June 29, 2011
Five years ago on this date, June 29, 2006, Northwestern head football coach Randy Walker died unexpectedly. In the years that have passed, we have found many ways to honor Coach Walk and his love for his family and for Northwestern -- including our annual Walk for Randy event, the Walk With Us tradition before games and the re-naming of Randy Walker Terrace north of Ryan Field. Though he has been gone for five years now, not a day goes by that his influence is not felt on this campus and in the lives of those he touched.
To mark today's anniversary of his passing, NUsports.com is publishing for the first time a story featured in the Sept. 9, 2006, issue of The Den, the Official Game Day Magazine of Northwestern football. Coach Walk's familiar phrases continue to ring as profound and homespun today as they did when he commanded our sidelines. He will remain forever a Hero to our Northwestern community.
The first home game of 2006 finally is here. After opening the season in emotional fashion at Miami (Ohio), Northwestern returns to Ryan Field today to host New Hampshire on the fifth annual Heroes' Day. On this day, the Wildcats honor members of the military and public safety officials for the sacrifices they have given for the freedom and well being of the United States and for each one of us.
"I'm a hero worshiper."
What makes these men and women heroes? Heck, what makes anybody one? We all have heroes in our lives, and for different reasons. We all have people who teach and protect us, people who influence us and guide us and some folks who -- whether they realize it or not -- spend their entire lives quietly leading by example and touching every single person they come into contact with.
And sometimes we come across a man who embodies all of that and more, a man who is willing to instill the "attitude" and "investment" necessary to turn "porch puppies" into "dogs that want to hunt." We are not talking football here. We are talking about life.
On June 29, 2006, Northwestern University and college football lost head coach Randy Walker
. Coach Walker always said he had heroes in his life. People like Bill Mallory and Dick Crum, his coaches at Miami, and Bo Schembechler, a man he patterned his coaching philosophy after early on in his career.
Coach also loved to say -- and meant it every time -- that his players were his heroes.
"Football, like life, is all about how you respond."
"He would tell us we were his heroes when we made a big response," junior offensive lineman Dylan Thiry says. "When we showed our true selves, when we would win a game people thought we weren't supposed to win, he would say we were special guys and that we were his heroes."
Northwestern made so many amazing responses during Coach Walker's tenure. The 2000 run to the program's third Big Ten title in six years was chock full of moments like that. From a double-overtime win at No. 7 Wisconsin to "Victory Right" and a 21-point comeback over a 17-minute span at Minnesota to the epic 54-51 win over Michigan--perhaps one of the best college football games every played--Coach Walker's Big Ten title was all about responding.
That magic continued throughout all seven of Coach Walker's seasons. In 2001, another Hail Mary was answered in a 27-26 win over Michigan State before Northwestern ended decades of futility with an overtime win against Ohio State in 2004, then scored two touchdowns in the final 2:14 to defeat Iowa in 2005 and become bowl eligible for the third time under Coach Walker.
Coach Walker led his 'Cats to three bowl games, something none of his 27 predecessors ever did. No one since Dick Hanley in 1928-31 led the 'Cats to three-consecutive six-win seasons, something Coach Walker did in 2004-06. Coach Walker racked up a 14-10 Big Ten record over the last three seasons, finishing fourth in the conference in 2005 and third in 2006. His 37 wins rank him second in Northwestern history behind Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf.
That list of improbable plays and inconceivable accomplishments came as a surprise to college football fans and experts across the country, most who perennially selected Northwestern to finish near the cellar of the Big Ten conference. Folks were waking up, though. In a preview that came out shortly before Coach Walker's death, The Sporting News called him the best coach in the Big Ten.
At a school where football success is widely viewed as being inversely proportional to its academic prowess, his accomplishments are one heck of a big deal. But Coach Walker would shrug his shoulders and brush off that suggestion. All he and his staff did during game week was prepare his players to play, he would say. Those doing the actual responding were his heroes out there on the field.
"With Coach Walk complimenting us like that all the time, we definitely tried to embody (the hero) spirit on and off the field," senior wide receiver Shaun Herbert says. "When someone says you are their hero, that means you need to give your best in everything you do. Just his saying that made me want to do my best all the time."
"What you try to do is make the most of the things you can control." "I coach attitude first."
When Randy Walker was introduced as Northwestern's head football coach in 1999, he sat down at a press conference between then-athletic director Rick Taylor and University president Henry Bienen.
"I told some people the other day that I'm the luckiest guy on this planet," Walker said at the time. "I don't know why, but I just keep having good things happen to me. I think a lot has to do with the way you live your life and the way you try to do business."
Walker lived his life by a rigid set of values, and he made sure those around him did, too. Always, always he put his wife Tammy and their two children, Abbey and Jamie, before all else. He held a deep Christian faith, and shared that with others. At his memorial service, Sarah Sarchet Butter, his pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette, shared a story about her asking Randy to speak about his faith during a Sunday morning service in the fall. Randy replied that Sunday mornings were one of the busiest times for a college coach, and he was sorry he had to decline. But later, he called back and said football would have to wait because some things are just more important.
Walker was fond of saying "If I had the magic potion for winning, I would bottle it and be a very rich man." The thing is, he did find that potion: Family. He was dedicated to his, and he made sure Northwestern football was a close knit one.
"He worked hard at building a family atmosphere around here," senior place-kicker Joel Howells says. "We really play for each other. We do not have to be individuals out there, because everything we do comes back to our team and our family."
Putting the hard work in on the field bred success, character and maturity there, but to Walker that hard work meant nothing if it did not carry over into his players' lives off the field.
"Playing for him was like having a life coach for five years," former Wildcat and current New Orleans Saints rookie Zach Strief says. "I learned so many things from him that had nothing to do with football."
"I'm the type of guy who likes to look into somebody's eyes and see what they are all about," Walker would say. If he could instill the attitude and investment necessary to a successful life, the work on the football field would take care of itself. And vice versa.
"He knew that everything you did on the field would help you off the field," sophomore running back Tyrell Sutton says. "He always tried to help you off the field first. From family problems to things in the game itself, he was such a big impact on everybody's lives.
College prepares students and student-athletes for life after college. Walker sought to control the "attitude and investment" of his team, and he was more concerned with where that work ethic took his players after college.
"You play football for four years here," Thiry says. "Anything after that was out of Coach Walker's control. The man you become in these four years is the man you'll be for the next 40."
What Coach Walker--and his family, his team, Northwestern and millions of college football fans around the world--could not control was that today, he would not be on the sidelines.
But where the program is now, where it is going and how things are done still are very much under Coach Walker's control. It's called a legacy.
"This is where I want to retire. I'm not going to coach forever."
But in a very real way, Randy, you will be coaching forever.
"We have the same attitudes now whether it is on the field or off the field," Thiry says. "When we are out in public, we have the same expectations as if he were here with us. Most of the stuff you don't even have to remind guys about, it is just ingrained in us. It is all what he taught us."
Many folks have acknowledged the fact Coach Walker wanted Pat Fitzgerald to take over for him when he was finished coaching. Now that Coach Fitzgerald is the head coach, he may never be finished coaching.
"I am determined to continue Coach Walk's legacy and build upon his successes," Fitzgerald said when he was introduced as head coach. "Northwestern will continue to have a football program built upon great work ethic, attitude and investment."
And continue the legacy he has.
"Starting with practices and the way we ran preseason, that has been the way Coach Walk did it," Howells says. "In team meetings, Coach Fitzgerald tells us the same things. Obviously Coach Fitz is his own person, and has his own ways of doing things, but the things we talk about first still are attitude and investment. The stuff Coach Walk instilled in us, he instilled in Coach Fitz, too.
"And I don't think Coach Fitz has to work to make that stuff come out at all. It just kind of happens naturally."
There is a logo on the field this season honoring Coach "Walk." The coaches and players have his name on their shirts, and a patch on their jerseys--over their hearts.
"This patch is a good way to remember him by keeping him close to our hearts," senior linebacker Nick Roach says.
More than the tributes, more than the symbols and more than the words we will remember Coach Walker with all season long, watch the team. Watch the way they play for 60 minutes, watch the way they come out like dogs ready to hunt.
But mostly, watch for this: "We've been behind, we've been down and dark and sometimes it almost looks impossible," Coach Walker said after the Michigan win in 2000. "But then you just get one of those courageous performances..."
Northwestern went through the darkest time it could have this summer. "I know what Coach Walker was saying to us when we were at his service," Thiry says. "He was saying `lift each other up, now. Let's get through this and get back on track.'"
Even gone, Coach Walker still is a coach. Now that's a legacy.
"We have special kids here."
That may be true, Randy, but we have a special coach, too.
You know, you spent so much time lifting up your kids, standing by your players through both the best of times and the worst. Without so much as an extra breath to think about it, you deflected to your players all of the praise heaped on you for doing what no other coach at Northwestern ever could do.
"I'm just thrilled for our kids, it goes back to them" you said after the Ohio State victory in 2004. "I'm so elated for our kids, I'm on the verge of breaking down," you said following the comeback against Iowa last year.
Your kids heard every word. It went in one ear and will stay there for a lifetime. And you know what? So many of the players you called your heroes want you to know something.
You're a hero, too.
"We talked about this the other day," Sutton says. "We would classify him as a saint. A saint is a person who does something without even knowing it. Coach Walk would always influence us with his actions and his words, and he never thought twice about the rewards he was going to get. He just did it because he knew that is what he had to do."
"People have asked me who my heroes are before and I've always said my family," Howells. "I love Coach and he was such a great friend and very loyal to me. We had a special relationship. I definitely say that a lot of the guys on the team look up to him in that respect."
"I feel like he's a hero just for giving me a chance," Herbert says. "Me being an East Coast guy, he showed confidence in me and gave me a chance to play Big Ten football."
It never was a "game of perfect," around here, Randy. But as demanding of perfection as you were, you realized that every time.
"He was the type of guy you didn't really know until you played for him," Thiry says. "You come out here and he will get on you and tell you when you are screwing up and it feels like it will never end. But in times when you had your head down and it was tough for you, he would teach you how to act. If you were down, he would help you up."
Today we honor the brave heroes of a community and of a nation. We also honor a different sort of hero, a man whose simple way of living life built and influenced lives for everyone who knew him.
"Deep down he knows he sets an example for young guys," Thiry says. "But," continues Sutton, "he would say `nawww, I'm not a hero. I have lived a tremendous life and I'm a lucky guy, but I'm not a hero.'"
Actually, Coach? Yeah, you are.
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