Last night, longtime Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker announced he will be retiring after the Insight Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners on Dec. 29th after 48 years in coaching. It wasn’t exactly a surprise; the surly veteran is nearing 70, has increasingly struggled with his diabetes in recent years, and just received the American Football Coaches Association “Assistant Coach of the Year” award, widely considered a retirement gift for his lifetime achievements since other coordinators had more successful 2011 seasons.
But it’s still difficult to believe that anyone other than Norm, who has ran the defense for Coach Kirk Ferentz since his arrival in Iowa City 13 years ago, will be calling the Hawkeyes’ defensive plays. In many ways, he is just as much the face of the program as Kirk; Norm’s embattled, grandfatherly expressions, the adversity he has faced (more real than on the field), his colorfully old-fashioned, off-beat jokes, ability to take slighted, lightly recruited players and turn them into NFL stars, and, finally, his stubborn reliance on the same, conservative schemes and philosophies to achieve stops no matter the circumstances all offer pieces of the man he is.
Many Hawkeye fans probably released a quiet but not entirely stifled sigh of relief upon hearing the news. They don’t want to appear ungrateful for what Norm did, essentially, but are ready for an injection of schematic change. Norm relied on disciplined, fill-the-gaps football throughout his coaching career. Hard hits after the catch, tenacious “six seconds of hell” ball pursuit, big play prevention, and stifling the run game. The tenants of the cover-two, a defense popular in NFL circles. These are the fundamental pillars of Norm’s success, and he did have success — Iowa finished as one of the 10 best teams in the country at stopping the run four times between 2002 and 2009, and set their program amid the top 12 scoring defenses in the country for three consecutive years.
But once the Hawkeyes sustained success and recruited high-end, blue chip talent, Hawkeye fans felt as if Norm wasn’t taking full advantage of Iowa’s potential. Although Norm’s defenses have always been solid and consistent, forming the backbone of the best Hawkeye teams by stopping the run, they have also been maddeningly frustrating and prone to the same holes year after year. Norm rarely blitzes, which leaves opposing quarterbacks plenty of time to find open targets, of which there are many. This is because Iowa’s defensive backs play a soft zone coverage for most of the game, giving their man space to make the catch so they can keep the opponent in front, make a solid tackle, and prevent a big gain. However, this allows opponents to “dink-and-dunk” the Hawkeyes down the field with 5-10 yard gain after 5-10 yard gain.
The other team is required to be patient in order to score, but a cerebral, accurate quarterback, such as those who tend to play for Northwestern, can easily pick apart the attack. How many times has another team needed to convert a 3rd-and-five against the Hawkeyes only to see the Hawkeye secondary playing a yard behind the first-down marker, essentially handing over the first? Linebackers are often forced to cover slot receivers, a tough duty for any Hawkeye not named Chad Greenway or A.J. Edds. As much as Norm’s defenses embody a prideful “tough-as-nails,” blue-collar attitude, the conservative schematic deficiencies, primarily Norm’s stubborn refusal to blitz, adapt to, or even acknowledge the advent of the spread offense, have driven fans to the frustrated brink of thirst for new blood.
Well, first, I hate to inform those fans that Kirk will likely promote from in-house. Iowa has the most longevity of any coaching staff in the Big Ten right now. The static stability of the staff is both reassuring to recruits and helplessly stale to fans who accuse Kirk’s crew of failing to adapt or think outside the box as the years progress. Usually, when somebody retires or moves to a better job, Kirk just re-shuffles the responsibilities or divvies out a promotion from the current staff, as he did with Lester Erb when running backs coach Carl Jackson retired in 2008.One rare and greatly appreciated exception came with the hiring of Eric “Soup” Campbell as wide receivers coach. Kirk poached him from an analogous position at the University of Michigan, Soup’s alma mater, after the firing of Lloyd Carr. Campbell coached future pros like Braylon Edwards, Mario Manningham, and Steve Breaston while with the Wolverines, so he brought a sterling resume with him to Iowa City. Sure enough, Campbell has ended up coaching the two best statistical receivers in Iowa history, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt, from 2007-11.
So, despite the apparent success at hiring a talented assistant from outside the program, Kirk will likely stick with the comfort of a current assistant, such as secondary coach Phil Parker or linebackers coach/recruiter Darrell Wilson. Campbell will remain an anomaly and not the norm. This avoids potential awkwardness on staff when a well-tenured, veteran assistant who feels he has put the time in doesn’t feel slighted when it’s finally his turn and the head coach goes outside the program. Another possibility could be former Hawkeye assistant Ron Aiken, now with the Arizona Cardinals coaching the defensive line. Levar Woods is a young up-and-comer and former player under Ferentz, but he is likely a few years away from challenging for such a position anywhere in the country.
A dark-horse candidate could be somebody like Tom Bradley from Penn State. Bradley manned the Nittany Lions’ defense after the infamous retirement of Jerry Sandusky, and was the interim coach in 2011 after Joe Paterno’s firing. He is somewhat of a company man, and it’s impossible to guess what he knew about Sandusky’s illicit behavior over the years, but PSU has always possessed fantastic defenses and Bradley has been a key architect. Self-mocking flight tracker nerds at Black Heart Gold Pants noticed a previously unscheduled private plane ready to jet between the Eastern Iowa Airport and Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, so after speculation sputtered that Ferentz or offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe had considered taking the head job at PSU, many began to wonder whether Ferentz planned to poach PSU’s staff similarly to what he did with Soup at Michigan a few years ago. Perhaps the fish weren’t as big as Bradley, but if Ferentz is talking to people from Happy Valley, he may have someone in mind fresh for the hire from the Nittany Lions’ staff.
One name Hawkeye fans shouldn’t expect to see, although they appear rabid for him, is former Hawkeye safety and University of Arizona Coach Mike Stoops. Stoops is a simmering spitball of a coach, nearly foaming at the mouth at every questionable call and fueled from external expressions of emotion, which is the complete opposite of Ferentz’s style. Although the idea of Stoops on the staff is exciting, his personality would never mesh with Ferentz, he would demand a hefty salary, and it seems as if every school in the country is looking at Stoops to be their defensive coordinator, while Ferentz dismissively waved the idea off early in the season when Stoops was fired in Tucson.
But enough attention has been paid to Norm’s faults and the possible men to replace him. This is a moment to celebrate his career, what he’s meant to the culture of Hawkeye football, the impact he has left on so many young men, and the legacy he leaves behind. Norm rose from the high school ranks in Michigan, eventually landing a defensive coordinator spot with the Michigan State Spartans in the 1990s and later on with Vanderbilt, where he won SEC Defensive Assistant of the Year in 1997. Norm will always be recalled for his personality, as if he portrayed the salty, storytelling grandfather archetype, and he wasn’t concerned with mincing his words or disgust for fresh developments like the spread offense, which he publicly decried should be banned in a cringe-worthy speaking moment. Bob Sanders, Adrian Clayborn, Greenway, Pat Angerer, Amari Spievey, Charles Godfrey, Karl Klug, and Sean Considine are just a handful of the NFL players he has coached, lives he has forged, kids who still turn to him for advice. Norm was more golf cart and press box recently than engaging on-field presence, but moments like last season’s Insight Bowl, when Norm met Kirk on the field after the game for an emotional embrace, could fans see how much he still cared about being out there and winning football contests with his guys. Out of all the great defenses Norm has coached, one season, and one extended memory in particular, stands out. At Iowa, he has coached for two Big Ten Champions, in two BCS Bowls, and led the defense for 10 bowls in 13 seasons. 2009 was great for the timely turnovers, 2008 had Mitch King and Matt Kroul, and 2003 had the pulverizing Sanders in his senior season.
But it was the 2004 season that stood out to me as representing everything Norm and the university stand for. The team overcame two consecutive losses, numerous injuries at multiple positions, and, most painfully, the death of Norm’s grown son due to stroke. He suffered from Down’s Syndrome, and the death had a massive impact not only on Norm but also all the players who cared about him so much and rallied around him for the rest of the season, one in which the Hawkeyes would win a Big Ten Championship and beat LSU in a dramatic Capital One Bowl. Or maybe the 2010 Orange Bowl, after a 2009 season in which the Hawkeyes started 9-0. Norm’s game plan was masterful, stifling the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets’ high-powered spread option attack and holding them to 155 total yards and one touchdown. Iowa was, of course, the underdog, and it was one of the most dominate performances the Hawkeyes have ever put forth against a good, quality opponent in the program’s history on such a grand stage.
Those ready to anoint the next defensive coordinator quickly and move Norm to irrelevancy should only hearken back to last November, 2010, to understand how much Norm means to the defense, emotionally and schematically. A team filled with NFL starters collapsed in the last month of the season, finishing 7-5. Perhaps if Iowa’s linebackers would have stayed healthy in 2010, the Hawkeyes would have been able to hang on and finish the season well. Or perhaps Norm Parker, who missed over half of the 2010 season with complications from diabetes that forced the amputation of his lower leg, is a legend who embodies courage, consistency, and a leadership the Hawkeyes sorely needed. The team wouldn’t have collapsed last season if Norm had been coaching them. And Iowa football would not have the reputation they do today without Norm’s physical defenses providing a collective identity for the past 13 years. This identity is based on effort, on taking a player with offers from Akron and Northern Illinois and making him a Big Ten superstar, and on staying solid despite swirling external circumstances, dependable even. As if Oklahoma didn’t have enough problems with injuries to two of their top three wideouts, two running backs, a fullback, and the whole motivation issue, now they have to face a revved up Iowa defense playing for Norm in his last game as a Hawkeye coach. Good luck. But for now, simply celebrate Norm Parker’s fantastic legacy. He deserves it.