This fall, Willamette hired alumni Isaac Parker as head football coach. In an interview, Parker described his early life, journey to this position and goals for the team. Parker grew up in Wahiawa, HI on the island of Oahu, living mainly with his mom and grandma. He said that he started playing football among other sports at a young age because both his dad and stepdad played. Most of his early pictures are of him in football gear with his teammates.
When asked about what drew him to football, Parker responded: “I came from a broken home, and I’d say that was probably the most influential piece because my definition of family growing up was always subject to change. My step dad and mom got divorced, my grandfather passed away… I might not have recognized it at that age, but the stability [of the team drew me to football]… every time I showed up, everybody was there. We depended on each other, and it really operated like a family. That was the biggest draw.”
His life experience, though tough, has been helpful for him. “It helps me to keep perspective… 20 years ago, I don’t remember a ton of the details of the wins and losses, but I do remember the brotherhood and camaraderie. While we want to be as competitive as we can be, the value of this sport is immune to wins and losses.”
Parker stressed the influence his high school coaches had on him. “My coaches helped guide me. I felt that I got a lot of paternal advice from my coaches… [they were] great male role models for me.”
This has affected his philosophy of what it means to be a coach. “When you are a coach, you are a mentor. I always tell any player or group that I’m responsible for that I hope I’m on their top call list when crap hits the fan. That’s the type of relationship I hope to earn and develop with them. It’s more than just, ‘Coach, what do I do on this play?’”
After graduating high school, his coaches helped him find Willamette University. “Coming to school here [helped] continue my transition into adulthood.”
Coach Parker earned a BA from WU in 2002 and a Master of Arts in Teaching from WU in 2005. He was later hired by South Salem High School as a math teacher and a football coach. Playing college football gave him a leg up in his high school coaching career. “Not all high school coaches played college football,” he said. Having experience allowed Parker to rise through the rankings quickly.
For Parker, being involved at a high school level was incredibly rewarding. “I’ve received letters from high school players saying, ‘You’re the closest thing to a father figure for me’ and things like that.” He said those types of bonds are more important than an undefeated season or a coaching award.
Lewis & Clark’s head football coach Jay Locey hired Parker in 2015 as an offensive line coach, running back coach and recruiter. His continued success led to the hiring of his expertise elsewhere, this time as the head coach for the Bearcats. “The opportunity came up, and to me, it was a no-brainer to be able to come back to my alma mater. This place is special to me, so it was really exciting to come back here and do this.”
As the head coach, he has many goals for the season. However, he wants to start with the following: “From day one, we’re going to lead with culture.”
Asked about why culture is so important to him, he responded: “The values we learn in football relate to life. Everyone’s playing days are going to end at some point… Ultimately, we want this culture to bleed into everything they do… If you want to be good at football, you have to be good in school.” Parker feels that the team is buying into his culture, as the team’s GPA raised by .3 between fall 2018 and spring 2019.
Another goal of Parker’s is to integrate the team more into the WU and Salem community. “We’ve talked about how it’s important to show other students that you’re more than just a football team. It’s easy for football players to be easily stereotyped as football players. But our student-athletes are talented in many ways other than just football.” He believes integrating the team into the community will increase interest in the team and their games.
He also keeps in mind the team’s play. “Obviously, the product on the field needs to be one that is interesting to the student body. If you’re going to go and put on a Willamette shirt and cheer on the team, you don’t want to be embarrassed walking out of the stadium… You win, people show up.”