Randy Walker is wearing a purple polo shirt and an easy smile. Two days earlier the deadline passed for high school seniors to commit to colleges. Walker is relaxed and feeling good about his recruiting class.
"I think we have some kids with great promise, tremendous potential," he says in his modest office in the John C. Nicolet Football Center. "We didn't sign any finished products, but we have some guys who I think can be very special, very good players."
This year's efforts were in sharp contrast to Walker's experience two years ago when the former Miami of Ohio head coach was named to Northwestern's top job just days before the deadline for player commitments. Former head coach Gary Barnett's sudden decision to leave Northwestern for Colorado left recruits up in the air and Walker and his staff scrambling to hold on to the class.
"We had basically finished our recruiting at Miami, and I'm sitting there on easy street," Walker recalls. "Then it all started happening. I become head coach here, and I go from easy street to fallout zone. I mean, it's falling apart around me. Kids are wanting to leave our program. The commitments were crumbling. My coaches and I are getting in trains, planes and automobiles trying to get to these kids and introduce ourselves."
Walker and his staff managed to hold on to most of Barnett's recruits, but it wasn't easy. "There wasn't a lot of trust," he says. "[Losing a coach] is tough on kids, and they didn't understand. All they knew was they weren't getting the deal they wanted. They're thinking, 'Who's this short little guy from Miami of Ohio we never heard of?'"
He's Randy Walker, who was born in Troy, Ohio, the older of two boys. His father, an accountant, worked at the same factory for 44 years, and his mother worked at the local Sears store. They attended all of Walker's high school and college football games (a practice they continued, missing only one game he coached last year).
Walker recalls a neighborhood full of kids and a typical small-town childhood. "It was a great place to grow up," he says. "We were always playing something. As soon as spring broke we'd get the bats and balls and go out and play baseball. When we went back to school in the fall it was time for football. In the winter I'd shovel off the court outside the school and play basketball."
Walker's love for baseball was a passion that he shared with his brother, Rob, who is 13 months younger. "I had a built-in best friend. In the summer we'd finish breakfast and run out the door with our gloves and our bats and play all day."
"Randy was a very intense kid," says his father, Jim. "With anything he did, he got very focused. He was a good student, he'd zero in on his homework. He was very focused on sports." And, his father recalls, he was a good talker. "He would have made a good evangelist. He could have saved a lot of souls!"
At Troy High School Walker tried out for football, joined the drama club and sang the lead in Fiddler on the Roof. He also met Tammy Weikert, whom he married in his junior year of college. "She was the first girl I ever dated," Walker says. "Shortly after our first date I thought, 'How can I not screw this up?'"
Walker came into his own as a football player in his sophomore year. After playing guard and linebacker as a freshman, he was shifted to halfback by the coaches to take advantage of his speed. In the final game of the year on a team that had won just two games, Walker had an experience that changed his life.
With the score tied and time for just one more play, Walker raced out of the backfield and caught a pass downfield. "All that's between me and winning the last game and sending the season out the right way is grass," he recalls. "It's me and the end zone, and I'm running and running and I get caught from behind and tackled 18 inches short."
Walker learned something about himself. "I hate losing, I hate failure," he says. "I'm probably more afraid of failure than I am pleased with success. It motivates me more than the thrill I get from winning."
That motivation drove Walker into the weight room. Between sophomore and junior year he gained 35 pounds and doubled the weight he could bench press. "I was never going to get caught from behind again," Walker says. The team went undefeated his last two years, and he won a scholarship to Miami of Ohio in Oxford.
The success continued at Miami, where in Walker's three years as a starter the team went 32-1-1 and won three bowl games. "He was short, but not small," recalls his head coach Dick Crum. "He was a weight lifter and was a power to be reckoned with. He was very hard to tackle, and I can't remember him ever being hurt."
Walker was a late-round draft choice of the Cincinnati Bengals and was cut on the last day of training camp. He remembers it as "the darkest day of my life." He returned to Oxford, where Tammy was teaching, and was offered a graduate assistant position by Coach Crum. He also began work on a master's degree in educational administration.
When Crum took the head coaching position at the University of North Carolina in 1978, he brought Walker with him. Ten years later the entire coaching staff was discharged, and Walker moved to Northwestern as running backs coach under head coach Francis Peay.
Bob Christian (McC92), a standout running back at the time, remembers Walker's intensity. "He demanded we strive for excellence every day," says Christian. "He had great leadership ability, confidence and knowledge of the game. His greatest strength is that he's not satisfied with anything but your best, for your own sake, not for him. You really appreciated how much he believed in you."
In 1990, after two seasons at Northwestern, Walker became head coach at Miami, known as the "Cradle of Coaches." Over the next nine years he amassed a record of 59-35-5 and became the winningest head coach in school history. Quite an accomplishment at a university whose coaching legends included Paul Brown, Sid Gillman, Woody Hayes, Bill Mallory, Bo Schembechler and Ara Parseghian.
Walker wasn't looking to leave Miami in 1999, but Northwestern came looking for him. He visited with athletic director Rick Taylor at a time when rumors were surfacing that Barnett was leaving, though Taylor and Walker did not discuss a specific job offer. On the drive back to Ohio, the Walkers stopped to eat at a restaurant, where they saw Barnett on a big-screen television announcing that he was staying at Northwestern. "I just figured nothing ventured, nothing gained," Walker recalls, "and I still had a great job at Miami."
Things quickly changed, and a few days later, while on a recruiting visit in Clewiston, Fla., Walker was called and offered the job. "I was in a phone booth near Lake Okeechobee, in the middle of a sugar cane field, and Rick asked me if I could be in Evanston by 10 o'clock the next morning!"
Determined to keep the news a secret, Walker told only his wife and assistant coach Kevin Wilson. "I got back from Florida at around midnight, and an hour later the phone rings and it's a reporter from the Chicago Tribune asking if I was the new Northwestern head coach. I said I had no comment and hung up. Tammy gave me a funny look and asked who it was. I said, 'Dorothy, we're not in Kansas anymore!'"
When Walker was announced as Northwestern head coach on Jan. 20, 1999, he stated his goal was to win a national championship. Some greeted that with polite skepticism, but others were impressed. "His approach has really worked with these kids," says WGN-AM radio announcer Dave Eanet (J77), who has broadcast Wildcat games for 11 seasons. "The program is pointed in the right direction, and he really believes he can get it done. When he looks you in the eye and says, 'We're going to win a national championship,' you don't tell him he's not going to do it."
It was that same intensity and optimism that attracted quarterback Zak Kustok to the Northwestern program. A transfer from the University of Notre Dame, Kustok was driving to Evanston with his father to meet Coach Barnett when they turned on the radio and heard the press conference announcing Walker's signing.
"He said he expected to be playing in the national championship game, and that's what I wanted, too," Kustok recalls. He credits Walker's intensity and drive for excellence as the reasons for the team's success. "He expects the best from his players," Kustok says. "The work ethic he instilled is why we were Big Ten co-champs [in 2000], why we believe in ourselves. He demands a lot of us, but he gives a lot in return. He knows how to win. We had a lot of players who didn't know about winning. We knew he was a winner, so we did what he asked us to do."
Walker believes that trust is starting to take hold. "Trust is a big thing to me, a big thing in our program," he says. "Just the other day the strength coach told me something that was really good to hear. He said, 'Coach, for the first time in two years I'm hearing kids say the things you say.'"
Walker smiles. "I need disciples. There's not enough of me to go around. I tell our coaches, and I tell our seniors especially, 'Unless you embrace what we are, unless you take that message to the rank and file, I'm just a clanging cymbal. I need you repeating, saying, doing the things that we're about.' It was great to hear what the strength coach said."
Walker draws on his own experiences to motivate his players. "I coach a mental toughness, a mental conditioning," he says. "I tell our kids, 'I'm going to take you to a place that you won't choose to go on your own. It's hard, it's tough, it's demanding. You don't think you have one more step left in you, let alone one more play, and I'm going to ask you to do it perfectly, with focus, with concentration, with great effort, one more play. And then, just when you think you're done, I'm gonna ask for one more.'
"Michael Jordan said his dad saw things in him that he didn't see in himself," Walker says. "I think that's the essence of parenting or of being a good coach. You see things, and you can take them to a place they wouldn't go on their own.
"Off the field I'm a pretty easygoing guy," Walker says. "But when I walk out on that field and they start keeping score, I take it real seriously. I hate losing so I try to minimize it from happening in my life. You show me a good loser, and I'll show you someone who does it a lot."
The little time Walker has off the field is spent with his wife and two college-aged children, roughhousing with his dog, Magic, and puttering in his backyard. He says that if he weren't a football coach, he might open a lawn care service. "I love working in the yard, my yard is a competition. I'm going to have the best yard in the neighborhood. I like the way things look at the end of the day. I like finishing."
When asked about finishing his coaching career, Walker grins. "If I could script it, part of the severance package would be two season tickets. And on Saturdays Tammy and I would walk down Sheridan Road, come over to the stadium, sit in the stands and watch some other crazy person coach this team!"
Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.