Heart attack suspected in Walker's death
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern football coach Randy Walker's sudden death left the school stunned Friday, with players praising the 52-year-old as an inspirational leader whose influence reached far beyond the field.
"I'll never forget coach Walker," kicker Joel Howells said at a somber news conference on campus. "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."
|Remembering Randy Walker|
|We throw around the phrase "sudden death" in football so much that it loses its impact. When someone in the game dies as suddenly as Northwestern coach Randy Walker did Thursday night, the force of those words lands like a two-by-four to the chest, writes Ivan Maisel. Story|
Walker died Thursday of an apparent heart attack, after feeling chest pains around 10 p.m. at his suburban Chicago home, said Mike Wolf, the school's assistant athletic director for media services.
"Everything he taught us could be applied to life," linebacker Nick Roach said. "You can't really measure something like that."
Two months ago, Northwestern gave Walker a four-year extension through the 2011 season -- he was the only coach to lead the Wildcats to three bowl games. Walker joined the school in 1999 after nine years at Miami of Ohio.
"He was resilient in life and I think his teams took on that personality," athletic director Mark Murphy said.
In October 2004, Walker checked himself into a hospital after experiencing chest pains. He was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle; the condition is not a common ailment, and is usually caused by a virus.
Walker was out of the hospital in two days, and said he was taking a new approach to his diet and work schedule.
"I've really taken my doctor's orders to heart, because frankly, I want to see my grandkids someday," he said at the time.
Walker's Wildcats were 37-46 and made three bowl games, going 7-5 last season after a 50-38 loss to UCLA in the Sun Bowl. Northwestern shared the Big Ten title in 2000 and went to the Alamo Bowl. The Wildcats also went to the 2003 Motor City Bowl.
Walker was the first Wildcats coach to guide the team to four seasons with at least six wins since C.M. Hollister in 1899-1902.
"A lot of guys are still kind of in shock," Howells said, his voice cracking.
Walker called Howells on Thursday morning to see how he was doing. A day later, Howells was reminiscing about meetings that would veer into gab sessions in which the coach would tell stories about his past.
"He was a spiritual leader on our team and worried about people's integrity and character first and foremost," Howells said.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in a statement: "Not only was Randy a great friend to the conference, but to his players, his staff and fans. Randy accomplished a great deal at every institution he worked for, but most importantly he personified the values of intercollegiate athletics -- he was positive, resilient and honest."
Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner, who was on Walker's staff at Miami of Ohio, said news of the death left him in "absolute shock."
"I lost a friend and someone I learned a lot from in our time together at Miami," Hoeppner said. "He is a great man, a great family man and a great person. Words cannot express how much I will miss him."
Illinois coach Ron Zook, who graduated with Walker from Miami of Ohio in 1976, called him "a man of great passion."
"He was passionate about his family, his players, the Northwestern community and the game of football," Zook said in a prepared statement. "I've also known his wife, Tamara, since our days at Miami and offer her and her children our deepest thoughts and prayers."
Oklahoma offensive line coach James Patton, who played for Walker at Miami and coached under him at Northwestern, agreed with Zook's assessment of Walker's passion for coaching, telling ESPN's Joe Schad that Walker "took it to another level."
"He always said that Michael Jordan's father saw more in Michael than Michael did," Patton said. "As coaches he wanted us to see that players could be more than even they knew they could be."
"If you looked at how his teams played, you knew who he was. Schemes are schemes but he maximized the talent he had," Patton recalled. "And he coached every player the same way. It didn't matter if you were a freshman, a starter or on the scout team."
At Wrigley Field, where the Cubs hosted the Chicago White Sox, a moment of silence was observed before the afternoon game, followed by a warm ovation.
One of the most difficult times during Walker's tenure at Northwestern came in August 2001 when defensive back Rashidi Wheeler collapsed after participating in a conditioning drill and died. His parents sued the school, claiming officials did not give their son, an asthmatic, timely or adequate medical treatment.
After years of court wrangling, the player's family was awarded a $16 million settlement. A judge approved the settlement last August.
"That was a very difficult time for Randy --first of all having a player die, the media attacks," said Murphy, who was hired three years ago. "As it dragged on, it became more and more difficult. To me, it really shows his resiliency, the strength of his character to make it through a situation like that."
Cleveland Browns running back Jason Wright said he got off to a bumpy start with Walker, but that things changed.
"Me and him had a rocky relationship in my first two years, but ended up being the best of friends," said Wright, part of Walker's first recruiting class at Northwestern. "His pushing, his prodding -- it was for a greater purpose than just success on the field, he was putting discipline into you and getting you to push through adverse circumstances."
Walker was an assistant coach at North Carolina from 1978 to 1987 and then coached running backs at Northwestern in 1988 and 1989 before becoming head coach at Miami of Ohio, his alma mater. Northwestern is scheduled to open its season against the RedHawks on Aug. 31.
In nine seasons he compiled a 59-35-5 record, his .621 winning percentage the best in school history when he left. Walker's 1998 team at Miami went 10-1.
A native of Troy, Ohio, Walker was a fullback at Miami of Ohio and graduated from there in 1976 with a degree in social studies education. Five years later he got a master's degree in education administration.
During Walker's playing days, Miami compiled records of 11-0, 10-0-1 and 11-1 in the mid-1970s and won three Tangerine Bowls. Walker was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 1992.
Walker was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals, and after a short stint returned to Miami as a graduate assistant.
Walker is survived by his wife, Tamara, and two children, Abbey, 28, and Jamie, 25, who is the school's football recruiting assistant. A funeral service will be held at the First Presbyterian Church in Evanston, Ill., at 10 a.m. Central time on Thursday.
In lieu of flowers, the Walker family has requested that donations be made to The Randy Walker Fund, which will benefit the Northwestern football program. Checks should be made payable to Northwestern University and mailed to The Randy Walker Fund, 1501 Central St., Evanston, Ill. 60208.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.