Iowa Football

"Secondary" doesn't describe Phil Parker's impact on Iowa football

Defensive coordinator entering 20th year at Iowa, and only getting sharper

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker answers questions at the Hawkeyes’ football building in Iowa City Tuesday. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker answers questions at the Hawkeyes’ football building in Iowa City Tuesday. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Next week, we’ll get yet another reminder that Iowa Hawkeyes football plays serious defense.

Cornerback Josh Jackson is likely to be a first-round NFL draft choice. He was unknown to America a year ago. By season’s end, he was a first-team All-American, a Jim Thorpe Award finalist, the nation’s leader in interceptions with eight, and a player ready for pro football after his junior season.

Jackson was part of an Iowa defense that tied for 17th nationally in fewest points allowed per game, the fourth time Iowa had been in the top 20 in the last five years.

He joined Micah Hyde and Desmond King in giving the Hawkeyes three Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year winners in the last six seasons.

Only the last six seasons of Phil Parker’s 30 as a college assistant coach have been spent as Iowa’s defensive coordinator. He was a defensive backs coach for 29 of the 30, the first 11 at Toledo. The lone season he didn’t coach the secondary was 2012, his first year as Kirk Ferentz’s defensive coordinator after the retirement of Norm Parker, who set a high standard indeed.

Tuesday, Iowa held a press conference with its coordinators. It was interesting. To me, the most-surprising comment that came from it was this from Parker when asked if he ever thinks about being a head coach:

“If somebody gave me an opportunity, I’d take a swing at it.”

But what he said that sandwiched that remark makes you think Parker would have difficulty sleeping if he got a good offer to be a head coach somewhere.

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“I think being the head coach,” Parker said, “you become more a manager than actually coaching the game of football. … I think you lose touch sometimes with the individual player at times. It’s hard because all the other things that go on with media, alumni and stuff. Obviously you guys know Kirk, he gets dragged a lot of different ways, and sometimes I wonder how he does it.”

Parker is 55, and has yet to meet a camera or microphone he couldn’t resist. That he stayed at Toledo 11 years told Ferentz he wasn’t a job-hopper. That he’s with Ferentz for a 20th season says he came to Iowa for fulfillment, not a resume-filler.

Parker said when he arrived here “My goal was to be able to coach guys at a high level in the Big Ten, and it still is today. I’ve been blessed. I think the biggest, the most fun that I have is being in the film room with these guys watching film, practice film, game film, and the bond that you build with these kids.

“To be able to take a kid and try to get him to his fullest potential ... that’s all my goals are. There’s nothing in here about, ‘Hey, my goal was to be the defensive coordinator here at Iowa.’ It wasn’t that when I came here 20 years ago.

“And I still sit there and I think it’s the best thing is trying to educate the kids that we have, make them the best football players they can be, the best people that they can be, and teach them about life.”

You wouldn’t expect a football coach who grew up in a Rust Belt Ohio city on Lake Erie (Lorain) that made cars and ships and steel to be anything but hard-nosed himself. Parker was and is. The man was a three-time first-team All-Big Ten defensive back at Michigan State and twice was the Spartans’ defensive MVP.

Second-year Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was a redshirt freshman scout-team player for the Hawkeyes in 2001. He has two distinct memories of that. One, he said, was the stench from the Hawkeyes’ old defensive practice field, by the university’s water-treatment plant. The other?

“Phil Parker having a screaming match with every single defensive back on the field.

“Whether it was Bob Sanders; at that time D.J. Johnson was one of our corners; Antwan Allen, who’s in my class, was another corner. I mean, just screaming matches, screaming matches.

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“And it was like just how they communicated. Phil is a very passionate person. You guys don’t always get that (during interview sessions, in which Parker is soft-spoken.).

“But I remember that, and certainly I think what I remember more about Phil than anything is just the amount of respect and the amount of admiration he commands (from) a player, as a young person. Because of, number one, what he has done and accomplished in his time, and two, just how he carries himself and the knowledge he has as a coach and his ability as a teacher to make very complex systems and thoughts — like I know our defense gets kind of pegged for being simplistic. I’m not sure there’s a more complex coverage system than what our guys play, and he makes it very simple for those players.”

Sanders, Hyde, King and Jackson have already been cited here. So many other Iowa defensive backs here reached the NFL after being faces in the recruiting crowds, then spending four or five years with Parker.

Safety Matt Bowen was a senior captain on Ferentz’s first Iowa team, in 1999, before going off to play in the NFL himself.

“Tough, detailed and competitive,” Bowen said Tuesday. “That was my first reaction to Phil during spring ball back in ‘99. And it wasn’t easy work. Phil pushed us, challenged us, and created a system of accountability in the secondary. He’s an excellent teacher. And, really, that’s exactly what you want as a player.

“I honestly wish I had more time with Phil. Great man to play for. And he truly cares about his players. … He develops talent and he develops character.”

“Certainly working with him for the last six years,” Brian Ferentz said, “you’re not going to find a guy that works harder or cares more.”

These are good defenses Parker keeps putting on the field. That he hasn’t chased head-coaching jobs when he certainly could have is pure good fortune for the Hawkeyes.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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