Death of Northwestern's Walker hits too close to home
Posted: Friday June 30, 2006 1:49PM; Updated: Friday June 30, 2006 3:41PM
Randy Walker took Northwestern to three bowl games in his seven-year career.
Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images
As a national college football columnist, I go out of my way to have an impartial perspective on everything I write. Today, however, that's simply not possible.
I'll admit it. I have a soft spot for Northwestern. How could I not? I spent four of the most fulfilling years of my life on the Evanston, Ill., campus, and as a euphoric, wide-eyed sophomore I stood in the stands in Pasadena on New Year's Day in 1996 witnessing the improbable, historic culmination of one of the biggest Cinderella stories in sports history. That experience cemented my passion for college football and precipitated a career spent following the sport.
These days I'm usually too wrapped up in the trials and tribulations of any number of other football programs -- USC, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, etc. -- to keep close tabs on the boys in purple, but from time to time my college friends and I will engage in the type of e-mail dialogue that I'm sure is common practice for alums of nearly every team in the country.
Off and on for the past few months, in fact, we'd been engaged in a fiery debate, the most recent round of which took place just the other day. The subject: Is Randy Walker a good coach? His supporters among the group pointed to the school's unprecedented string of three straight six-win seasons, the three bowl bids in six years -- as many as Northwestern had in its entire previous history -- and Walker's undeniable role in creating one of the nation's most innovative and explosive spread offenses. His detractors brought up the years and years of atrocious defenses, the mind-numbing series of special-teams gaffes and the inability to get back to those glorious, Rose-colored days of the mid-'90s.
Suddenly, it all seems so trite.
Walker, Northwestern's coach of seven seasons, died on Thursday night from an apparent heart attack. This would be a sad story to cover no matter the coach or the school. But when that school happens to be your alma mater -- and when these type of stories seem to keep happening there far more often than any one community should have to bear -- sad simply isn't a descriptive enough adjective. To be honest, I can't think of one that is.
I had only talked to Walker a few times for stories, most recently last October for a Sports Illustrated piece on quarterback Brett Basanez, but that's about all I needed to get a sense of the terminally upbeat personality I'd heard so much about from those who follow the team more closely. Walker was an Ohio-bred, Woody Hayes-admiring, old-school-to-the-core football guy, which made him an unlikely character not only to embrace but to play as big a role as any other coach in the country in fostering the sport's recent craze toward the spread offense.