When Gerad Parker was 12 and growing up in tiny Louisa, Ky., just across a bridge from West Virginia, he began cutting his coaching teeth, giving basketball instructions to elementary school students in his backyard.
On Sunday, the 35-year-old Parker was called into Purdue Athletic Director Mike Bobinski’s office and told that fourth-year head coach Darrell Hazell had been fired. Bobinski asked his wide receivers coach to step in as interim head coach for the rest of the season.
“To be a head coach has been a dream and a goal, but I certainly wasn’t ready for it right now,” said Parker, who starred in high school at Lawrence County and played in college at Kentucky. “That part has been tough, but you prepare and take notes for that time you would get to this point.”
In 3 1/2 seasons under Hazell, Purdue was 9-33, including 3-24 in Big Ten games and 5-33 against FBS competition.
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Parker’s third child was born on Sept. 7 and he said his challenge now is every bit like having a newborn. Parker, whose Boilermakers (3-3) will play at No. 8 Nebraska (6-0) on Saturday, previously coached at Kentucky, Tennessee-Martin and Marshall before coming to Purdue with Hazell for the 2013 season.
He said his journey from being obsessed with basketball in Kentucky to coaching football in the Big Ten certainly has been unique. His first love was basketball.
“I was just a little bit of a weird guy as far as how I had to prepare and do things, because I wasn’t overly gifted athletically,” Parker said. “So I had to be really fundamentally sound.”
A middle school coach made an impression on Parker and he began to think about coaching as a profession. He never intended to pursue football coaching until he began playing the sport in high school as a compromise with classmate Jason Michael, now the quarterbacks coach for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
“Being from a small town (population 2,467), I cut a deal with our high school’s quarterback (Michael),” Parker said. “If I would play football, he would play basketball. I think I knew I would be a better coach than I was a player.”
Parker will get to find out during the next six weeks, although he knows that Bobinski will begin a national search to find a replacement for Hazell. In the meantime, this is Parker’s team, for better or for worse.
Purdue ranks last in the Big Ten in total defense (446.3 yards a game) and last in rushing defense (264.3 yards), which is 124th among the 128 FBS teams.
On Saturday, they will be playing a Nebraska team that ranks third in the Big Ten in total offense with 453.8 yards per game.
Parker said there may be a few tweaks to the defensive scheme, but there’s not a lot that can be changed in less than a week. In an effort to limit distractions, Parker is closing practices this week in a change from Hazell’s open-door policy. When the team travels to its three remaining road games, players no longer will be required to wear suits.
Sophomore quarterback David Blough, who was intercepted five times in a September loss to Cincinnati and sacked six times in an Oct. 1 loss at Maryland, knows things must change during the final six games.
“It’s frustrating being a part of it because we show how good we can be,” said Blough, who threw five touchdown passes in Saturday’s 49-35 homecoming loss to Iowa. “We’ve just got to get it going early and capitalize when we have chances.”