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5 POINT MOVE: Home again: Parker Betts talks about becoming NMU Assistant Coach

by Tim Hands, 5 Point Move

Parker Betts does not want to portray the image of one who is boastful. Even normal, healthy self-assurance is something that requires pause when he speaks. By default, Betts clings tightly to deferentialism. He never begins sentences with ‘If you ask me, but…’ or ‘The way I see it…’ Instead, he listens. And listens. And listens. Regardless if he might know more about a particular topic, he will not cut in and flex his own expertise -- even if doing so would serve to raise his verbal or social clout in the eyes of others. 

Betts, 28, understands better than most that meekness isn’t weakness; and that strength of character is best demonstrated by caring for those around him while ignoring the ego’s urges to reflect authoritative knowledge. It is a rare thing in 2021. Whereas too many young coaches can’t wait to feel the warmth of the spotlight, Betts veers in the opposite direction. He doesn’t wish to be recognized outside of the wrestling room walls until it is necessary for recruitment purposes. Present matters are much too important for wavering attention, and the fleeting buzz Betts generated last week when he was announced as the new assistant coach at NMU has now fully dissipated. 

Today, he is talking a little bit about what he once described as a “dream job”, and there is actually a tinge of fear. Not pertaining to the job itself, but rather how he describes his role. 

“I don’t want to come off sounding like I think I’m the leader,” Betts said. He doesn’t have to worry. That is head coach Andy Bisek’s unquestioned gig. But make no mistake, Betts is a leader. He morphed into one in the Superior Dome prior to exiting Marquette as an athlete in ‘17, and in the two (really three) coaching stints he had prior to his return. The issue isn’t with being a leader for Betts. He simply shirks at the notion of raising his profile, or worse, bragging about it. In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul refers to such a phenomenon as becoming “puffed up”. Betts can rest easy. He couldn’t sound puffed-up if he tried. What he does exhibit is an uncommon amount of gratitude for an opportunity he had begun eyeballing before he ever graduated from the joint. 

Those who shuffle through the Greco-Roman program at Northern Michigan University’s National Training Site (formerly the United States Olympic Education Center and, later, Olympic Training Site) comprise a unique fraternity. The majority resist leaving, although it is, of course, unavoidable. They cannot stay on campus in perpetuity. But when they do depart, and wherever they may eventually go, the whole experience sticks to their cells. As if their collective DNA has been altered. College wrestling is like that, anyway. Sure. Except, NMU’s alumni are different. 

It is not “college wrestling” in the same light Iowa, Oklahoma, or Montclair State are college wrestling. This is Greco-Roman a Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the winters are brutal, so are most of the practices, and the athletes are preparing to compete on an international level against foreign opponents who have been training in this discipline since toddlerhood. The only major comfort NMU’ers share is the realization that they are enduring the wild ride together. An experience such as that has a habit of imparting bonds which are too strong to break. 

Just ask Betts. 

In ‘20, Betts had moved from his native Minnesota to Florida’s gulf coast in order to accept an assistant coaching position at Gulf Breeze High. Former NMU head Rob Hermann had been helping out the school’s wrestling team, Betts inquired if there were any opportunities available, and the process soon hit warped speed. It was a short turnaround. Betts assimilated quickly, discovering that a pseudo-tropical lifestyle proved a nice fit. He was coaching, working, and coaching some more with Ryan Blackwell at the eponymously named Well-Trained wrestling academy. And when wrestling or work weren’t the priorities, there was always the beach. 

Life wasn’t merely good for Betts in Gulf Breeze. It was pleasant. A nice routine in a warm, friendly environment. Betts and wife Lexi enjoyed the pace. He could not have been happier. The Gulf Breeze team was beginning to develop, plus his friendship with Blackwell had blossomed to where they had started doing side jobs together, sharing big laughs and important moments along the way. 

Thus begging the question: what could ever prompt Betts to peace out of Florida and all that came with it? If he were just so peachy-happy to be there, why would he ever leave?

Because the pull from NMU was so overpowering, as soon as Bisek let Betts know the assistant’s role had opened—and that the job was Betts should he want it—the answer Bisek received back was an immediate “yes”. 

That is what Northern means, not just to Betts, but to virtually every athlete who has ever zombied out of those dorms into early morning practice, or scraped and scrapped every penny possible to make it overseas in the autumn. All of this “stuff” courses through their veins for the rest of their natural lives. Ask around. Ask any current or former Northern athlete why the place is so special to them, or how to describe its impact on every facet of adulthood in and out of wrestling. 21 years after the program first launched, the answers all the same. 

Or, again, just ask Betts. 

Parker Betts -- Assistant Coach, NMU/NTS

5PM: When was the first time you could remember wanting to become a coach at Northern?

Parker Betts: I would probably say the Sweden tour in 2015. It was just Rob (Hermann) as our coach over there and we had a bunch of guys. I was one of the older guys by that time so I was helping out coaching the younger wrestlers when we had multiple people up at the same time on different mats. And I was wrestling in the tournament, too, but I was helping coach. I was like, ‘Man, this is so much fun’. I wanted to wrestle, but I had always wanted to be a coach and definitely a Greco coach. Obviously, being in this program meant the world to me, so it was a dream job for me to coach this team. That is kind of where it all started for me. 

5PM: You have been around a lot of coaches, whether it is Northern, Minnesota Storm, high school, and so on. Which coaches would you say have influenced your coaching style the most?

PB: What helped me wrestling in high school in Minnesota was that I would try to take little pieces from every great coach that I had and combine them into one. That is also what I try to do with my coaching philosophy. In high school, I wrestled at PINnacle under Brandon Paulson. He has tons of energy and is super-intense, and I loved that. And I needed that, especially when I was wrestling. I take that from Paulson, for sure. 

Rob Hermann, obviously. More methodical, more relaxed, more technical. I try to put those attributes into the plan. Dan Chandler, of course. He was a coach of mine in high school on the national teams. I don’t like leaving people out but those three, for sure, had a big influence on me. The important things that they showed me are what I try to emulate as a coach. 

5PM: How about Aghasi Manukyan? You had him. Now, he had been a star competitor…

PB: Oh, yeah. For sure. But if I am going to be honest, he was a great coach but the lighter weights connected with him more. He spent more time with them doing the kind of stuff a coach would do. Like, he would eat dinner with them, stuff like that. It’s certainly nothing against him, I just never had a super-close relationship with him, if that makes sense. 

5PM: Well, it makes sense because if there is one missing piece Northern has had, it is that they haven’t had a coach for upper weights. Would you agree that has been a missing piece?

PB: Oh, 100%. Rob was my coach the whole time that I was up here, and Manukyan, too. And they were showing stuff that is used mostly by lightweights. They tried to help us (upper weights), but it’s a different body style, different wrestling style. We tried to tweak what they showed to the best of our abilities, but not having an upper-weight coach definitely played a role up here. 

5PM: I asked you about coaches, but athletes can influence a coach, too. Having been an athlete, and as an upper weight in that room, I would assume that you guys did a lot of coaching for each other. Did that serve as a foundation for you coaching-wise?

PB: I would say definitely. We had a tight-knit group of upper weights, especially when I first got to Marquette. We all kind of knew that we had to help each other. Even though we were also competitors—and we all wanted to win World and Olympic gold medals—we knew that it was for Team USA. The best guy is going to be out there, so we wanted to be there for one another. 

5PM: There aren’t a whole lot of them left, but there are a few guys still in that room whom you knew as a wrestler yourself. You just wrapped your first week of practice as the assistant. Have there been any awkward moments as far as the differences in roles?

PB: You know, the adjustment hasn’t been that bad. There are only a few guys here who were back when I was training. The athletes understand that this is a different role now. I’m not here to be a teammate, I’m here to be a coach, and they understand that. They’ve been great so far and very welcoming. I think they knew that when I was here as a wrestler that I was here for the right reasons. And they know that I am here as a coach for the right reasons, and that I am here to help them get to the next level of their careers. 

5PM: You have a relationship stretching back with Andy, and your brother (‘12 Olympian Chas Betts) and Andy are like, “besties”, or whatever you want to call it. 

PB: (Laughs) Yeah…

5PM: But being hired certainly has nothing to do with nepotism, or bias, or any of that. And we know this is true because if that were the case, you would have gotten this job 10 months ago. All that said, we cannot obscure the fact that you do know Andy quite well personally. What has this been like so far? Has it been easy?

PB: I’ve had a few different coaching roles and they haven’t been difficult transitions, but you do have to get to know the coaches and their styles. Get to know them as people, this and that. But I am fortunate enough to have a personal relationship with Andy, so that part is easy. We can already put all that stuff aside and just skip to the wrestling part. We are on the same page about everything. Obviously, he’s the head coach, he’s the leader. Everything that he is doing or has planned, I am 100% behind it. It makes it easier and it is super-enjoyable to have a personal and professional relationship with a coach. It makes it easy on both of us. 

5PM: When this role became available last year, you were an assistant at Gulf Breeze and had begun working with Ryan Blackwell, but you still wanted the NMU job. It didn’t happen then. It has now. Do you think the timing has worked out this way for a reason?

PB: I think we talked about this when it happened. When my wife and I first moved to Florida and the job came up right away, and I went through the interview process, there was a lot of downtime waiting to hear back. We were both nervous and on-edge about the whole thing. But then we just talked to each other and said, ‘Our faith is strong enough; if this is the opportunity that presents itself, then we’ll take it. But no matter what, we’re going to be happy and enjoy our lives.’ And we definitely did. We had a blast down there in Florida. The people were great. The community and area… It was a blessing to be able to do that. 

We were not down there long when I didn’t get the job. But it presented itself again, and my wife, who is a saint and would follow me to the ends of the Earth if I asked her to, has been completely supportive. She told me that we would do whatever we needed in order to make it work. She loves it there, too, and she has to uproot and switch jobs. But it has really been a blessing. She used to visit me up here a lot and loves the area. We both thought it was the right thing to do. 

5PM: You worked side-by-side with Ryan Blackwell. What did you pick up from him? And also, what did he say to you when you told him about this opportunity happening?

Parker Betts: Before I even moved down there, I knew of Ryan and his story. I didn’t know him personally yet, but I knew about what happened at NAS (Naval Air Station-Pensacola) with the terrorist attack. He had been coaching at Gulf Breeze the year before when that happened. We kind of crossed paths now and then when I first arrived and he was starting Well-Trained. Eventually, I started going into those practices with our guys and got to know Ryan better and better. The dude is just awesome. Easy-going but hard-working. Honestly, he is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met in my life. It doesn’t matter if it is getting guys ready to wrestle, or it is me and him doing a side job, like putting up a fence or cutting down trees. The dude just doesn’t stop. It doesn’t matter what it is, he is going to go 100%. I think that inspired me. No matter what it is, the guy is going to give it his all. 

And it makes sense knowing what occurred during the terrorist attack. He saved all of those people even though he was shot multiple times. He was still putting others before him. He is such an inspiration and we became really good friends. We hung out, coached, did side jobs, went to the beach. We were actually on a side job when I got the call from Andy that the position was mine if I wanted it. I said “yes” and walked over to Ryan. He was the first one to know, actually, even before my wife and family. I told him the situation and he could not have been happier. He was super-pumped and already had his mind going about what we were going to do insofar as getting guys from Well-Trained up here, and bringing guys down there to train. His mind is always going when it comes to how to promote the sport and how to further the wrestlers down there as well as up here. It was pretty awesome. 

5PM: Your brother was an Olympian who also came out of NMU. I’m sure he rooted for you to somehow wind up where you are. What does it say when two brothers, one of whom became an Olympian and the other returns as a coach? What does it say about how much that place means to you, him, and even your family as a whole? Was he as joyful to find out as I might imagine?

PB: Oh yeah, he was very joyful. He was pumped up, excited. I can’t really put into words what this place, this town, and just everything here means to my family and I. My parents just left yesterday. The day I got up here, they came to see me. This area, the program, it all means the world to us. With him, he started it by coming up here. I didn’t know anything about it but fell in love right away. It has been a blessing to us. I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

5PM: Do you think NMU’s role in the US has changed at all, both since your time there as an athlete or even more recently?

Parker Betts: I don’t think its role has changed. I think there have been situations in the US that have changed. When I first got here, and before that, obviously, it was the only place to train Greco full-time. Now, there are RTC’s (regional training centers), but NMU is still the only place to train Greco-Roman full-time and receive a college education. There might be other options, but NMU still has that household name. Guys are still getting recruited every year and every semester if they want to train full-time and get their degrees. That’s what the program is about. 

The biggest thing about this program is developing younger athletes. That is what it is for, to prepare younger athletes for the Senior level and for World competition. That is what the program does. And it is pivotal for the development of Greco-Roman in our country.