By Jac St. Jean
Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 marked the 31st annual Doug Parker Invitational Tournament. The history of the highly-competitive tournament can be traced back to Somers, Conn., where the first Doug Parker Invitational was held in 1990, the same year as Coach Parker’s retirement, as a top-level high school competition.
Later the event moved to Enfield High School in Enfield, Conn., where Parker’s son Kirk coached for 25 years. The Springfield College Wrestling team took the name in 2013, a year after the Doug Parker Wrestling Room was dedicated at the PE Complex, and carries on the annual tradition to this day.
This year’s tournament was the first one held since the passing of the legendary coach the tournament is named after. Parker is regarded as the greatest college wrestling coach in Springfield College history, NCAA Division III history and arguably one of the greatest across all three divisions in the NCAA.
After serving in WWII in the Army Airborne Division and graduating in 1944 from Gloucester High School in Gloucester, Mass., Parker would head to Springfield College to earn a degree in Physical Education, as well as participate on the wrestling team in the 137-pound weight class. After graduating in 1951, Parker stuck around Alden Street and eventually took over the wrestling program, and became a professor of physical education.
In his 35-year coaching career for the Pride, Parker never had a losing season, and accumulated a dual meet record of 485 wins, 159 losses, and 11 ties. Those wins – combined with that of the coaches before and after Parker – his career totals to an astounding 1,047, which notches Springfield College as the third-winningest wrestling program amongst all wrestling teams across all three divisions in the NCAA, sitting below two Division I powerhouses in Iowa State University (1,085) and Oklahoma State University (1,133).
Parker’s coaching legacy also includes two NCAA Division II Eastern Regional titles, 21 New England Championships, New England “Coach of the Year” in 1970, 1972, and 1978, and 24 All-Americans, including 2x NCAA Division II National Champion Jeff Blatnick ‘79, who went on to win a gold medal in the super heavyweight Greco-Roman division in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
The list of Parker’s accomplishments and accolades go on and on. But what Parker is most commended for is his time and effort spent on Alden Street, educating and impacting the people he crossed paths with; not only his wrestlers and students but also his fellow coaches who were amazed by his character.
Women’s basketball coach Naomi Graves (G ’85) regarded Parker as “one of the good ones” at Springfield College, and a prime example of what a coach should be.
“[Coach Parker] was the epitome of a good teacher, and a good coach,” Graves said, “and he loved Springfield College, he just did.”
While Graves did not have too many personal experiences with Coach Parker, she was astounded by his passion for and ability to teach any student or student-athlete any of his skills. Whether it was wrestling, physical education, or his most famous class, square dancing.
“[Coach Parker] was the most animated teacher,” Graves explained, “and the students absolutely loved him. His energy, his approachability, and his collegiality: the best.”
Graves would see Coach Parker teaching his square dancing class as she would be teaching an adaptive sports class right after. Aside from seeing him in the classroom, Graves would also see Parker every now and again on campus, and would always see him with a smile on his face, and a positive greeting toward everyone.
“[Coach Parker] always greeted everyone in a positive way,” Graves said, “so no matter how hard or how bad my game brought me down, I try really hard to be that person. I think he set that tone by his actions.”
During Parker’s time as a coach, there was not a lot of sport specialization, and Graves believes his generation helped create that concept.
“He could teach anybody his skills,” Graves said. “He would create wrestlers, that’s the difference. Those old coaches created the sport-specific kid because most of the kids here were athletes and they weren’t specialized… he was so involved in wanting the athletes to be good.”
Parker’s caring for his student-athletes was something also noted by men’s lacrosse coach Keith Bugbee, who considered Parker as a mentor when he started head coaching at Springfield College.
“To me, he was one of the legends of the game,” Bugbee said. “For wrestling, he was at that level. I was very fortunate to watch him for a few years and get to know him.”
After former men’s lacrosse head coach Larry Giusti retired in 1983, Parker, along with assistant football coach Jack Holick and former track and field and lacrosse coach Vernon Cox, were all selected onto a search committee to find a new head coach for the program. Bugbee, who was a graduate assistant coach for the team at the time, applied for the position and had an “interview” with the three legendary coaches.
“It was so informal,” Bugbee laughed. “We sat in a room and we talked about the Red Sox for 10 minutes, then the Pats for 10 minutes… they were so laid back, after a while Coach Parker said to me ‘Keith, do you want the job?’ I said ‘Yeah, I would’ and he said ‘Well, I think you’d be great at it.’”
It was a unanimous decision for Bugbee to be selected as the new head coach. Working amongst a legend in Parker, Bugbee was extremely thankful to have had the opportunity to work next to him, and tries to emulate his ability to establish relationships with his athletes.
“If there’s any coach here that I can think back on that I’d love to model, it would be him,” Bugbee stated.
Coach Doug Parker passed away on April 25, 2021 at the age of 95. He was immortalized in the Springfield College Athletics Hall of Fame in 1983, the NCAA Division II Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1997, and was a recipient of the Lifetime Service To Wrestling Award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2000.
Everyone who crossed paths with Coach Parker will always remember the two words that he expressed and led by example with every day: Keep Smiling.