Walker coached at Miami of Ohio for nine years and left with the winningest record in the history of that famed Cradle of Coaches, beating out Paul Brown, Sid Gillman, Weeb Ewbank, Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler and the most notorious ass-chewer of all, Woody Hayes. Walker makes no apologies for admiring Hayes; growing up in Ohio in the 1960s, who didn't? "I'm not running a democracy," says Walker, whose team is 4-1 after Saturday's 23-17 win over Minnesota. "We're not going to take votes. I'm going to give you a real clear picture of where this ship is going. What I expect from you is to get on board, put your oars in the water and start rowing."
Walker, who led the Wildcats to a share of the 2000 Big Ten title in his second season in Evanston, tolerates no jewelry and no backward baseball caps. His star system operates in reverse: During preseason conditioning drills, a starter had to win every sprint or that group would run again. "He has a higher standard for the stars," says quarterback Zak Kustok, who transferred from Notre Dame to play for Walker. "I don't think any other football program in the country has as much discipline as ours does. As far as following the details and being precise, I know at Notre Dame it wasn't the same."
On Aug. 3, Walker's system received a horrible shock when senior strong safety Rashidi Wheeler collapsed and died from what was ruled a severe asthma attack during a grueling conditioning test—a series of consecutive sprints, starting with 10 100-yard sprints, followed by eight 80s, six 60s and four 40s—that Walker brought with him from Miami. The Wheeler family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the school and Walker, claiming, among other things, that the defendants "carelessly and negligently" failed to treat Rashidi, an asthmatic, after he collapsed. Northwestern president Henry Bienen defended the actions of the school's medical staff. He claimed that Wheeler "did not die of bronchial asthma" and asked the court to allow the school to further test Wheeler's blood and urine samples, which were found to contain the banned stimulant ephedrine. Still, the university has suspended use of the drill, and until the NCAA finishes its review into the circumstances of Wheeler's death, further use of the drill remains uncertain.
Walker's players remain united behind him, insisting the purpose of such a test is to build character and confidence. Friends, former players, even opposing coaches called in the days after, imploring Walker not to lay off. They need not have bothered. He never had a moment of doubt. "I have a real good feeling about what we do," Walker says. "I've never asked a kid to do something that's wrong or to embrace the wrong things. We do the right things here. Our program is predicated on it. I look at what's good, what's right, on doing things the right way—and not just in football."
This, of course, is the big justification for football's hard-liners: They make demands, and in turn, they make men. "We didn't invent this stuff," Walker says. " Vince Lombardi talked about man's innate need and desire for discipline. It gives people ease, because life is puzzling."
Jamonte Robinson knows. When he was eight, his father died in a gas-station explosion in St. Petersburg; when he was 13, his mother fell into the swamp of drugs and lost custody. A strong aunt and football diverted Robinson as he was drifting toward the wrong crowd, but he never quite shook some of his punk impulses. In 1999 he pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment after being accused of hitting a girl in the face at a Missouri dorm, and Smith suspended him for one game as a result of the incident. Meanwhile, though he'd been a key player since his freshman year and had embraced the laissez-faire atmosphere, Robinson knew something had been missing. "I'd been the same size, the same weight for three years," he says. "That's good enough to be good but not good enough to be great. Coach Pinkel demands greatness."
In his 10 years at Toledo, Pinkel went 73-37-3, and his final team, in 2000, epitomized his style: The Rockets finished 10-1, led the nation in turnover margin and had the fewest penalties in the Mid-American Conference. Pinkel describes himself as a control freak. He dictates everything from huddle breaks to the uniformity of the M's on Missouri's helmets. Team members had been complaining about cold showers for years. When Pinkel heard, the hot water flowed the next day. No Tigers coach is allowed to curse at or lay a hand on a player.
Pinkel's affection for rules goes back to his Akron upbringing and his parents' code of behavior, but his intolerance for whining stems from other forces. When Gary was a teenager, his older sister, Kathy, began to have trouble walking. Then came a cane. Then a wheelchair. She was stricken with a disease called hereditary spastic paraplegia, a genetic disorder characterized by progressive weakness and stiffness of the legs. When Gary was at Kent State, his younger brother, Greg, got the disease. Gary was spared, but his siblings' fate has had a profound effect on him. "It's like I'm carrying a torch for them," he says.
"I never, ever, ever, heard my sister or brother complain about how tough life is," adds Pinkel. "So a guy comes in and tells me he didn't go to class because his car broke down? Don't even go there. That's the first thing I told my team in January. I don't want to hear an excuse for anything."
No Missouri player has been more affected by Pinkel's attitude than Robinson. Four players told the coaches that they couldn't believe the change in Robinson. He is working harder than ever—he blocked a field goal attempt in the third overtime of that win over Oklahoma State—yet he continually chastises himself for dogging it. He was elected captain, but he's sure he's running behind, and out of time. "I'm trying to fit into the scheme, get [coach's philosophy] to work on me, before it's too late," Robinson says.