Heart of the matter

BU coach Parker rebounding from bypass surgery

By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / October 8, 2010

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It started out resembling a premonition.

In April, Boston University coach Jack Parker had a procedure on his right femoral artery to improve the blood flow in his leg. He was told if the stent didn’t work, he’d have to have surgery. It turned out he did need an operation. So in July, when he began experiencing discomfort in his chest and pain in his arm when he was playing tennis, his cardiologist told him he needed an additional stent to the one inserted 12 years earlier.

Parker believed it was more serious and expressed that to his doctors, who reassured him the stent should do the trick. But when he went in for the procedure July 22, the surgeon found four blockages in his heart — two at 95 percent and two at 85 percent — so the doctor consulted Parker about his options. One was to put in four stents and the other was heart bypass surgery. The stents would’ve kept him at risk for a heart attack, so the next day he underwent the six-hour operation.

He asked if he could put it off for a few weeks so he could take his beloved annual sailing trip to Maine, but was told his condition needed to be attended to immediately. The operation was a success and the 65-year-old veteran bench boss is closing in on a full recovery.

“I don’t know if it was a premonition or if it was just fear,’’ said Parker, whose team opens the 2010-11 season tonight against Wisconsin in the IceBreaker Tournament in St. Louis. “I probably wouldn’t have even have asked the question [about whether the stent was going to be enough] were it not for the fact that within six days I was going to Maine. That’s a highlight of the summer for me.’’

Parker’s role will be reduced until he’s back to normal. Associate coach Mike Bavis will be more of lead guy.

“I’ll probably be delegating a lot more,’’ said Parker. “I’ll be easing in to getting on the ice. We’ll see how it goes from there.’’

Parker acknowledged that the surgery is viewed as a life-changing operation and he doesn’t believe he’s any different from anyone else in that regard.

“It’s pretty hard to get through and it makes you think about a lot of things and one of the things they make you do is talk to psychiatrists and psychologists and sleep therapists and a whole bunch of different people,’’ he said. “One of the doctors I talked to, I asked if I should quit coaching. He said, ‘Let me ask you, do you enjoy coaching?’ He said you could not do anything and have stress. He told me, ‘Most of your problems are hereditary, that’s why you’re sitting here more than anything else.’’

He said despite what he went through, he didn’t consider retiring.

“I don’t think there’s any question this is a stressful job,’’ said Parker. “Anyone who coaches college sports, it’s a 24/7 thing but I’m not sure if I quit my job if I would guarantee myself five more years of life because the stress was gone. What I’d like to be able to do is figure out a way to relieve the stress so I sleep better. I’ll have to look into it. I seldom sleep well in and around games.’’

Parker’s condition caused a lot of concern in the hockey community. Boston College coach Jerry York, a longtime friend, said he thinks Parker dodged a bullet because the problem was caught before he suffered a heart attack.

“He looks pretty good to me,’’ said York. “It’s scary stuff. You could be in fabulous shape and still have problems, but we’re just glad he’s better. Whether you’re a reporter on deadline or a trial attorney, it’s not just athletics, all of us have to learn to deal with stress and contain it.’’

His players say they plan not to drive their coach crazy this season the way they did last year when the Terriers lacked any semblance of consistency.

“He’s probably the biggest piece of the puzzle around here,’’ said forward Joe Pereira. “Without him . . . we need him here. We’re happy everything went well. Hopefully we’re going to win a lot of hockey games and not stress him out too much so he doesn’t have to worry about anything.’’

Parker acknowledged that he has mellowed in his approach, saying if Mike Eruzione or Jack O’Callahan were on this team, “they’d wonder what happened to Jack Parker.’’ Part of that is because he’s had to adapt to the change in the players who don’t take to being treated as harshly.

“He’s a totally different guy,’’ agreed Eruzione. “I don’t think he’s as intense, but he’s just as competitive. I don’t think he’s as much in the players’ faces. In our day, he’d grab you by the helmet. I don’t think he’s like that anymore. Players have changed and I think that’s what makes coaches like Jack Parker such great coaches. They change with the times but their philosophy [stays the same]. He’s the same coach but his mannerisms are different and I think that’s because of the type of player that is in that locker room versus the type of player that was in the locker room when I played. Players today, who knows how they’d handle it if Jack was screaming and yelling and really getting in their grille.’’

Eruzione was stunned when he heard about Parker’s surgery.

“I was very shocked and I think he was shocked,’’ he said. “I think all of us were because he’s one of those guys you never see not being well or being behind the bench or being there for you. If I needed advice or I needed help, he’d be one of the first people I’d call. He’s not only a coach and a friend, he’s almost like your father sometimes. When your dad gets sick, you say, ‘I can’t believe that happened.’ That’s kind of how I reacted to Jack. He’s an important part of my life.’’

Eruzione said he was most relieved when he was finally able to speak to his former coach.

“I knew he was feeling better when I called him and he started insulting me,’’ said Eruzione. “I said, ‘Oh, you’re definitely back to normal now.’ ’’

Well, almost, but he’s getting there.