Bringing ’em on board (Football)

Tania Ganguli

When Gary Barnett left Northwestern for Colorado, Ray Bogenrief stayed, but he didn’t like it — at first.

He remembers practicing in full pads all the time and being so exhausted his legs were “dead” and he could barely walk to class.

That was Randy Walker’s first year.

During his first five years coaching at NU, Walker coached many players Barnett recruited. This spring the Wildcats took the field and for the first time everyone on the team came here to play for Walker. Every player knew, on some level, what they were getting themselves into.

But in the years right after Barnett left, several players weren’t ready for what former NU running back Jason Wright referred to as an “aggressive and antagonistic” coaching style. Even before playing for him, four recruits who had verbally committed to Barnett decommitted.

After going through practices and games with Walker, some players realized that they couldn’t stay with the program and trickled out of it in what Walker called a “mass exodus.”

The players who remained at NU all found the transition to a head coach who was stricter than the man who recruited them difficult.

Some grew accustomed to their new coach’s style, while others continued to question their decision to stay.

The intense practices were tough on everyone, but some of Barnett’s recruits, like former wideout Kunle Patrick, felt that Walker worked them harder than his own recruits.

Walker said otherwise.

“Gary Barnett recruited Damien Anderson,” Walker said. “He could have played for me forever.

“Any time I corrected something (they may have thought), ‘Well coach Walker’s a mean hardass.’

“But I embraced those kids.”

Patrick said the Barnett recruits felt a bond because of the difficult transition they had to go through. The situation they were in created resentment toward Walker among the players who had originally decided to stay with NU. Patrick said he thought many times about leaving the team.

“We went through a lot for our first two years,” Patrick said. “When the other classes came in, he didn’t push them how he pushed us.”

Walker denied Patrick’s claim that he actively tried to get rid of the “Barnett recruits,” but Bogenrief said he understood Patrick’s perspective.

“There were some guys whose work attitude he didn’t like and he worked them harder because he was trying to change that,” Bogenrief said.

The fact that the team went 3-8 in Walker’s first season didn’t help.

Former NU running back Jason Wright said when a player doesn’t have the connection with a coach that is formed during recruiting, it’s easy to blame the situation on the coach.

And many players did just that. Before long more players left the team or the school, leaving holes in NU’s roster.

“Our class was quite small because of what happened,” Patrick said. “All these younger guys were put in a position of playing when they weren’t ready.”

The death of Rashidi Wheeler in 2001 dealt the already shaky team a hard punch. Patrick said he and other guys his age looked up to Wheeler and with his death they began to question their lives and their involvement in football.

The intensity of practices decreased.

During the next few years, things slowly began to pick up. But Bogenrief said practices were never as rigorous as Walker’s first years.

Bogenrief was one of nine members of the 2003 senior class. Walker attributes the low numbers to being part of the final stages of the transition from Barnett’s era to his own. But he knew that there would be problems to work through.

“They were great kids,” Walker said of the players he inherited. “But they were coming off a tough season when I got here.

“Even the previous two years had been disappointing. I sensed there was a resignation.”

In the fall, linebacker Tim McGarigle said he knew before coming to NU that Walker was a “hard-nosed coach.” He knew it because his hosts didn’t sugar coat the program, the players said they try to never lie to recruits.

“It attracts the right kind of people to our program,” safety Dominique Price said. “If you’re afraid of hard work, you might not fit in well here.”

Although he didn’t like Walker at first, Bogenrief now calls himself Walker’s “biggest proponent.” He says Walker has established his program and knows what he’s doing with the team. Bogenrief said he would stay a sixth year if he could.

In the world of college football, where coaching positions change often, former safety Torri Stuckey said that players shouldn’t make “the mistake of going to a school for a coach.”

Several players agreed there are other more important factors — factors that will remain stable despite coaching changes such as teammates.

Throughout the difficult transition Patrick said he relied on his teammates who were going through the same thing he was for support. That and NU’s academics helped him stay a part of the team. Bogenrief echoed similar sentiments.

“I said this, and I truly meant it, that the greatest honor of my life has been playing alongside them,” Bogenrief said. “We all have a lot in common and even guys who don’t have that much in comMonday, you go through so much and you learn to love everyone on the team.”

Wright didn’t open himself up and get to know Walker until his senior year, but he liked what he learned then. He said Walker respects his players because of who they are and what they stand for.

“We’re not here to play two years and go to the league,” Wright said. “We’re not here to cause trouble, we’re here to play football.”

And Walker cited those exact reasons for why he respects his players.

Walker said a lot of players left when he became head coach at Miami (Ohio) so he knew how to deal with the situation and tried to be sensitive to their problems, but there are other things to consider than the players who jump ship.

“You better not worry about the ones who leave, worry about the ones who stay,” Walker said.

Because some who stayed didn’t always know why. Others figured it out.

Walker became their coach.