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Parnell, Russo retiring as athletic administrators

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Their accomplished careers are unique but, in many ways, not all that different.

Vince Parnell and Joe Russo, both involved in the high school athletic scene for the greater part of the last 40 years, have each followed a career arc that has taken them from coaching to athletic administration — leaving an imprint on their respective schools and sports programs every step of the way.

So, as they retire from their positions as athletics and activities managers following the school year, it seems only fitting that the two of them are going out together.

The timing simply felt right.

"There's never a perfect time … I think at the end of the day it's just a feeling more than anything else," said Parnell, who has been the AAM at Wilde Lake since the position was created in 2006. "Naturally, when you do something for such a long period of time, there becomes a feeling of been there and done that … eventually it becomes someone else's turn."

And, as Russo adds with a chuckle, there are other areas that need tending to.

"As Vince can probably attest, it's time to give the golf game a little extra attention," said Russo, who has been at Hammond in a coaching or athletic administrator capacity since the school opened in 1976. "I can say after 43 years that I think it's time to move on to something else."

Both Parnell and Russo are among the county's original crop of AAMs.

The position, developed to allow athletic directors to be full-time administrators instead of having to also split time in the classroom, was a big step forward for the county, according to Parnell.

"It finally gave you the time to be able to do the job the way it was supposed to be done," he said. "Before that, they gave athletic directors one planning period and that was it. It was just too much … you were always cramped for time."

Parnell speaks from experience, having juggled teaching, coaching and athletic director duties at Howard High School for more than 20 years prior to his move into full-time administration at Wilde Lake with the creation of the new position.

Getting the chance to be around athletics — Parnell's passion from a very young age — was always worth the sacrifices, though.

Growing up, Parnell was a football standout at his high school in Pennsylvania before going on to play at Williamsburg College. Shortly after graduation, in 1974, he took a job at South Carroll and served as freshman basketball and JV football coach for the next four years.

After that, he made the move to Howard High School and took over the Lions' girls varsity basketball and JV football coaching positions. Shortly after, he moved up to varsity football.

"Football was always where the heart was," Parnell said.

In the fall of 1981, Parnell was presented with the chance to become Howard's athletic director with the departure of Ned Sparks to work on the state level. "I was never looking to become an AD … it wasn't on my bucket list or anything. But at the same time it was an opportunity I didn't feel like I could pass up," he said.

Parnell grew into the leadership position and continued coaching, primarily football but also helping out here and there with the wrestling program, as a track assistant and later as a golf coach.

Leading Howard's football team in 1999, helping that squad make it all the way to the state semifinals, and those early years coaching girls basketball for the Lions are among his top memories. But overall Parnell says it's the people, citing specifically a great professional relationship with Howard principal Mary Day, who will stick with him.

He had great leaders growing up and he tried to emulate that.

"I basically tried to do what was done for me in high school," Parnell said. "Without my coaches and my teachers, I wouldn't be who am I today … I tried to live up to that."

Over the last 10 years, Parnell retired from coaching and focused on his job as an administrator but he still was able to maintain the things that mean the most to him.

"This job has been the best of all the things I enjoy: watching and playing sports, and being around kids," he said.

Russo, who got his start in Howard County athletics in 1969 as Howard High School's assistant football coach and head wrestling coach, says it's the people that have helped make his career so memorable as well.

Coaching athletes like Kisha Jett (collegiate all-American) in track and Jim Traber (former Baltimore Oriole first baseman) in baseball, in addition to watching numerous of his assistant coaches go on to become successful head coaches, highlight the list.

"It's amazing how many people you come in contact with in one way or another … seeing their success is definitely something that means a lot," Russo said.

In the early years, Russo was a pioneer in a lot of ways. As a physical education teacher at Ellicott City Middle School, he helped start gymnastics in the middle schools and also started the survival swim program in Howard County.

His classes would run over to the local YMCA and use their facilities in an effort to make sure all his kids knew how to swim.

"Six times a day I would run to that YMCA … I was in the best shape of my life," Russo said.

In the early 70s, Wilde Lake football coach Doug Duvall approached Russo about coming on as the varsity team's defensive coordinator. He took the job and did that for the next four years, while also coaching the Wildecat baseball team.

Then, when Hammond opened, Russo took over as the Golden Bears' head football coach. He would later take over the varsity girls basketball team in 1987 and join the track coaching staff in 1990.

Girls basketball, though, is where Russo arguably had his greatest success. Between the years of 1992-95, Russo's Golden Bears' squads captured three 2A state championships to establish one of the decade's great dynasties.

"Those were some very talented teams," said Russo, who also points out how much it meant to be a part of the Fuel Fund Classic in the early 1990s to raise money for charity.

Russo recalls playing one game at the Baltimore Arena in front of a crowd of 5,000 people when his team was ranked No. 1 by the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post.

By the early 2000s, however, Russo had begun his transition out of coaching and into the next chapter of his life. He took over as athletic director at Hammond in 2002.

Russo remained in the administration position for the Golden Bears when the AAM job was created and continued to run the program up until his decision to step down this spring.

Given time to reflect, he has no regrets.

"The county has grown so much since I started and it's definitely been exciting to have seen that and been a part of that," Russo said. "I've been fortunate enough to see it from all angles, as a coach and (as an administrator).

"You know, 43 years is a long time … it's been a great run."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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