MnB B1G Preview: Parker Redux

1999...oh, how it feels like yesterday. Time to start anew. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The scythe of coaching turnover has been swung quite indiscriminately in recent years: in Columbus, Ann Arbor, Champaign, and elsewhere. Jim Tressel dominated the Big Ten for a decade before seeing his career come to an end under less than ideal circumstances. Rich Rodriguez took the reins at Michigan for three years, piloting the automobile of Michigan football with an oblivious and child-like inexperience: RR was the driving student* and we were the instructor in the passenger's seat, looking on in horror and embarrassment at our inability to parallel park stop anybody on defense, ever.

Joe Paterno is no longer the head coach at Penn State, and I phrase it this way because the other, more realistic and less roundabout assessment still exists in the realm of the surreal and is beyond the scope of this anyhow. I mention this in order to note that 61 years is a long time to be alive, let alone to be alive and accomplish things at the same place.

Ron Zook finally saw his time at Illinois come to an end, an occurrence which was met with the expected amusement by some and long overdue reconciliation by others. Even lowly Indiana has recently fired a head coach, the irascible gum-tossing Bill Lynch, who had the unenviable task of following the beloved late Terry Hoeppner.

I would not criticize anyone who felt the desire to discuss any of these people or any of these situations. Whether it's Michigan in the post-RR era, Ohio State after its strange 2011 interregnum, or Penn State in light of everything that has happened there, there have certainly been no shortage of things to talk about and no shortage of people to talk about said things.

There is another man whom I have not yet mentioned. He was at the same place doing the same job--Iowa City, IA, thanks for asking--since 1999. His name is not Kirk Ferentz, actually, but that's fine that you thought it because it only helps my case. He ran half the team, crafting well-schooled defenses out of leftovers and non-name brand products.

Norm Parker decided to hang 'em up in December. I wouldn't blame you for finding more compelling or nationally resonant news, such as the coaching turnover at Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. I won't blame you for it, not because I think that you are right, but because you probably just don't know who Norm Parker is, or why he is important to Iowa football.

I'm going to talk about Norm Parker because it seems like not very many other people have or will.

*Since this is RR the OMG OUTSIDER we're talking about ...I bet he was driving a Honda or something in this hypothetical scenario. DOESN'T GET IT.

Way back when "partying like it was 1999" was a literal statement free of any nostalgic pre-Y2K sentiment, Kirk Ferentz was hired to replace the iconic Hayden Fry. While Ferentz could not match Fry in the white pants wearin' or mustache-havin' departments, he could compensate by hiring capable coordinators. At offensive coordinator, Ken O'Keefe joined Ferentz, resigning only this past year after a long tenure that oversaw many potent offenses.

On defense, Ferentz brought on Eastern Michigan alumnus (Class of '65, y'all...WASHTENAW COUNTY STAND UP) and former Michigan State and Vanderbilt DC Norm Parker. Since then, Iowa has enjoyed a mostly steady period of defensive success, improbably churning out NFL prospect after prospect. Names like Abdul Hodge, Chad Greenway, Sean Considine, Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux, Bob Sanders, Tyler Sash, Adrian Clayborn, Aaron Kampman, Charles Godfrey, and so on. It's an impressive list, not to mention one that measures up quite well to the elites of the conference. In Michigan's case, Iowa's NFL draft record has often been much better, especially of late. Iowa has made the best of its defensive personnel in the new millennium, which is more than can be said for Michigan (and that barb isn't exclusively aimed at the RR Interlude).

Norm Parker's "4-3 over," the terminology of it, doesn't mean much to the layman. Quite frankly, it seems that the only explanation for its efficiency over the years is that Parker was in fact the friendliest looking sorcerer of all time. Somehow, Iowa has used it's 2-high safety looks and liberal zone coverage to stifle many a Big Ten offense over the years. I don't need to remind you of the success that Iowa has had against Michigan. Perhaps a comparison is the best way to bring out the key differences in player development and scheme: juxtaposition is the ultimate focusing light.

I remember the 2002 game--Homecoming, no less--as one of the first times that I saw Michigan get absolutely dismantled. As Bo once said, it was a "smashing victory"...only this time, Iowa was doing the smashing. An offense that featured a strong-armed John Navarre (who was better and more capable than anyone ever gave him credit for), Chris Perry, Braylon Edwards, Bennie Joppru, and a more than capable offensive line. Michigan was held to a measly 9 points, and it was a watershed moment for me in that it proved that playing at home did not guarantee a close game, let alone victory. Schools other than Michigan had capable teams and great coaches: Iowa was one of those schools.

In 2004, Ernest Shazor was an All American safety for Michigan despite playing mostly terribly after the Purdue game that year. Iowa boasted Sean Considine, a former walk-on who went on to get drafted with the first pick in the fourth round of the NFL draft. Shazor went undrafted; Considine is still in the league. Sure, there's more to it than coaching--sometimes a player just doesn't have it, for whatever reason--but it simply goes to show how a system and a single-minded purpose can converge to yield above average results. You can call it "overachieving" if you want, but I have personally always laughed at the term: what does that even mean? Who is the arbiter of what is considered a reasonable or expected level of achievement? Is it you? Why do you set boundaries for yourself, man? These are all questions that the lingering spirit of the Iowa defenses of the past ask you.

---

Parker, a diabetic, had a foot amputated in 2010 as a result of his condition. He didn't like talking about it much:

Parker didn't appear comfortable talking to the press about his various health problems — he said he felt embarrassed by the attention at the team's media day in August.

Yet, he didn't lose his sense of humor, the type reserved for the grizzled don't-give-a-damns who have become an endangered species. If I didn't know any better, Parker sounds like he could just as easily be found as world-weary wise-cracking character in a Hemingway novel as he would on a football field:

And he never lost his sense of humor, O'Keefe said; speaking before the team's spring game in April, the offensive coordinator remembered a conversation he had with Parker about the weather.

"He said, 'Yeah, it was so damned cold my [artificial] leg fell off,' " O'Keefe said. "And I'm like, 'What?' … He didn't even blink. He thought it was funny."

I can see it now:

He called the defense. It was the same defense because it had worked the last time. It would work again. The Iowa sun beat down: the crowd, red-faced, waited for the action. The air cooked with the waiting. The crisp green and the cloudless blue and the black jerseys competed against each other. Heaven, Hell, and Iowa.

The safeties backed up, casting shadows ten, fifteen yards long. The quarterback made the call, looking from side to side. All that space. He took the snap and dropped back. The deep routes were hopeless. The linebackers dropped into their meticulous zones, each carved out like so much territory. It was like an army general laying out his battle plans on the table. Here, there, over there. Then we will go there. Then the conflict will be over.

Nothing was open. The quarterback, hurried by an oncoming end, found the tailback in the flat. The linebackers, as if pulled across water like the many British vessels of war at Gallipoli, converged. The rising action and climax and denouement happened all in the same moment. It was quick and easy. It was second and eight.

---

Fast forward even further, and it's 2009: a chilly night in Iowa City. I'm fairly certain that Tony Moeaki is still running down the seam, completely unimpeded. Michael Williams, where art though? I'll tell you where he wasn't: anywhere near Tony Moeaki. Meanwhile, just like in 2002 with Bob Sanders and 2004 with Sean Considine, you could look across the way and see Tyler Sash. Sure, it seemed as if he was always lined up 9,000 miles away from the line of scrimmage, but remember that Norm Parker's 4-3 over was an ingenious bit of passive-aggressive sorcery. The pink locker room, the zone coverage, the lack of blitzing, and the backed up safeties all made you believe that everything was alright, that you had Iowa right where you wanted them. This was all true until you found out that it was somehow fourth down and you were punting yet again.

---

This is not to say that Iowa's defense is in trouble post-Norm, or that I am sounding the alarm and telling Iowa fans that all is in fact not well. It's just that things are going to be a little different, and sometimes change can be a little scary. Remember that time when Michigan started to use the shotgun formation during the normal flow of the game and not exclusively in "we are down two scores and there is not enough time left" mode? I don't know about you guys, but that was first a little bit scary before it became exhilarating.

I have no doubt that Phil "I Am Not Norm Parker's Son" Parker is a fine defensive mind, and if Patrick Vint's interview with Zach earlier in the week is any indication, Iowa is probably in for a little spicier livin' on defense. Say what you will, but when it comes to defense, being linked to Nick Saban is not a bad thing at all.

Still, things are going to be different, and I'm not sure that people are adequately respecting the legacy that Parker left behind. Yes, there were down years, and yes, there were many times when Iowa fans wondered why the "blitz" had become a taboo concept. In the end, they weren't a part of the plan (of course, I am generalizing here), but The Plan is what got Iowa what it's gotten in the past however many years.

Norm Parker's time in Iowa City was without a doubt a successful one on the field. However, it seems to me that his greatest contribution to Iowa, the Big Ten, and college football as a whole are much more meaningful than wins and losses and NFL draft picks molded out of 2-star clay. In a sense, his career was a tribute to the power of ideas. Ideas, of course, can be dented but not destroyed. You could say that an idea, when applied, bends but does not breaks.**

In his time at Iowa, Norm Parker never liked to talk about himself or his health problems. He is a man who sticks to his beliefs and strives to execute The Plan with unstinting determination. These are simple and noble things, even moreso because they are rare in modern college football and the world at large. Maybe this all verges on hagiography, maybe not...I don't know. Nonetheless, it seems odd to me how seemingly little coverage Norm Parker's retirement has inspired, especially vis-a-vis what Iowa's defensive model might look like going forward.

For 13 years, the Iowa defense woke up next to the same woman, ate the same breakfast of eggs and bacon and coffee (black). It did its daily work and then retired, slipping into bed and falling asleep with ease. The stars in the night sky were as fixed in the firmament as an Iowa safety's position relative the line of scrimmage. In a sense, the 4-3 over was just about as perfect a manifestation of the Iowan sensibility--well, my impression/generous stereotyping of it, at least--as there could possibly be. Norm Parker's defensive philosophy was an avatar of Midwestern steadfastness, of a stubbornness that, if you squinted real hard, looked a lot like unflinching commitment to an ideal (there is always a fine line there, it seems, and success or failure retroactively determines which one it actually is). Then again, as a former English major, I have been trained to find meaning where none probably exists. Still, there is something poetic about Norm Parker's defensive schemes, especially in a place like Iowa.

Phil Parker has a tall order ahead of him. However, if Norm's tenure as defensive coordinator offers any wisdom to Parker the Younger, it's this: pick something, practice it, and do it well on Saturday. It's really a matter of identity, and the genesis of Phil Parker's as Iowa's defensive coordinator can be found on February 7th of this year. Perhaps in 2024--when we're all either zipping around in flying cars or living in a world dominated by the Brawndo Corporation--people will be talking about Phil Parker as the man who, gasp, brought the blitz to Iowa: a new idea.

**I'll show myself out now.

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