Cradle tradition can’t compete with NU’s legacy

Jeff Carlton

Everyone played up the “cradle of coaches” angle last season when Northwestern lured football coach Randy Walker away from Miami (Ohio).

Walker is the all-time winningest coach at Miami, ahead of such legends as Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian and Bo Schembechler.

He brought with him that undeniable aura of success, as well as a personal 10-year tradition of winning as a head coach.

And none of it was any match for NU.

See, the Wildcats have a little tradition of their own: a century of nearly uninterrupted losing. So many losses that the Cats rank as the all-time losingest team in Division I-A.

The two bowl years in the mid-’90s happened last century and are already fading from memory.

Conventional wisdom has it that those years were flukes, statistical anomalies bound to occur eventually. Kind of like train wrecks.

The only difference is that you can count on a few Amtrak crashes a year. The same can’t be said for NU wins. And as a result, Cats fans generally have less hope than Pauly Shore on Oscar night.

But Walker brought with him a hard-nosed attitude and a proven track record. A 2-1 start that included a thrilling overtime win over Duke provided hope and a sense of change.

Last year’s stretch run, however, spoiled Walker’s debut season and what could have been an encouraging year for the program. The Cats lost seven of eight, including the last four games.

The final stats from that season-ending losing streak were ugly: four straight losses, a total of 29 points and two no-shows against Michigan and Michigan State.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the top coach from a program that produces great coaches would be crushed under the weight of a century of losing. One hundred years of futility can’t be undone in a season — no matter who’s doing the coaching.

But Walker’s not paid to adhere to tradition and he’s not wired to accept losing. Exhibit A: Walker’s reaction to last season’s 37-3 loss at Michigan.

The Cats showed up in Ann Arbor, Mich., but left their game back in Evanston. The offense ran the stall and the defense lacked intensity.

After the game, Walker seethed, his anger bubbling barely below his skin. His face red with fury, the coach spit out answers to questions through gritted teeth.

Though Walker surely must be as grounded in X’s and O’s as any of his contemporaries, he will usually speak publicly only of intangibles: mental toughness, attitude and effort.

To a cynic, his comments can be eye-rolling stuff, a calculated effort at damage control to spin a blowout loss into some kind of moral victory.

But that’s not at all the case. With his focus on the mental makeup and personality of his team, Walker is attacking some of the very elements that contribute to NU’s woeful tradition.

Losing is contagious, as is winning. The Cats athletic program is a case study in that cliché. NU’s five fall sports combined to win five conference games last year; NU’s six spring sports combined for six postseason appearances.

Walker says players are buying into his system. Quarterback Zak Kustok is on board, as is linebacker Kevin Bentley, the Big Ten’s leading tackler.

Combine that with the fact that NU lost maybe three key starters and you have the makings of a season that could fly in the face of past tradition.

Miami earned its cradle reputation after its ex-coaches enjoyed prominent success elsewhere. Whether Walker adds to that legacy remains to be seen.