's triple-option offense and won the Orange Bowl 24-14.
"Norm was a guy who knew, if he could keep it simple enough, the kids could buy into it," Herron said. "All his players could believe in what he was trying to accomplish with that scheme."
For Considine, a signature success came Oct. 23, 2004, when Iowa beat Penn State 6-4.
"It was kind of a reflection of Norm Parker and the defense he had, but also the confidence coach Ferentz had in him," Considine explained. "We actually took a safety on purpose, because we knew the defense was playing so well.
"I think the amount of respect coach Ferentz had for Norm was really clear and evident that day."
Considine described Parker as "old school."
Bernstine detailed a story from his freshman year, when Parker pulling him aside at practice after he got burned time and time again on a double move — "like the curl and go or the slant and go," Bernstine said.
Bernstine recalled Parker's blunt, R-rated criticism.
"That's not something you would think to hear a coach say," Bernstine said. "But I knew exactly what he meant.
"And from that point on, I wasn't getting beat on as many double moves."
Parker took the same taciturn approach when dealing with diabetes.
He endured several hospital stays and surgeries, eventually having his right foot amputated during the 2010 season.
"When a lot of the health issues started going on, you didn't even hear about it. Norm didn't bring it up," Bernstine said. "For me, it kind of came out of nowhere. I just saw him at practice, on the cart, instead of walking.
"He didn't let it affect his attitude."
Parker is survived by his wife, Linda, children Chelly, Joyce, Jim and Suzy, and six grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held Friday at 11 a.m. St. Mary Catholic Church in Chelsea, Mich. A memorial service will be held in Iowa City at a later date.
Bernstine, who in 2012 suffered a serious knee injury as a member of the Washington Redskins, talked with Parker when he returned to Iowa City a couple months ago.
"He was joking with me when I saw him in the elevator, asking me about my rehab and my knee," Bernstine said, "(and) if I was ready to race him."