EVANSTON, Ill. - Football wasn’t even part of the conversation when Pat Fitzgerald interviewed for a spot on Northwestern’s coaching staff five years ago.
Randy Walker was more interested in the man applying for the job.
“He wanted to get to know me as a person,” said Fitzgerald, a defensive standout at Northwestern in the mid-1990s who was hired as defensive backs coach and is currently the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator.
“It was real important how you fit him and how you fit what he believed in and, most importantly, how you fit the institution. ... We talked about each other and what we believed in. I’ll forever be indebted for the opportunity.”
Walker’s sudden death left the school stunned Friday, with players praising the 52-year-old coach 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.”
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.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
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.
“He was a spiritual leader on our team and worried about people’s integrity and character first and foremost,” Howells said.
Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner, who was on Walker’s staff at Miami of Ohio, said news of the death left him in “absolute shock.”
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.
“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,” said Wright, part of Walker’s first recruiting class at Northwestern.
Walker compiled a 59-35-5 record in nine seasons as head coach at Miami of Ohio, his alma mater.
A native of Troy, Ohio, 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.
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