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Remembering Late NU Coach Francis Peay

My work-study job was in the NU Athletic Equipment Room, where we worked extensively with the football program. When I heard that former NU head coach Francis Peay died on Saturday morning at the age of 69, the news touched me personally. Peay always projected a strong image of fitness and health, maintaining his muscular 6-5, 250 lb. frame throughout his coaching career.

Peay played college football at the University of Missouri, where he was an All-American offensive tackle. He was the tenth overall NFL draft choice in 1966, going to the New York Giants. He had a nine year NFL career with the Giants, Packers and Chiefs. When his playing career ended, he joined the coaching staff at Notre Dame.  After two years at ND, he moved on to Cal, where he spent three seasons coaching defensive line and outside linebackers.

In 1981, he came to Evanston as an assistant coach working with outside linebackers. He worked under newly hired head coach Dennis Green, who inherited the largest mess of a program in the history of Northwestern. During the early 1980s, Peay worked his way up to defensive coordinator. It was during this period that NU ended its infamous losing streak, and managed to restore some respectability to the program.

When Dennis Green left NU for the San Francisco 49ers in spring 1986, Peay was named interim head coach. During his interim season the Wildcats won four games, their best season in over a decade.  Players campaigned for him to be retained, so the administration gave him a five year contract.

Peay’s tenure was doomed practically from the start. The “interim” tag he carried during his first season made the massive challenge of recruiting at NU even more difficult.  The department was hampered by major financial problems, which made it difficult to attract and retain quality assistant coaches. Facilities were improving, but still badly lagged our Big Ten peers. NU’s nonconference schedules of the era included primarily major conference opponents, with very few “cupcake” games. During his era, the administration even sold a home conference game against OSU to Cleveland Stadium. These factors, coupled with Peay’s lack of Green’s offensive prowess, caused the program to stagnate. His final record at NU was 13-51-2.

Despite the challenges, Peay always worked tremendously hard for NU. He was an eloquent spokesman for the program, espousing the core Wildcat values of combining top-notch academics and athletics.  He was widely seen as a man of integrity, and never had any notable scandals during his tenure.  He was also a pioneering figure, as only the second black head coach in Big Ten history (there have only been four to date).

Peay’s tenure included some nice highlights. His 1986 victory over Illinois was the team’s first win in the series since 1977, and helped to put the rivalry back on even terms (He went 3-3 vs. the Illini). The 1986 season also featured a huge home win over Michigan State, a team that would win the Big Ten in 1987.  Peay coached and/or recruited many of the best Wildcat players of the past 30 years. These include Bob Christian, Richard Buchanan, Eddie Sutter, Len Williams, Lee Gissendaner, and Matt O’Dwyer.

His greatest impact was off the field, where he was a father figure to his players. This role was never more important than in 1989, when he helped them to cope with the death of teammate Jeff Hiller.  Hiller, a defensive lineman, drowned in Lake Michigan after his freshman season.

Another huge Peay moment happened in 1988, when he hired a new running backs coach.  He found a savvy, experienced young coach from North Carolina named Randy Walker. Walker worked with Peay for two seasons, developing a love for NU and its values during that time. Walker would eventually return to NU as head coach, and would complete the task that Peay hoped to achieve – making NU a consistent winner.