What I Love: Northwestern 54, Michigan 51 (2000)

4 Nov 2000: Damien Anderson #20 of the Northwestern Wildcats runs with the ball during the game against the Michigan Wolverines at the Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois. The Wildcats defeated the Wolverines 54-51. (Jonathan Daniel /Allsport)

No, it's not Saturday yet, and yes, that's when the What I Love series is supposed to run. But honestly, I had this one in the hopper and didn't want to wait until Saturday to share it. And I believe we call this synergy: for an advertised post at Football Study Hall, I'm going to reference a comment I received at Rock M Nation.

This week saw the five-year anniversary of Northwestern coach Randy Walker's death. When I think about Coach Walker, I get the little twinge of emotion that accompanies thinking of loss. It's not debilitating, it just gives you a little tightness in the chest. I realize in watching highlights of the above game that I don't only get that feeling now when thinking about Walker -- I got it then too.

The old emotion was for a different reason, of course; it was simply a feeling of admiration for somebody who was trying to figure out a new way to play checkers. He knew he would be outgunned in terms of pure talent and athleticism, and he never stopped trying to figure out new ways to derive an advantage. It didn't always work, far from it. Though the above game was perhaps his masterpiece, he followed this game up by losing 22 of his next 32 contests. But when it worked, as it did against Michigan on a Saturday night in Evanston, it was simply gorgeous. And bold. Very, very bold. When Northwestern needed to move the ball against a strong Michigan defense, they did, every single time. It seemed to incredibly easy.

To the comment:

I’m grew up in St. Louis, and I have been a proud Mizzou fan my whole life. However, I am an even prouder Northwestern alum.

I got to know Coach Walker quite a bit during my senior year while working for various campus media. He was a kind and genuine man. He deeply cared about his players and the university. I always enjoyed seeing him as soon as practice ended go over to greet his wife and briefly play with his dogs. As Pat Fitzgerald always likes to recall, if you asked Coach Walker how he was doing, he would say, “I’m great!” and you knew he meant it 100%.

Coach Walker passed away shortly after I graduated. I was still in Evanston, and it was a very somber day. It broke my heart when I found out he and his wife were getting ready to head over to France (where his daughter lived) to see his first grandchild.

I attended the public memorial service, and to this day I still have the booklet handed out to all of the attendees. The most memorable eulogy that day was delivered by Coach Walker’s dear friend, Terry Hoeppner. Sadly, he too would pass away about a year later.

I have nothing to add to this part, other than the fact that Hoeppner's presence gave me a little more tightness in the chest.

Coach Walker knew he was going to have to shake things up to win at NU. He brought in the spread with an emphasis on the run. I know there are many football pundits who argue that the 54-51 upset of Michigan in 2000 was one of the more influential games in college football history. A former running back himself, he always had a knack for unearthing running back talent. Each of his last four starting RB’s would have at least one 1,000-yard season and eventually go on to play in the NFL.

I cannot decide what's worse: that so many coaches at "underdog" schools still don't get the amount of risk-taking involved in winning big with underdog strategies, or that those coaches are in place at those schools because the administrators in charge of the hiring don't get it.

It's really difficult in today's college football to simply outwork the other team and win a bunch of games doing it. Everybody practices the same amount; it's measured down to the minute. You have to make sure you're working as hard as everybody else, but it's difficult to work harder. You will probably have to bring some innovation to the table to win at a high level, and though Walker never really did win at a high level (his best record was 8-4), he brought so much to football by trying.

I felt Coach Walker had gotten the program to the point where they would usually be no worse than .500 in a given year, with the occasional 10-2 or 9-3 season every 5 years or so. I’m assuming many reading this blog don’t know that Coach Walker had five years left on his contract at the time of his death. He let it be known amongst the football inner circle that once that contract expired he would retire and hand the reigns over to Fitzgerald. Unfortunately that transition took place much sooner than any of us would have liked.

That Pat Fitzgerald has managed a winning record after five years (something Walker himself didn't do) says so much about both Fitzgerald himself and the man who was prepping him to be the boss. I know not all Northwestern fans are entirely sold on Fitzgerald, and that's fine, but considering he was basically handed the big clipboard five years before he expected ... from an outsider's perspective, I feel he's been tremendous.

Was he a Hall of Fame coach? No. Did he do things that aggravated me and other fans during games? Of course. But he laid the foundation for the program’s current success, and he did it the way that made every Northwestern fan proud.

It really is the easiest thing in the world to build people up after they pass away. And really, it's one of human beings' more excusable tendencies. But even in seeing the heartbreak emanate from Evanston directly after Walker's passing, you could tell that people didn't just like Walker, they loved him. I obviously never knew him as a person, but as a coach he was basically what I hope I would be as a coach: bold, smart, unafraid to fail and occasionally capable of producing something beautiful.

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