116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — He enters his 35th season as a major-college football coach and 24th at Iowa. Yet, instead of wearing down from the responsibilities and time commitment of his profession over the years, Hawkeyes defensive coordinator Phil Parker is at the peak of his powers.
“I haven’t gone to work yet,” the 59-year-old claims about his adult life.
Though it was said honestly, it’s not a fact. Parker knows work intimately. It’s the foundation of everything stressed to the defensive backs he directly coaches and the entire defensive unit he oversees.
Work was where he grew up, 30 miles west of Cleveland on the shore of Lake Erie in the Ohio Rust Belt city of Lorain. That’s where Ford Motor Company built over 15 million vehicles before closing its plant there in 2005.
“I grew up in a steel town,” said Parker. “Just hardworking people. Being humble. You’ve got to work for things, you’ve got to earn things. Nothing’s given to you. That’s just the way I was brought up.”
His father was a carpenter. His mother raised six children. Parker was a star high school football player, but says he got a scholarship offer after being seen by a coach who came to watch someone else.
Two things about that are consistent with Parker. One, he downplayed his own talents. Two, he vastly exceeded expectations, like so many of the DBs who have played for him at Iowa, including five Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year winners in the last 10 years. Parker was a three-time first-team All-Big Ten defensive back at Michigan State with 16 career interceptions.
Nearly all the reasons for thinking Iowa can compete to repeat its Big Ten West title this year have to do with Parker’s defense. It is the only one in the nation to hold opponents under 20 points a game in each of the last six years. The 2021 Hawkeyes intercepted a nation-best, school-record 25 passes.
Listen to Parker talk for a while, though, and it becomes apparent he means it when he says he’s never “worked.” Football is his world. Molding players as competitors and people is his oxygen.
“The whole goal for me is to make them reach their full potential,” Parker said.
“It’s more about giving than receiving. I enjoy it when I see guys go through here and see them grow. And then they go on and get married and have successful lives, and they come back and say thanks for helping me out.”
Parker’s five Defensive Back of the Year honorees since 2012 are from five different states, the latest being home state holdover Riley Moss. Players from 10 states are in Moss’ defensive backs room, from Alabama to California, from Chicago to Odebolt, Iowa.
“I enjoy helping these kids out here that come from different parts of the country and some from different backgrounds,” Parker said.
Some of those kids were blue-chips. Many just had chips on their shoulders from being ignored by most major-college coaches.
“The thing I most liked about going out there recruiting,” Parker said, “is you find some good players, might not be highly recruited. But he has something. You see something in a kid. He has a little bit of desire, loves the game of football, and how can you help him out?”
Parker says “Iowa might not be made for everybody.” That isn’t something Hawkeye football’s creative media staff puts in bold type when it produces promotional material. But the message gets across to recruits before they make their choices.
“When I recruit kids I’m not sitting here trying to beg them to come here,” said Parker. He tells them to come “if you want to be part of something special, what I come to view college football here at the University of Iowa.”
Parker is demanding and direct. Not every practice is paradise for the players. Yet, have you ever heard a former Hawkeye defensive back complain about him after their college careers were done?
“You try to tell these kids when they come in here, this is the way it’s going to be if you want to be coached,” Parker said. “We’re going to make sure to critique you because that’s what we do every day. Sometimes, everybody can choose that as being negative. But really, what we’re trying to do is make you a better football player.
“If I’ve seen you do something (correctly) one time in a game or whatever, I expect that level of play every time. So it gets to be hard for a player to go out there and be exact and be perfect every time.”
Defensive backs are smaller than defensive linemen or linebackers, but carry as much or more weight of responsibility as anyone.
“If you give up a play,” Parker said, “it’s a touchdown. The guys up front, if they make a mistake, hopefully the linebackers or the secondary eventually will help them out.”
Phil Steele’s College Football Preview says Iowa has the seventh-best defensive line unit in the nation, the eighth-best linebackers, and the seventh-best secondary.
“I think we’ve got a really, really good group of linebackers,” Parker said. “I think we’ve got a good group of defensive linemen.”
The secondary? Parker isn’t ready to attach a “good” to it. Those are the guys he teaches, you see, and they have proving to do to him.
The Hawkeyes have a nation-best 89 interceptions since 2017. They have the reigning conference Defensive Back of the Year in Riley Moss. They have other DBs with experience, even more with vast potential. People expect this overall defense to be excellent yet again.
“We try not to listen to all the stuff people say,” Parker said. “I try to keep our guys humbled and (knowing) what’s important for us.”
Talk is talk. Work is work. Even if it isn’t work at all to its defensive maestro.
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