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Moving forward

Northwestern has difficult task in replacing Walker

Posted: Thursday July 6, 2006 8:16PM; Updated: Friday July 7, 2006 1:08PM
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Pat Fitzgerald, star of the 1995 Rose Bowl team and current linebackers coach, is a popular choice to succeed Randy Walker.
Pat Fitzgerald, star of the 1995 Rose Bowl team and current linebackers coach, is a popular choice to succeed Randy Walker.
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Family, friends and fans of Randy Walker gathered at a church in Evanston, Ill., on Thursday morning to remember the Northwestern head coach who died of an apparent heart attack last week at the age of 52. Afterward, guests were invited to attend a tailgate in his honor in a parking lot adjacent to Ryan Field, the Wildcats' home stadium. "It's the kind of thing he would have wanted," said a Northwestern administrator.

Sadly, there's no way of knowing who Walker would have wanted to become his successor. Out of respect to Walker's family, Northwestern athletic director Mark Murphy declined to name a new coach prior to Thursday's service, but with the team's annual preseason camp in Kenosha, Wis., set to kick off in just over a month, a decision on a new coach could be made within the next few days.

"I've met with the staff a couple times since Randy passed away, and we're all sensitive. It's a devastating loss for everyone, and we want to support the players and help them get through this," said Murphy. "But we're also quite aware that we need to get this [coaching search] going."

In seven seasons at Northwestern, Walker compiled a seemingly modest 37-46 record, but recently his program had achieved a level of stability unprecedented in the school's mostly dreadful football annals. Over the past three seasons the Wildcats went a combined 14-10 in Big Ten competition, finishing tied for third place last season and fourth the year before while reaching bowl games in both 2003 (Motor City) and '05 (Sun). This in addition to a conference co-championship and Alamo Bowl bid in 2000. His teams also became synonymous with the explosive spread offense they've run the last six seasons. In an attempt to maintain both momentum and identity, Murphy likely will focus on candidates with ties to Walker and/or the program.

"We want to hire the best person for the program," said Murphy, a former Washington Redskins safety and attorney who spent 11 years as the athletic director at Colgate, his alma mater, before coming to Northwestern in 2003. "But obviously, one of the considerations is we're on the eve of the season, and there's an advantage to having some continuity, someone who's familiar with the program. We're looking for a strong leader who can bring everyone together and through this."

It's unlikely an active coach at another school would jump ship so close to the start of a season. Therefore, it's been widely assumed that at least for this season, Murphy will appoint a member of the current coaching staff to take over on an interim basis. The problem, however, is there's no obvious candidate.

The elder statesman of Walker's staff is assistant head coach/defensive backs coach Jerry Brown, 56, a Northwestern alum whose tenure dates back to Gary Barnett's second season in 1993. Brown, a former NFL assistant with the Minnesota Vikings, took over the program briefly in 2004 when Walker first suffered health problems. His appointment would likely be well received by the players, and he would become the Big Ten's first black head coach since Michigan State's Bobby Williams was fired in 2002.