Personal touch: Iowa's Phil Parker nurtures talent on, off the field

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Phil Parker is a football coach and a father, and sometimes an unusual mixture of both.

Case in point: Iowa’s star cornerback, Desmond King, woke up groggy in a hospital bed during homecoming week of his freshman season. He was surprised to see Parker, the Hawkeyes defensive coordinator, at his side, barking out play calls.

“I’m like, ‘What are you telling me right now?’” King recalled. “He said, ‘What are you gonna do on this play?’ I ended up answering the question and he was like, ‘That’s right, so now get some rest and get ready to get back on the field.’ That’s how he knew I was fine.”

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker watches his team during the Hawkeyes' game against Miami (Ohio) at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016.

King never did find out what was wrong with him that week. He assumes it was a bacterial infection that caused his throat to swell up. But he found out what was right about his new home away from home – Parker, the man who recruited him out of East English Village Prep in Detroit, was going to stay by his side, and not just on the football field.

The episode also made a lasting impression on King’s mother, Yvette Powell, who was back home frantic with worry, wondering whether she needed to hop a bus to Iowa City to be with her son. Parker reassured her. He and his wife, Sandy, were going to sit with King until his mystery illness subsided.

“I was nervous. I didn’t know what was going on because he’d never been away from home before he went to Iowa. He’d never been in the hospital,” Powell said. “They sat there with my baby and they’re like my family now.”

It’s that type of behind-the-scenes loyalty that has marked Parker’s 18-year tenure on the Iowa coaching staff. He came aboard in 1999 when Kirk Ferentz took the reins and is one of just two assistants (strength coach Chris Doyle is the other) who have never left. Along the way, he’s churned out a series of NFL-caliber defensive backs, been promoted from secondary coach to defensive coordinator, but Parker has never considered bolting for a bigger job at a bigger program.

“There have been many opportunities” to leave, Parker said this spring. “It was always important to me to have my kids (son Tyler and daughter Paige) go through one school system. It keeps them stable, and I had the opportunity to do that here.”

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker talks to his team during the Hawkeyes' game against Miami (Ohio) at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016.

'A pretty chill coach'  

Assistant football coaches at Iowa rarely speak to the media, and when they do it’s usually to offer an evaluation of players. Parker comes across as quietly positive, if not entirely comfortable or expansive, in those sessions. Sound bites are not his forte. Instead, he steadfastly praises any player he is asked about, while cautioning that there is still work to do.

Those players see a different side.

“He’s calmed down since my freshman year,” said senior cornerback Greg Mabin, who converted from wide receiver after arriving at Iowa from Florida. “Freshman year, he was definitely a fiery, in-your-face kind of guy, but I feel like he’s kind of mellowed out a little bit. Granted, he can still get fiery and get in your face, but for the most part he’s a pretty chill coach.”

Mabin smiled.

“I don’t know if it’s me getting better or just him getting wiser.”

Parker was a three-time all-Big Ten Conference defensive back at Michigan State from 1983-85. He was involved in two epic contests against the school that would later employ him.

The Spartans beat Iowa 17-16 in 1984 when Hawkeye quarterback Chuck Long was stopped six inches from the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt with 44 seconds left. The next year, again at Kinnick Stadium, Long scored on a naked bootleg run with 27 seconds left to give an Iowa team ranked No. 1 in the nation a 35-31 win. It was the latter play, Parker joked, that he had to re-live every day for a month when he was hired by Ferentz in 1999.

Parker also had a memorable run-in with Jim Harbaugh, then Michigan’s sophomore quarterback and now its high-profile head coach. In the third quarter of the 1984 version of that intense in-state rivalry, Parker hit Wolverine running back Jamie Morris and forced a fumble. Harbaugh reached to recover the football and came up with a broken arm. Michigan State won the game.

“I kind of remind him of that when I see him,” Parker said.

Former Iowa standout Micah Hyde was one of the players to develop under Phil Parker.

A proven talent developer 

It is those experiences, and hundreds more, that he brings to his current job. Parker was a general assistant at Michigan State in 1987 before landing a job coaching defensive backs at Toledo. He had 11 happy years there before one of his former defensive coaches at Michigan State, Norm Parker (no relation), convinced him to come to Iowa to be part of Ferentz’s first staff. Phil Parker didn’t really know Ferentz, but he admired the Hawkeyes’ reputation under longtime coach Hayden Fry.

“I knew that they always played good football, won championships. They graduated their student-athletes. They played with class,” Parker said. “And football coaches stayed there for a long period of time.”

Parker was the defensive backs coach from 1999-2011, inheriting an initial group that included future NFL player Matt Bowen. He mentored onetime walk-ons like Derek Pagel and Sean Considine into pro-caliber safeties. He has helped mold a litany of star Hawkeye defensive backs from Charles Godfrey to Bob Sanders to Micah Hyde.

And, now, King, winner of the Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation’s top cornerback last season as a junior.

“He expects a lot out of his players and that’s one thing that I like about a coach is someone that can hold that person accountable and kind of put him in a standard. He’s humble and he wants the best for his players,” King said of Parker.

“I feel like he’s an even guy. He’s not too overwhelmed by anything. He’s very laid-back and he’s ready to teach anybody what they need to know.”

Added Mabin: “I’ve always been a pretty good athlete, but he’s helped me use my athleticism on the defensive side of the ball. He’s helped me with understanding coverages, understanding route combinations, concepts, what the offense is trying to do. What formation are they more liable to run this play or pass this play? Just the mental aspect of my game.”

Iowa cornerback Desmond King was likely heading to Ball State, until Phil Parker made a recruiting stop to Michigan. Now King's one of the nation's top defensive players.

Fatherly approach 

When illness forced the late Norm Parker to retire in 2012, Phil Parker took over for his former coach. He was the defensive coordinator that year, and added responsibility for defensive backs the next year.

Parker, 53, will be making the defensive calls again Saturday when No. 10 Iowa hosts Allen Lazard and Iowa State at 6:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network). He will be calling on King to shadow the Cyclones’ star receiver, a sign that he is willing to be flexible when drawing up game plans.

There were introspective moments for Parker and Ferentz after the 2014 season ended in a disappointing 7-6 record, as well. Even after years together, as comfortable as they are, they knew that they had to examine their methodology, realizing that what used to work won’t always.

“We came up with an idea, going to morning practices, don’t practice on Thursday,” Parker said. “It was hard for me the first five games of going through that system and saying, ‘Are we missing something?’

“You always evaluate. But I think some of the different change-ups that we did, I think it benefited us.”

Iowa, which finished 12-2, was in the top 15 nationally last season in interceptions (10th), turnover margin (11th) and rushing defense (15th).

It helps to recruit well, too. It was Parker who landed King after one of King’s rival high school coaches declared him the best player in Michigan, offense or defense. King was set to go to Ball State when Parker made a surprise visit to his high school in January 2013.

Parker, whose recruiting area encompasses Michigan and Ohio, had an easy sales pitch to King, who was yearning for a Big Ten offer. It was Powell that he really had to impress. Some coaches roll up their sleeves. Parker kicked off his shoes.

Powell still laughs at the memory.

“Other coaches were always all business,” Powell said. “He came to my home for the first time, he took his shoes off, crossed his legs and sat right on the couch, like, ‘I’m here for dinner.’ I loved that. I was comfortable speaking with him.

“We talked about my son. He said, ‘I’m going to treat him like my son,’ and when he said that, he meant it and I felt that. I see that he helped Desmond build his confidence out there at the next level. That’s what I appreciate about Phil. He brings it out of you.”


6:30 p.m. Saturday

Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City