Coach Randy Walker remembered five seasons after unexpected death

Jonah L. Rosenblum

When Northwestern completes its 2010 campaign Saturday against Texas Tech, it will mark five full seasons since Randy Walker died of a heart attack just months before the 2006 season was set to begin. Although several years and victories have since passed, the way he lived and died has kept his memory alive.

“I think for everybody in our program, Coach touched lives and we think about him daily,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He’s a guy that influences everybody he had a chance to touch. His influence was just unbelievable.”

When Walker was named the head coach of the Wildcats following the 1998 season, he was given the reins of a program with a very uncertain future. After decades of misery, NU made it to the 1996 Rose Bowl and the 1997 Florida Citrus Bowl under coach Gary Barnett.

Yet, two of the most successful seasons in Cats’ history were followed by two seasons that ended with losing records, and by the time Barnett departed, it was doubtful whether NU would ever be able to replicate its success from the mid-1990s, particularly with star linebacker Fitzgerald no longer on the team.

By the time he passed away in 2006, Walker had answered all doubts, transforming the Cats into consistent winners. His teams played in bowl games in four of his seven years at NU.

“Gary Barnett did a great job of coming in and getting the team to Rose Bowl and winning the Big Ten in 1995 and 1996,” said Walker’s wife, Tammy Walker. “He made a really big breakthrough getting the program recognized and that it is possible. Randy’s role was to come in and add some consistency to it and I think he did.”

When the Cats brought Walker into Evanston, they were hiring a consistent winner. From his days as a high school running back through his days coaching at his alma mater Miami (Ohio), Walker won wherever he went, due in large part to his tremendous work ethic.

When Walker arrived at Miami (Ohio) as a player, he could lift more than anyone on the team, according to Tammy, even though he was just 5-foot-8.

“He was in tremendous shape and as a player, worked at it very hard,” Tammy Walker said. “He would very rarely miss a day of workout. He might miss Christmas but that was about it.”

According to Tammy, Randy Walker worked hard to get the most of his talent.

“Some people have incredible talent,” Tammy Walker said. “Although he was talented, I don’t think he thought he had incredible talent, but if he worked really hard he’d be able to make a difference.”

Make a difference he did, as he led the Redhawks to a 32-1-1 record in his last three years, with three straight Tangerine Bowl victories.

His coaching career was no different, as he had great success at North Carolina as an offensive coordinator and running backs coach, before heading to Miami (Ohio), where he became the winningest head coach in school history, surpassing legends like Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian.

Walker got the most out of his teams by demanding maximum effort from his players. Sometimes described as a drill sergeant, there was no doubt that Walker worked his players hard.

“What you saw is what he was,” Tammy Walker said. “He was pretty hard-nosed, he worked the players hard, but they knew especially as they got older and closer to him that he was loyal to a fault, he would have done anything for his players.”

That care for his players was hardly unconditional, according to his wife.

“He was very tough and he was pretty black and white,” Tammy Walker said. “These are the rules, this is what you do, you always knew where you stood for him, even though he was tough, it was easy in a way.”

According to Tammy, Randy Walker was hard-nosed as a coach and a father. The only one who was ever treated with kid gloves was the family dog.

“The only exception was our dog,” Tammy Walker said. “Our dog got away with a lot of stuff that our kids and players would have never gotten away with.”

When Walker came to NU, it didn’t take him long to find the same success that had marked his entire career. In just his second season with the Cats, he led them to a share of the Big Ten title.

“It was obviously a very fun season,” Tammy Walker said. “He’d probably be the first to tell you that at the beginning of the season, he didn’t think it would happen, but it was just one of those teams where things just came together and they found a way to win even when it didn’t look like they were going to.”

Yet, after winning the conference title in 2000, things took a turn for the worse in Evanston. On Aug. 3, 2001, senior safety Rashidi Wheeler collapsed during a conditioning drill and later died. The Cats went just 7-16 in the two seasons following Wheeler’s death.

Yet, Walker’s teams were able to recover from that low, winning at least six games in each of his final three seasons at NU. After leading the Cats to the Sun Bowl in 2005, the team’s fourth bowl game in just six seasons, Walker appeared to have the team back in the right direction.

“He was awesome,” Fitzgerald said. “He was a guy who would drive you to be the best you could be on every single rep and coached attitude every day. I’d like to think there’s a lot of Coach in me and our entire staff.”

And as tough a coach as he was, many of his players loved him, according to Fitzgerald and Tammy Walker. Indeed, it was Walker’s honesty that helped convince a young wide receiver out of Farmington Hills, Mich. to come to NU. Five years later, Sidney Stewart remembers that honesty well.

“He was real,” Stewart said. “He would look you in the eyes, he wouldn’t tell you what you wanted to hear, he told you the truth, and that’s what I respected about him.”

Just two months before his death, Randy Walker had signed a contract extension with NU that would have kept him in Evanston through the 2011 season. His wife said he loved coaching the Cats, in large part due to the character of the student-athletes.

“He loved it here and he wasn’t looking for anyplace else,” Tammy Walker said. “He could’ve made more money at other places so there’s tradeoffs wherever you are, but the things that he valued were here.”

Although he had been diagnosed with a heart virus two years earlier, it was wasn’t thought to be life-threatening.

“They thought he was doing very well,” Tammy Walker said. “He was on medication but that was it, he was not restricted physically.”

In fact, Walker had been hiking in Arizona in the week leading up to his death and had always worked out as often as possible, according to his wife.

One day after returning from a wedding in Arizona, Randy headed into the office, did some yard work in the afternoon, and then went upstairs to take a shower, where Tammy later discovered his body.

His death came as a complete shock to the NU community, including those who were closest to him.

“I don’t know if I could even put into words,” Fitzgerald said. “It was surreal almost and something I hope I never have to go through again.”

On a day soon after his death, his son Jaime Walker arrived at the Walker household, which was just four blocks from Ryan Field. Jaime, who was working as an assistant director of football operations at the time, went up to his mother and told her there was someone at the door.

There was more than just one person at the door; rather an entire football team stood there, and when Tammy got to the front door, they went into the opening bars of the NU fight song.

“I looked out the window, and I saw all these guys standing out there,” Tammy Walker said. “I knew who they were but I couldn’t figure out why they were here, so I walk to the front door and then they just start singing the fight song and I obviously start crying.”

The emotion didn’t stop there. It continued into the 2006 season, in which the Cats’ first game came against Miami (Ohio). In an emotional affair, coach Fitzgerald led NU to a 21-3 victory in Oxford.

“That first ga
me, there’s no question, we were at Miami and you could cut the emotion with a knife,” Fitzgerald said. “Just trying to lift Coach up in the way that we played and the way that we worked.”

Some might expect that Tammy Walker would’ve wanted to get as far away from Evanston as possible following her husband’s death. Instead, she did the exact opposite, taking a job in the NU athletic department.

In addition to helping with alumni relations and donor relations, she has also done some informal work for NU, helping mentor Stacy Fitzgerald, wife of Pat Fitzgerald, on what it’s like being the wife of a Division I football coach.

“I remember back in the beginning, I’d call her all the time,” Stacy Fitzgerald said. “(I’d) ask her what am I supposed to do, am I supposed to be here, am I supposed to be there, what am I supposed to wear, what am I supposed to do, who should I be talking to. She was wonderful.”

Tammy Walker remains a big fan of the football team and of NU sports in general. She says she simply couldn’t imagine walking away from the football field.

“Well, the thing is it was such a big part of my life, to just walk away would have been more difficult,” Tammy Walker said. “It would have a left big void.”

It wasn’t always easy for Tammy. She said that in the early days following Randy’s death, she had a hard time watching the players enter the field, since Randy was no longer there to lead them onto the gridiron.

“When the team runs out onto the field, I just didn’t watch that,” Tammy Walker said. “That was hard at first, but really during the games when Randy was coaching, I was watching the football game, I wasn’t really watching the coach, so once the game started, you really just get lost in the game.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Walker, who still calls herself the team’s number one fan, will be making the trip to Dallas to see if the Cats can finally win their first bowl in 61 years against Texas Tech.

“It would be great if they won,” Tammy Walker said. “More than anything, Randy would say it would be nice if they won. They have a monkey on their back and they just need to win, and get if off their back so it won’t be talked about so much.”

“They certainly have come close so many times but it just hasn’t happened, but maybe this year, it would be awesome.”

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