When Red Parker was coaching at The Citadel some 45 years ago, he kept a copy of a book on his desk.
The book was titled “What I Know of Football” by James Parker, and consisted of 500 blank pages. Parker would hand it to visitors, then laugh as they slowly caught on to the joke.
Of course, the sum total of what James “Red” Parker knows about football – and of life, and of coaching young men from the Vietnam War years to the age of Twitter – could fill more than one volume.
Parker, just two weeks removed from his 82nd birthday, is still in the game, coaching high school kids in his home state of Arkansas at Harmony Grove High School in Benton.
Parker, who was head coach at The Citadel from 1966-72 and at Clemson from 1973-76, started the program at Harmony Grove in 2010. The Cardinals play their home games on Jimmy “Red” Parker Field and are off to a 2-2 start this season.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Coach Parker is still coaching,” said Citadel President Lt. Gen. John Rosa, who played quarterback for Parker at The Citadel. “He was a true coach at heart. One thing I took away from him was the importance of finding a passion in life.
“Coaching is his passion, and that’s why he’s still doing it today.”
Parker, from Fordyce, Ark., moved back home in 1998 after his final college coaching gig, at Ouachita Baptist, a Division II school in Arkadelphia, Ark. But when his wife Betty fell ill, Parker sold his house and business in Fordyce and moved to Benton, a suburb of Little Rock, to be near his son and daughter.
There, he found a high school that wanted to start football and needed a coach.
“I had not been around high school kids in 33 years, so I wasn’t sure I could relate,” says Parker. “But somehow or another, we seemed to make the connection. I enjoy it and am having a good time. Being around the kids never has changed for me; I just do what comes naturally and it seems to work.”
Parker was the perfect candidate for a school just starting football, says Harmony Grove Athletic Director Rickey Mooney – a patient teacher with a vast store of football knowledge.
“I think our kids all Googled him as soon as they found out he would be their coach,” said Mooney. “But the parents, they all knew who he was.”
“It’s amazing, despite the age difference, how he relates to kids and the respect they have for him. I don’t think anybody else could have come in here and accomplished what he has in such a short period of time.”
Even more remarkably, Parker is doing it with an artificial heart. With his heart giving out, Parker had a HeartMate II ventricular assist device implanted with the help of one of Arkansas’ leading heart surgeons – a former player of his.
“They didn’t want to put it in me, they thought I was too old,” Parker said. “But he convinced them that if you operate on him, he will make it. And I’m still kicking.”
Parker is the second-most famous coach from Fordyce, just behind his mentor, the legendary Bear Bryant. Parker was hired at The Citadel in 1966 after a successful stint at Arkansas A&M. He followed Eddie Teague as the Bulldogs’ coach and compiled a 39-34 record in seven seasons, including a 7-3 mark in 1969 and an 8-3 record in 1971.
Since 1950, only three Citadel coaches have compiled a winning percentage above .500 while coaching five years or longer: Art Baker (.555 from 1978-82), Charlie Taaffe (.539 from 1987-95) and Parker (.534 from 1966-72).
But perhaps more important than wins is the influence Parker had on the players he coached, including Rosa and men like former VMI coach Cal McCombs; current Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson; and Charlie Baker, a driving force in the Citadel Football Association.
“What an inspirational man,” said Baker. “I was fortunate to have 11 scholarship offers, but after meeting Coach Parker, I knew I wanted to play football for him.”
Rosa said Parker was a “harsh taskmaster,” and Baker agreed.
“We had some pretty brutal practices while I was there,” Baker said. “His mentor was Bear Bryant, so we did everything that Alabama did. I was in his second recruiting class, and the stories I heard from his first class – they were brutal practices, finding out who wanted to play, just like the Bear Bryant and the Junction Boys.”
Parker’s years at The Citadel coincided with the Vietnam War, a difficult time for the military school.
“The Corps of Cadets was smaller at that time,” Rosa recalled. “We’d been through an unpopular war, and some folks weren’t as welcoming to Citadel cadets. It was a tough time to get young people to come to The Citadel, especially when the draft ended. So to come to a military institution at that time and win was tough.”
Parker did it with an offense known as “The Citadel Veer”— an option attack that prefigured Taaffe’s winning wishbone years with the Bulldogs.
“I really believe Coach Parker and his staff were ahead of their time,” Rosa said. “We were doing things offensively, running that veer, that not many people were doing. And that led to our success in the 1990s with the option.”
Parker’s success at The Citadel landed him the Clemson job in 1973, but he had only one winning season in four with the Tigers. His experience there soured him on coaching for a brief period.
“When I left Clemson, I was bitter because I knew I had done everything I could and done it right,” Parker says now. “I didn’t like the way it was handled, and I got bitter and didn’t want to coach anymore.”
Parker got back into the game as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt in 1980, and he went on to coach at Southern Arkansas, Delta State, Ole Miss and Ouachita Baptist before coming back full circle to the high school ranks.
Looking back, Parker recalls his years at The Citadel most fondly. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2007, the last time he was on campus.
“The best thing that ever happened to me from a career standpoint was going to The Citadel,” he said. “That’s where my love of coaching came from. The total experience, the young men I was around, the people I came to know. It was the toughest period in American history to recruit youngsters to the military.
“But we just went full-speed ahead, and the coaching staff felt like I did. We cared for the kids, and wanted to see them develop and grow. And we know how to coach.”