Future is now for NU

Adam Rittenberg

Wedged between perplexed pauses and shoulder shrugs, Randy Walker tries to fight it. As much as he wants to hold back, be the textbook coach and not file this season in the books, he just can’t overcome human nature.

While he’ll tell you about the importance of finishing strong in 2001, his eyes light up at the mention of Tony Stauss becoming a fixture under center, Thomas Derricks establishing himself as a legitimate hole-plugger in NU’s front line and Torri Stuckey building an impressive collection of triple-digit rushing performances.

The change in tone spawns out of the fact that those are Walker’s recruits, the players he tracked and trailed for months, subtly urging them to make the commitment to NU. To Walker, these guys are tangible proof of his tireless work and vision for Wildcats football. When Stauss, Derricks, Stuckey and Co. step on the turf in uniform, Walker has a feeling of completion rarely experienced by martyrs of modesty, also known as college football coaches.

“I sat in Torri Stuckey’s house,” Walker said. “There’s a difference there to some degree because I did recruit them, I did go in their homes, I did go in their high schools and built those long-term relationships.”

These are Walker’s boys, and no matter what he says, he cannot wait to see how they all turn out. Can Ashton Aikens’ barrel of talent at running back translate into a successful career at wideout? Can Derricks improve his footwork and develop that rapid first step off the snap that skyrocketed his stock coming out of high school?

Only time will tell — but there’s a part of Walker that wishes that time were right now.

He’ll never spit it out, but Walker’s having a heck of a time motivating his team right now. Look at Saturday’s Louganis-like nosedive against Iowa — a game reeking of opportunity for the Cats. They come out flat, suffer several slip-ups and mope their way through the second half. When teams tumble out of the starting gate, they do two things — look to themselves or look to their coach. It’s football’s true test of trust between player and coach — and NU can’t seem to muster a passing grade.

The Cats start 15 upperclassmen right now, players wooed to Evanston by everyone’s favorite charming snake, Gary Barnett. To them, Walker was the antithesis of what NU football had been with Barnett: stern, strict, sharp — short.

Sure, they learned to love him last year, when stars crossed and the team produced clutch comebacks with ease. But this season, the team has reverted to its faulty form in the pre-Walker era.

“It’s just like marriage,” Walker maintains. “You’ve got to live with someone for a while to really get close — that’s what this program’s all about.”

Well, coach, this honeymoon ended when Eric Crouch and Dan Alexander decided that they didn’t belong on the same field with your team. Now the Cats’ everlasting bond is being stretched to the max, and they’re two losses away from Divorce Court.

Walker will be the first to tell you he’s not walking out on his “adopted kids,” that they mean just as much to him as the players who bought his pitch and followed him to Evanston. While that may be true, he can’t fight the feeling to forecast — it’s only natural.

With a multitude of injuries and team morale in the gutter, the time has come for Walker to start coaching for the future. Swallow your pride, coach, and let the kids play.