Wildcats Coach Walker Dies

"I'll never forget Coach Walker," Wildcat kicker Joel Howells said. "He's had a huge impact on my life the last four or five years. If you really knew him, I don't know how you wouldn't remember him." (Tom Pidgeon - Getty Images)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 1, 2006

Northwestern University football coach Randy Walker, who had led the Wildcats to three bowl appearances during his seven-year tenure, died Thursday night of an apparent heart attack, the school announced yesterday morning. He was 52.

The sudden loss of Walker, the second-winningest coach in school history, left the Northwestern community devastated and much of the college football world stunned.

"He was one of the best and brightest the Big Ten and the coaching profession had to offer," Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said. "His competitiveness and ingenuity on the field were matched by his character and integrity off it. It's a terrible loss for Northwestern, the Big Ten and the coaching profession."

School officials said Walker was stricken with chest pain around 10 p.m. Thursday at his home in suburban Chicago. Walker had been diagnosed with a heart ailment two years ago, when he was hospitalized in October 2004 with myocarditis, an inflamed heart muscle. Myocarditis is most often caused by a virus.

Walker, after being released from the hospital in 2004, said during a conference call: "I'm going to be very careful. I've been fortunate to have a great family and a lot of good things in my life. I want to see my grandkids. I'm not going to push this beyond any limits."

Mark Murphy, Northwestern's athletic director, remembered Walker as a "vibrant, relatively young man, healthy [and] viewed as invincible" by some players. University President Henry Bienen applauded Walker both for consistently graduating his players and for winning games, while also maintaining a larger vision for the program.

Two months ago, Walker accepted a contract extension through 2011. During contract negotiations, Bienen said, Walker's focus was less about himself and more "about the program, to make sure when he left the stage, of course none of us could possibly have envisioned it would be so horribly quick, that there was a real legacy here. I think he accomplished that."

In seven years as head coach, Walker compiled a 37-46 record, won a share of the 2000 Big Ten title and became the first coach in school history to guide Northwestern to three bowl games. Earlier this week, Murphy sent Bienen a copy of a recent article that praised Walker as the Big Ten's best football coach. But by Thursday night, assistant coaches were informing players by telephone of the tragic news. Players and assistants gathered early yesterday morning and shared memories of Walker and talked about plans to move forward.

"He would always want to know how you are doing as a person," said senior linebacker Nick Roach. "And make sure things in your life were in the right order or you were at least working to get them that way. Having someone there for you like that, especially when you are away from home for four years, is a blessing not many places get. I think that's why Coach was so unique."

Murphy said the school will first help players deal with the loss of their coach over the next several days before addressing the future of the program.

Walker's tenure at Northwestern will also be remembered for the August 2001 death of Rashidi Wheeler, who collapsed and died after participating in a conditioning drill.

Many of Walker's friends and former associates at Miami (Ohio), where Walker graduated in 1976 and served as head coach before coming to Northwestern in 1999, expressed disbelief yesterday and an outpouring of support for Walker's family.

Walker is survived by his wife, Tammy, and two children: daughter Abbey and son Jamie, who serves as a football recruiting assistant at Northwestern.

"I am in shock," Michigan State Coach John L. Smith said. "This is a devastating loss for his family. My thoughts and prayers are with them. We've truly lost one of the good guys in the coaching profession."

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