Wednesday, June 29, 2011

RIP Randy Walker, 5 Years Later

Northwestern football coach Randy Walker died of a heart attack five years ago today. This is what I wrote in the Daily Quickie the morning after, one of the first mainstream reactions to the news:
Two Words For You: COACH. WALKER.

When a coach performs the impossible, you begin to think he is untouchable.

Randy Walker's death is a stunner -- and that reaction shouldn't be limited to super-intense Northwestern football fans like me. (Frankly, I'm devastated.)

Winning football at Northwestern used to be the biggest oxymoron in sports. Gary Barnett broke through; Walker took it to the next level:


By the end of last season, when Walker led Northwestern to its 3rd bowl appearance in his 7-year tenure, one stat stood out:

He was the first NU coach to lead the program to four seasons with at least six wins since the turn of the century -- the 19th century.

That might not sound like much to a fan of Notre Dame or USC or Oklahoma or Penn State, but to long-suffering Northwestern fans, simply being a perennial contender for bowl eligibility was like becoming a national power.

After the high of Barnett's tenure, Walker delivered year-over-year stability, even as he imported a wild, high-octane spread offense that produced endless dramatic, you-never-know finishes.

That offense was showcased in one of the most entertaining games of the last decade (2000: NU 54, Michigan 51) and in the 2nd-best bowl game last season (Sun: UCLA 50, NU 38); and was even analyzed by some of the top programs in the country (Urban Meyer has called it an influence).

Year after year, Walker had college football's longtime laughingstock in the hunt for a bowl game; week after week, he kept the team in games.

How could a coach whose heart carried a historically horrible program to the fans' bliss of weekly competitiveness die of an apparent heart attack?

It's a result as impossible as his on-field accomplishments.
RIP, Coach Walker. I hope his family, friends and many fans find some semblance of comfort on a difficult day through their memories of him and his lasting legacy.

-- D.S.

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