Norm Parker, the defensive coordinator as Kirk Ferentz turned around Iowa’s football program, died early Monday at age 72. Norm was an extremely popular figure with his players and with Iowa fans.
Earlier in his career, Parker had spent five seasons [1972-76] as the Gophers’ defensive line coach for Cal Stoll. Keith Simons, an outstanding lineman for the Gophers and an NFLer, sent an e-mail with this message on Monday:
“Norm Parker was a hell of a man and a coach. I’ve heard you refer to him as an old, crusty, throwback coach. You’re absolutely right. The game needs more of his type today.’’
In November 2003, I went to Iowa City a couple days before a Gophers’ visit to interview Parker. I’ve written a few thousand columns, many forgettable. I found that one memorable, and here’s the bulk of it:
IOWA CITY -- Bud and Bernie Boline of Golden Valley have three daughters, one son, three sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law and nine grandchildren. The entire 19-person Boline delegation will be in attendance when the Gophers close their regular season today against the Iowa Hawkeyes.
The Bolines are loyal followers of the Gophers, but that is not the main reason for the family journey to Iowa City. It is a chance for a reunion with Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker and members of his family, particularly son Jeffrey.
Parker was an assistant coach for Cal Stoll at Minnesota from 1972 through 1976. Parker and his wife Ginger had three kids. They moved into a house on a leafy street next to a couple of parks in Golden Valley. The Bolines and their four children were the neighbors.
"We had the best neighbors -- the best people we had ever met," Parker said Thursday, while sitting in his office at the Iowa football complex. "They took such good care of Jeffrey. Bud, Bernie and those four kids gave him, gave all of our kids, so much love."
Jeffrey was a toddler -- a child with Down syndrome -- when his family moved in next to the Bolines.
"You know the first word Jeffrey ever said?" Boline said. "It was, `Bud.' He used to appear at the door at the back of our house, press his runny nose against the glass and say, `Bud.' "
The Boline children were older than the Parker kids and would baby-sit. The three Boline daughters were so taken by their experience with Jeffrey that all wound up working with special education kids.
The Parkers left for Illinois after the 1976 season. Norm still can get an unhappy look on his face when talking about that decision.
"Sometimes, especially as a younger coach, you get into that grass-is-greener mentality," Parker said. "Illinois, a chance to recruit Chicago football . . . all of that looked good from the outside."
Stoll and his staff were fired after the 1978 season at Minnesota. Gary Moeller and his staff, including Parker, were fired at Illinois after the 1979 season.
The Parkers went back to their native Michigan and Norm looked for a job. He landed one as defensive coordinator at East Carolina, an up-and-coming Division I program.
Norm reported to work. The family came later. They were traveling to North Carolina in an RV. There was an accident. Ginger was sleeping in the back and was thrown from the bunk. She suffered grave injuries. She wound up living for a year.
"A lot of people think life is supposed to be a bowl of cherries," Parker said. "That's not reality. Tough things happen to most people."
Norm found another great woman - Linda, Ginger's sister. She had two children from a previous marriage. They were married and raised the five kids, with Jeffrey as the spirited presence in the middle of a robust family.
"Norm's son Jimmy is a lawyer in Detroit," Bud Boline said. "He was married a few years back. Jeffrey was his best man, the only person Jimmy had standing up for him. Later, when Jeffrey made the best man's speech about his brother at the reception . . . there wasn't a dry eye in the room."
Parker spent three years coaching at East Carolina, then landed with George Perles at Michigan State. It was a 12-season run (1983-94) that included a Rose Bowl victory.
Next: Vanderbilt, where Woody Widenhofer, another Stoll assistant, was the head coach. Parker was named the SEC's Defensive Coordinator of the Year in 1997.
"We had the No. 1-rated defense in the SEC and didn't win a conference game," he said. "Our defensive players used to come to the sideline and say, `Give me a Gatorade to go,' they knew they would be back on the field so fast."
Vanderbilt fired Parker and the rest of the coaching staff after the 1998 season, just in time for him to land at Iowa with new coach Kirk Ferentz.
Iowa was 2-18 through Ferentz's first 20 games, then closed the 2000 season by winning two of three November games. The Hawkeyes are 26-10 the past three seasons, going to the Orange Bowl after last season as the unbeaten co-champions of the Big Ten.
Jeffrey, now 33, also has found happiness as a Hawkeye. He works a couple of afternoons per week in the football equipment room. He's the only offspring still at home with Norm and Linda.
"Unconditional love . . . that's what everyone gets from Jeff," Parker said. "These kids [with Down syndrome] would not know how to lie or cheat. If they don't go to heaven, the rest of us are doomed."