Posted: Friday June 30, 2006 1:49PM; Updated: Friday June 30, 2006 3:41PM
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It's hard to argue with the results. Last year Northwestern's offense, behind a quarterback (Basanez) who would go undrafted, a smallish running back (Tyrell Sutton) who was overlooked by most other major programs and a group of receivers that weren't about to blow anyone's stopwatch, averaged 500 yards a game, fourth nationally. It was a testament to just how powerful an equalizer the spread can be when put in the hands of a smart and efficient quarterback like Basanez. It was very much the same recipe that helped Utah -- whose coach at the time, Urban Meyer, once said he fell in love with the spread while watching Northwestern's wild 54-51 victory over Michigan in 2000 -- to its improbable 12-0 season two years ago. When I asked Walker at Big Ten media day last year about his seemingly radical change of philosophy, from old-school power football at Miami (Ohio) to the newfangled spread in Evanston, he had a pretty colorful answer: "It's as if all those years we were playing football in a phone booth," he said.
Northwestern has lost a whole lot more than a creative offensive mind, however. Every year a bunch of college coaches get fired, and every time you hear the same sentiments of "shock" being expressed by the players who have just lost their leader. Suffice it to say, this is a whole other type of shock. The sitting head coach of a Big Ten football program has died, at the peak of his career. It seems so unfathomable, and yet, for anyone connected to Northwestern athletics, these types of tragedies have somehow become a way of life.
In 1998, Matt Hartl, the starting fullback on that '95 Rose Bowl team -- the guy who caught the deciding touchdown pass in that season's breakthrough victory over Michigan -- succumbed to Hodgkin's disease at age 23. Another football player, Bobby Russ, was shot to death by a Chicago police officer during a routine traffic stop that same year.
In 1999, in a tragedy so senseless I still have trouble writing the words, Ricky Byrdsong, the ever-affable Wildcats basketball coach from 1994 to '97, whose teams I covered for the school paper, was gunned down by a white supremacist while jogging with his children in his suburban Chicago neighborhood. And two years later, in an incident that became a subject of much national scrutiny, Rashidi Wheeler, a starting safety for the football team, died while participating in a summer conditioning drill.
I realize these are hardly the only college coaches and players in recent years who have died before their time. We were all stunned by the death of Army women's basketball coach Maggie Dixon earlier this year. My journalistic instinct tells me to treat all such stories with the same detached perspective. But in this case, I'm sorry, I just can't do it.
Maybe next week the college football writer in me will return and tell you what this all means for Northwestern's football program, the Big Ten and the coaching profession. Today, however, I'm just another saddened alum.