What defines greatness? What earns a football coach “coach of the year” honors?
Wins and losses? Championship rings and banners? What if someone said that a high school football coach was awarded the title after posting a losing record?Would you believe it?
What if someone said the coach missed nearly all of preseason action because of heart surgery at the age of 77 and didn’t see his team play until its final scrimmage before opening week while sitting in the press box? Would that coach be worthy of the top honor as a coach?
This is no ordinary coach. This is not that one coach who went undefeated and won the state title. This is the story and triumph of a coach who barely won four games, missed the playoffs for the second year, and, most importantly, this is about a coach who set a goal in the offseason and hit that goal with a 4-6 record. A coach who was just fine with missing the playoffs.
This is the story about how head Harmony Grove Cardinal football coach Red Parker looked past winning every game and bringing home trophies and looked into the eyes and felt the heartbeat of a group of “men” that never quit. A group that never came to practice without giving 110 percent. This is a look into how Parker took a patch of grass, added a couple field goalposts and some bleachers and then produced a football team out of nothing and made them into something.
On Thursday morning, students, faculty and staff filled the Daniel Henley Fieldhouse on Harmony Grove’s campus as they waited for the legendary Parker to enter from the far side of the basketball court. Unaware of any award or any event taking place, Parker, along with high school Principal Tim Holicer, walked around the corner to see the seats full of screaming supporters.
Little did Parker know that he was soon to receive one of the highest honors available to a coach in Arkansas: the Colman Dairy Coach of the Year award for the 3A conference.
Parker started the Harmony Grove football program in 2009.
“I like to work with young people and I enjoy the coaching part of it,” Parker said. “This particular group of young men — it is so much fun to be around them. Just to hear the energy and to feel the enthusiasm and to know all of the things that they put in to this to go where they want to go.”
After starting his coaching career many seasons ago in 1953 at Fordyce High School, Parker decided to bring his knowledge and experience back to the high school level after coaching in the NCAA for 30 years between 1961 and 1998.
Parker knew that he was not going to produce a championship team in the first few seasons at “The Grove.” During his first official year at the helm of the Cardinals in 2010, Parker posted a 2-8 record with wins over Poyen and Cutter Morning Star. In 2011, Parker set a goal during the summer to double the wins and get four. He did just that as the Cardinals finished with a 4-6 record and missed the playoffs.
But that is not what won him the top honor this season. His ambition and admiration for the game of football and ability to work with young men put him above all others.
“I have been really, really fortunate to receive many coaching awards,” Parker said. “The truth is that I am appreciative of all of them. But the thing that I think makes this award so unique is the fact that it embodies a group of young men that had whatever it took to start a program and that is the difficult thing. For that, I am very thankful.”
Parker was honored with a golden whistle and a $1,000 check to use for whatever the Harmony Grove athletic department needs. Parker said he did not know exactly what the money would be spent on.
As for the whistle, Parker nor his team put it past him using it to get the attention of the team on the field. Players and co-workers acknowledged the fact that “Parker sure knows how to use a whistle.”
Hundreds of letters were sent to KATV Channel 7 News, which partners with Coleman Dairy, asking that Parker be chosen as this year’s recipient. KATV sports director Steve Sullivan laughed as he said that he would have a lot of explaining to do had Parker not been selected.
But the surprises were not over as Parker answered an important question regarding his future. Sullivan asked if Parker would be on the sidelines in 2012 and Parker quickly responded with a “yes,” which prompted an explosion of cheers and screams from the crowd.
Parker will be 79 in October and is heading into his 59th year of coaching.
Even after he personally is finished coaching, his legacy will live on in the game since he now has three grandsons who are coaches.
“I always said that I had three that would be coaches and one that would be president of the United States because he already thinks that he is president,” Parker said with a laugh.
Harmony Grove will begin its third official season in the fall.