BILLINGS — Bruce Parker leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
“It’s a tough one,” he said, letting out a sigh.
Parker was in the comfort of his home, trying to unwind from an emotional day. His cellphone buzzed continually with callers. His wife Lisa, his constant companion and high school sweetheart, told each caller her husband would get in touch with them later.
Earlier on Monday morning, Parker informed the athletic staff at Rocky Mountain College he was stepping down. He was slowly closing the door on a career in athletics that spanned almost 40 years.
“I told them I would still be their friend and still be a fan,” Parker said. “That we can still go to lunch. They just might have to buy now once in a while.”
The school announced that a national search for the next athletic director will begin this summer. Associate director of athletics Jeff Malby will take over the day-to-day operations of the athletic department on an interim basis.
But Parker won’t close the door completely. He will transition into a consultant for Rocky athletics for the next two years.
Mounting health issues forced him to finalize a decision he’d been pondering for six months.
After years of taking care of others, Parker has to focus on himself.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet time,” said Parker, 61. “It’s a big change in my life. I knew it was time to take care of me.”
Parker came to Rocky in July of 2014 after a long tenure at Carroll College. The Eastern Montana College (now Montana State Billings) graduate was also an associate athletic director and sports information director at Montana State in Bozeman during a 22-year time period. Hired by MSU at the age of 22, Parker was the youngest sports information director at an NCAA Division I school at the time.
“I really appreciate Rocky president Bob Wilmouth in giving me the opportunity to come home,” he said.
He said thinking about his wife Lisa and granddaughter Sophia, born last fall, were the two primary factors.
“I can tell you this, without Lisa, I wouldn’t be here,” Parker said of his wife. The two met when both attended Billings Senior High School. “And our granddaughter, I want her to know her grandfather.”
Parker suffers from diabetes, has neuropathy in both his arms and legs — “A constant numbing,” he said — his right eye has required surgery, and he does nightly dialysis at home. Parker is on a waiting list for a kidney transplant.
Parker used a large-screen computer monitor in his office and often needed people to help read texts on his phone.
“I’ve got a lot of things to fix,” he said, managing a small smile. “That dialysis pounds you pretty good. It controls your life.
“There’s a fear I might wake up some day and not be able to get out of bed.”
Last fall, Parker underwent neck surgery, spending 17 days in the hospital. He has used a red walker with wheels since August.
Work was his motivation to return.
Along with his day-to-day duties running an athletic department, Parker serves as the color commentator for Rocky and local high school games. He plans to remain in those roles.
“Work provided me with a tremendous adrenaline rush to get through the day,” he said. “I love game day. Rocky has been very accommodating to me and I work with a great staff.”
During his tenure at Rocky, Parker was instrumental in the renovation of Herb Klindt Field in 2016, made progress in the corporate sponsorship program, increased staff within the athletic department and helped Billings secure the NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament through 2019.
Since taking over at Rocky, the athletic department has added an assistant athletic director (Malby), business manager (Carie Keller) and a sports information director (Josh Fisher).
At Carroll and Rocky Mountain College, Parker has been selected Frontier Conference Athletic Director of the Year eight times in 15 years and twice chosen the NAIA Region I Athletic Director of the Year. He was also honored as one of the NACDA/Under Armour Athletic Directors of the Year in 2009 and 2011. Parker has also served on numerous NAIA committees.
While at Carroll, the football team won six NAIA national titles and had record-setting years for fundraising and initiated enhancements to athletic facilities.
Parker hired Jason Petrino in January of 2016 to take over Rocky football. The program finished third in the league standings this past fall after being selected in the preseason to finish sixth. The ski teams swept national titles in 2017 and this year’s women’s basketball team has achieved its highest national ranking in program history.
“I tried to bring some professionalism to an athletic department,” said Parker. “But what I’m most proud of is the relationships with the coaches and student-athletes. Without the student-athletes we don’t have jobs.”
Parker and his wife Lisa hosted dinners for each team during the year. “We had football over in the summer when only 75 guys were around,” he joked.
With all of Rocky’s sports programs enjoying success, “We lead the Bandy Cup,” Parker noted, it is a good time to step away.
“The teams are in good shape,” he said. “I felt it was a good time to get out.”
Parker plans to spend more time with family in the upcoming months. Parker’s son Ryan and wife Midori — parents of Sophia — live in Chandler, Arizona, while son Brett is the head men’s soccer coach at Fort Hays State in Kansas.
He also plans to be at the NAIA Tournament this March at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.
“I’ll still be around,” Parker said. “Now I’ll be up in the stands as a fan.”