(h/t to reader Ted Whalen for the video)
As demonstrated by his whirlwind media appearances in the past couple weeks (ranging from Big Ten Media Days to the ESPN “Car Wash” in Bristol), Pat Fitzgerald has emerged as a rock star among college coaches. Already the winningest coach in Wildcat history, his youth and charisma have made him a popular figure in media circles. However, Fitz took a break from his schedule to join the NU football community for the “Run for Walk” on July 26. The event commemorates the life of former head coach Randy Walker, the coach who has never been as widely appreciated as Fitzgerald. Although never a rock star, he served as a rock on which to build the program. During some of NU’s most difficult times, he kept things at an even keel and moved the program toward sustained success.
On January 20, 1999, the day that many Wildcat fans dreaded finally arrived. After years of flirtations with other jobs, Gary Barnett was introduced as the new head coach at Colorado. Although the Wildcat program had declined during his final two seasons (going winless in Big Ten play in 1998), most observers considered this to be a crippling blow to Northwestern. Barnett was the head coach during the glorious 1995 and 1996 seasons, and many thought it would be impossible for anyone else to win in Evanston. Most national pundits wrote off the NU program, believing that a return to the Dark Ages was at hand.
Luckily, Athletic Director Rick Taylor had planned ahead. After numerous Barnett overtures to other schools, he targeted the man he wanted to take the reins when Gary was gone. Taylor liked Randy Walker, the head coach of Miami University. Not only was Walker a very successful head coach, but he had previous experience at NU. Walker was running backs coach under Francis Peay during the 1988 and 1989 seasons. These seasons produced the first back-to-back 1,000 yard rushers in Wildcat history (Byron Sanders and Bob Christian). Walker left Peay’s staff to take the highly coveted Miami job in 1990. As a former Wildcat assistant, he knew the academic restrictions of the school, but did not shy away from the notion of returning.
Randy Walker was introduced as the 28th NU head coach on the same day that Barnett had left. Walker, a folksy fellow from southern Ohio, did his best to put Wildcat fans at ease. “I’m not a 1-800 guy. Some guys are on the phone all the time and they’re looking for their next job,” he said at his introductory press conference. Although fans appreciated the sentiment, they were understandably skeptical of his ability to win at NU. Yes, he was the winningest coach in Miami U history. Yes, Ara Parseghian came from Miami, too. Yes, Walker beat our legendary 1995 team right here in Evanston. But those things didn’t mean he could win here.
Walker’s first season at NU did little to quell the concern over Barnett’s departure. The Cats went 3-8, with only one Big Ten win (over Iowa’s rookie head coach Kirk Ferentz). The most embarrassing loss was Walker’s very first game, a matchup against the Miami team that he had just left. The RedHawks, who were coming off a 10-1 season under Walker, pummeled NU 28-3 at Ryan Field in a game that was as ugly as the score. RedHawk running back Travis Prentice had 153 yards that day. “We expected to win”, Prentice told the media after the game. Linebacker Dustin Cohen was harsher in his assessment….”Are (the Wildcats) a Big Ten team?” he asked.
Not only were the Cats a bad team, but they were boring. They only hit the 20 point plateau twice in 1999, and were held to single digits four times. Walker’s conservative running approach, which served him so well in Miami, had to go. The spread offense was gaining popularity around this time. Joe Tiller brought it to Purdue when he arrived from Wyoming in 1997. The St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl in January 2000 with a former grocery store clerk at QB. During the offseason, Walker and assistant coach Kevin Wilson (now head coach at Indiana) visited spread gurus such as Rich Rodriguez and Mark Martz to learn the system. They installed it at NU, and the rest is history….the ‘Cats exploded in 2000, winning the Big Ten title with an incredible offensive juggernaut. The season featured numerous great wins and comebacks, some of which (Michigan, Minnesota) continue to be featured regularly on Big Ten Network.
Wildcat fans were feeling much better after the 2000 season. The program proved that it could win without Barnett, and Walker made his own stamp on Wildcat history. Walker bolstered his staff by adding the beloved Pat Fitzgerald, star of the mid 1990s teams. This very popular move tied together elements of both the Barnett and Walker championship teams, and had fans looking forward to 2001. But then came another dark day in NU football history….August 3, 2001. Defensive back Rashidi Wheeler died during offseason conditioning drills, a tragedy that deeply impacted the team. Although preseason favorites to win the league, they struggled to a 4-7 record. Wheeler’s parents sued the university over their son’s death. Walker came under heavy fire, especially from local media. The Sun-Times, particularly then- columnist Jay Mariotti, was especially harsh. There were widespread calls for Walker to be fired, and the protracted legal action damaged his reputation.
Walker soldiered on, working to bring NU back to winning form. After a very poor 2002 season (3-9, 1-7 Big Ten), the calls for his firing grew. After a 2-4 start in 2003, the ‘Cats seemed destined for another bowlless holiday. However, the team found itself at midseason, and managed to make it to the Motor City Bowl. Although this may not sound like a great accomplishment nowadays, it was an important taste of success after three years of on- and off-field struggles.
2004 was another solid season, as NU went 6-6. The most widely remembered game is the October win over Ohio State, Walker’s childhood favorite team. Northwestern beat the Buckeyes 33-27 in OT, in what today is another very popular BTN rerun. It was NU’s first win over OSU since 1971, and the first win over OSU in Evanston since 1958. Walker’s team was finally able to accomplish something that Barnett’s teams didn’t….beat the Buckeyes.
Although the Buckeye win got the most attention, the most notable occurrence of the season happened during the week of the Purdue game. Walker spent two nights in the hospital with a heart ailment before being released for the game. The Wildcats won 13-10, in what was another important win for the program. It was NU’s first ever win over Joe Tiller, who had beaten both Barnett and Walker in every previous matchup. Walker joked about his heart condition (diagnosed as myocarditis, a heart muscle inflammation) after the game, and most people forgot about the incident. In response to the illness, Walker adopted a new diet and work schedule. “I’ve really taken my doctor’s orders to heart, because frankly, I want to see my grandkids someday,” he told the media.
The 2005 season was the best since 2000, as the ‘Cats went 7-4 and made a trip to the Sun Bowl. Optimism was beginning to set in, as NU demonstrated that it could be consistently competitive. Walker was especially looking forward to the 2006 opener, a road trip to Miami to play the RedHawks. As coach at Miami, he tried to schedule NU in a 2-for-1 arrangement that would bring the Wildcats to Oxford, Ohio. Like most Big Ten coaches in that position, Barnett declined. When Walker took the job, he agreed to the deal with new MU coach Terry Hoeppner.
June 29, 2006 was another terrible day in Wildcat history. Coach Walker died suddenly of an apparent heart attack during the night. The next morning the college football world was shocked to learn of his passing. Condolences poured in from around the country, and his funeral was attended by numerous football dignitaries. Northwestern AD Mark Murphy, faced with the difficult task of filling the job in mid-summer, made the choice to promote Fitzgerald to Head Coach. Although Fitz was being groomed to eventually be the head man, many at the time questioned the decision. After all, he was only 31 years old, and just a position coach.
The 2006 opener at Miami was a Thursday night game, preceded by a 35 minute ceremony outside Yager Stadium. Despite his death, it still felt like a homecoming. A plaque of Walker was unveiled in Miami’s Cradle of Coaches Plaza. Tammy Walker, Randy’s widow, tossed the coin after the pre-game moment of silence. Both teams had decals of Walker’s uniform number and nickname above their face masks. The entire NU section wore special shirts – plain white t-shirts that simply had the word “WALK” printed in large letters. After a scoreless first half, NU went on to win 21-3, giving Fitz his first-ever win as Head Coach. Unlike the opening day game from 1999, there would be no post-game trash talking…just somber reflection on the coach.
Walker’s accomplishments at both Miami and Northwestern are astounding. He is the winningest coach in the history of “The Cradle of Coaches”. If not for his premature death, he would have become NU’s winningest coach. During his career, he defeated all eleven (at the time) Big Ten teams. He installed the spread offense at NU, which is still in use today. He hired Pat Fitzgerald, his heir and current symbol of all things NU.
Despite these deeds, there is a high chance that Walker will be overlooked in history. Although the winningest Miami coach, his name is not as revered as those who moved on to higher-profile programs (Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Ara Parseghian, etc). His greatest win at Miami was completely overlooked at the time. His Miami team came into Dyche Stadium and beat the 1995 Wildcats, a feat no other team accomplished that season. At the time, fans and media generally viewed that game as a “return to reality” for NU, which had beaten Notre Dame two weeks earlier. RedHawk fans left Dyche jokingly chanting “We Want Notre Dame!”….it wasn’t until two months later that they realized they beat the Big Ten champions.
In Evanston, many fans reminisce about the mid-1990s teams, then look ahead to Fitz’s tenure. Walker’s tenure, sandwiched between the much more media-savvy Barnett and Fitzgerald, can easily be forgotten. Thankfully, the NU Athletic Department is doing many things to keep Walk’s memory alive. The school dedicated “Walker Way” outside of Ryan Field in 2006, and began the pregame “Walk with Us” tradition before each home game. This summer the school hosted the second annual “Run for Walk”, which attracted over 1,000 participants. The event, annually attended by Fitz, raised funds and awareness for CARE (Community Animal Rescue Effort), in honor of Walker’s love of dogs. Tammy Walker, who participates in the annual event, continues to work in the NU Athletic Department. Sadly, Walker never did live to see his grandkids…however, he left a great legacy at NU.