First and foremost, I'm not sure anyone here at Inside NU can really speak to the immense importance Randy Walker had, and continues to have, at Northwestern, nor can anyone really attest to the man that he was. As we hit the 10-year anniversary of Walker's sudden and tragic passing, there are a number of ways we can choose to think back on him as a mentor, a father, or perhaps the least important aspect of his character, a coach.
Throughout this last season, Northwestern celebrated its 20th anniversary of its 1995 Rose Bowl team, and for good reason. That season remains one of the most unlikely stories in sports history. But lost in the shuffle was that last year marked the 15th anniversary of the last Northwestern team to earn a share of a Big Ten Title, Randy Walker's 2000 Wildcats. And if there is a season worth thinking back on, it's hard to beat what had to have been one of the most insane seasons ever recorded.
Northwestern in 2000 was the football equivalent of washing down a nice cup of black coffee with an adrenaline shot straight into your heart while jumping out of an airplane. The team averaged nearly 37 points per game. They gave up a little more than 33 points per game, but who cares. Defense is boring. It included three wins over top-20 teams, probably the best individual offensive season in Wildcat history, run-ins with both parts of one of the best NFL backfield batteries of the 2000s, and maybe the best game Northwestern's ever played. The whole year made no sense, it was awesome, and it changed the way college football was played.
Almost every single game in that season was must watch television. Even the games Northwestern lost, including the blowouts, had something worth watching. Northwestern got a first row seat to watch future NFL Hall of Famer Ladanian Tomlinson bust loose for 243 yards for TCU as the Horned Frogs pulled away in Corpus Cristi to a 41-14 win. Tomlinson's future Charger backfield battery-mate, Drew Brees, would hit Northwestern for five passing touchdowns in Evanston, which is a reminder that Purdue was once decent at football. Nebraska ran a double pass against Northwestern that went for a touchdown when they were up more than 30 points in the Alamo Bowl. And those are just the losses.
You throw a dart at the schedule from that year and odds are you're going to hit a crazy game. Northwestern may have been dubbed the Cardiac Cats in the 90's, but the team earned it in 2000. Which game was your favorite? Was it going into Camp Randall and slapping 47 points down on Barry Alvarez and his No. 6 Badgers and winning in double overtime ("Anderson! To the endzone! Northwestern wins!")? Maybe it was in the Metrodome, where Zak Kustok heaved a ball to the endzone while getting thwacked and still getting enough on it for Kunle Patrick to tip it to Sam Simmons in the corner of the end-zone, completing a Hail Mary and an absurd 4th-quarter comeback that included a perfect 5/5 conversion rate on 4th down? That's the first sports memory I have, running around my living room losing my mind after the most ridiculous plays I'd ever seen.
Or maybe you add those games together and you equal half of the ridiculousness of that Michigan game.
That Michigan team was loaded. Anthony Thomas, David Terrell, and Drew Henson combined to lead an offense that averaged some 34 points per contest. On the other side of the ball, Larry Foote marshaled a defense that in the two weeks prior to facing Northwestern surrendered exactly zero points.
Northwestern would roll for 654 yards and 54 points against the Wolverines.
The game was bonkers. Damien Anderson rushed for 268 of his 2063 yards on the season against Michigan and should have cost Northwestern the game. His drop of a would-be touchdown with two minutes left in the game on a 4th and goal should have sealed it. Michigan could have kneeled the ball 3 times and gotten their victory. Instead, it didn't. Anthony Thomas carried the ball 39 times for 200 yards and was the goat of the game. Thomas getting stripped from an innocuous hit and reaching back for the ball in vain remains one of the most iconic images in Northwestern sports history.
Raheem Covington fell on the ball, and 30 seconds later, Sam Simmons was in the end zone. Michigan had the game won. And then they didn't. And then Northwestern stole it.
The game marked the beginning of the popularization of the spread offense. In front of a national audience on ABC with Brent Musberger calling the shots, Randy Walker and Kevin Wilson showed the world that with some creativity and just the right amount of gimmickry, a dramatically athletically-disadvantaged team can absolutely embarrass a really good defense. Randy Walker was a brilliant offensive football mind. Look at the list of great college running backs he put through the program. Damien Anderson. Jason Wright. Noah Herron. Tyrell Sutton. Only once in Walker's tenure did Northwestern fail to have a back rush for 1000 yards. The concepts he and Wilson innovated at Northwestern are found in just about any successful spread attack today. That's Walker's legacy on the football field.
But that feels unsatisfactory.
That 2000 season was a gift from Randy Walker, his players, and everyone involved to all of us. Big Ten titles are few and far between, and to earn a share of one while also playing perhaps three of the ten best games in program history kicked it over the top. But however that season defines his "legacy," it pales in comparison to his legacy as a father, husband, and, yes, a leader of young men.
For most of us as fans, the closest we ever get to the man who leads our favorite team is by watching him for a few hours on a Fall weekend stand on the sidelines of a big grass field. Those who knew Randy Walker personally are immensely fortunate. But even those of us who were sitting in the stands watching Randy Walker in his windbreaker and his glasses were fortunate too. Fandom at its best gives us moments that stick with us forever. A forced fumble. A Hail Mary. Randy Walker gave us a lifetime's worth of moments in one season.
And that's worth remembering.