Apparently, Billy Joel was onto something when he sang about the good dying young. I'd always thought that it was an asinine idea, the sort of thing that only worked if you chose the right people, like Jesus or Gandhi or John Lennon. Friday morning, though, I woke up to learn that Randy Walker, the football coach at my alma mater Northwestern, had died of a heart attack at the age of 52. Damn, I thought to myself. Maybe, just maybe...
While the Jim Tressels of the world were grabbing national headlines, Walker spent his career quietly succeeding in the Big Ten despite strict academic guidelines and a limited recruiting pool. There are no Recreational Studies majors at Northwestern. We don't have the football mystique of a school like Notre Dame, or even a school like Stanford, for that matter. Our football history prior to the mid-1990s consisted solely of two things: a) Otto Graham and b) an infamous losing streak that I'd rather not dwell on. When you combine our anemic tradition with a rigorous core curriculum and the fact that we compete for local recruits with the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Illinois, Iowa, and Penn State, Northwestern doesn't exactly rank high on the wish lists of many blue-chip prospects.
And that's precisely what stands out when I think back on my four years of watching Randy Walker's brand of football: regardless of the talent he had to work with, the coach got the most out of his players. Anyone who thinks that Noah Herron would have even sniffed the field at OSU or Michigan is on opium, but here at NU Walker made him a household name. Walker's teams were always exciting on offense. I can still remember the first time I saw a trick play during my freshman year, can still remember being awed at how a coach could make a Big Ten defense look downright silly. But Walker did it, and he did it consistently. His teams always performed far better than they should have, mostly because his players made up in energy what they lacked in raw ability. That was no accident, of course. The nail-biters, the upsets, the "Instant Classic" against Ohio State in my junior year, these were the hallmarks of Randy Walker's teams, a product of the passion and the enthusiasm that the coach instilled in everyone around him.
I should note that I never quite became a full-fledged Northwestern football fan. I realized early on, when the Wildcats got blown to bits by Air Force in the first game I watched after being admitted, that I was never going to completely shake my Illinois roots, no matter how badly the Illini sucked. During my four years in Evanston, though, it became obvious to me how much Walker meant to both the football program and the campus as a whole. He was an institution, really, a permanent fixture who was known and respected in a way that Gary Barnett could have only dreamed about. Even better, Walker was by all accounts a class act. The local media loved him. His players were always quick to sing his praises. One told me a few years back that most of the coaches he worked with were essentially, well, expletives, but that he had nothing but respect for Walker. When the tragic death of Rashidi Wheeler threatened to tear the program apart, Walker's presence and persona held the team together, and got them, improbably, impossibly, into a bowl game. It takes a special man to make that kind of impact, and, quite frankly, I couldn't imagine a better description for the guy they called Coach.
The Northwestern community has faced more than its share of adversity in the last four years. Racial issues, suicides, sweatshop allegations, the women's soccer team, when I think back on my time at the school, there's plenty to cringe about. Randy Walker's football program, though, was a consistent bright spot, and the timing of his death, just two weeks after graduation, makes for a sort of depressing coda to my memories of Northwestern sports. He was the first NU coach in a century to guide his team to four six-win seasons. He led the Wildcats to a shared Big Ten title and three bowl games, setting a host of school records along the way. He leaves behind his wife and two children.
And the words of Billy Joel are left ringing through my head.