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Ten years after his death, Randy Walker still making an impact at Northwestern

Jay Drowns/Sporting News via Getty Images

VERNON HILLS, Ill. -- Randy Walker liked to say football coaches are the greatest plagiarists. Walker, the late Northwestern Wildcats coach, was himself a skilled copy Cat.

Some of the most important elements Walker brought to Northwestern -- the two-by-four emblazoned with "TRUST YOURSELF" that players touch on their way to and from the field, the program cornerstones of attitude and investment -- remain ingrained today and are things he picked up from others. It's the lessons behind the symbols that underscore Walker's impact, and why he's celebrated nearly a decade after his sudden passing from a heart attack on June 29, 2006, at age 52.

"We try to uplift his legacy every day in the way that we do things," said Pat Fitzgerald, who succeeded Walker as Northwestern's coach. "They may not be directly attributed to Coach or quoted from Coach, but the foundation and tenets, if it's not directly related, it's his DNA.

"Walk's DNA is all over our program."

Gary Barnett will forever be known for engineering arguably the greatest U-turn in modern college football when he led Northwestern to the Rose Bowl in 1995. Fitzgerald is the face of the program, a star on the 1995 team and the school's career coaching victories leader after two 10-win seasons in the past four.

Where does Walker fit? He led Northwestern to its most recent Big Ten title (2000) and three bowl games in seven years, going 37-46 at the school (96-81-5 overall). He beat every Big Ten team, which neither Barnett did nor Fitzgerald has done. But his career, like his life, ended far too soon.

Two months before he died, he had agreed to a contract extension through 2011. Walker expected to retire afterward, but Fitzgerald -- the projected successor -- thinks his old boss still would be coaching. "I still wish I was the linebacker coach," Fitzgerald often laments.

"I always say this," said Tammy Walker, Randy's widow. "Gary Barnett made everybody believe it could be done here. Randy put some consistency in the program. He was steady, reliable, not flashy. People were ready for that.

"And then Fitz has just taken it to another level."

Tammy stood next to the putting green Monday at White Deer Run Golf Club, site of the Walker Open, Northwestern's annual tournament played in Randy's honor. The American Football Coaches Foundation also has a golf outing for Walker and presents an award to an Illinois high school coach, called the Power of Influence Randy Walker "Doing Great" Award, a nod to Walker's standard reply when asked how he's doing. In July, Northwestern will hold the Run For Walk, a 5K walk/run.

There are other tributes at Ryan Field. On game days, the team buses pull up to Walker Way, which guides players to the locker room, a tradition Northwestern calls "Walk With Us." The deck above the north end zone is Randy Walker Terrace.

Earlier this month, Northwestern announced Walker is headlining its 2016 athletics Hall of Fame class, which will be formally inducted in September.

"When [athletic director Jim Phillips] told me, I cried," Tammy Walker said. "It's touching that they're doing that. It's pretty special."

Tammy still lives near Northwestern's campus and works part-time in the athletic department's development office, assisting with major gift fundraising. She works every home football game, often accompanying donors to the field.

"Randy didn't like people on the sideline," she said, smiling. "I always think he's up there, going, 'Oh my God, girl, what are you doing down there? Get off the sideline!' He hated that. But donors love it."

The team's entrance is still tough for Tammy, as Randy always ran out at the front, but her game-day responsibilities create a welcome distraction. She never considered leaving Evanston, her home since 1999, and remains closely involved with the program.

"She's the rock of our organization," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald and the three assistants who remain from Walker's tenure -- Jerry Brown, Adam Cushing and Matt MacPherson -- often recite Walker-isms and reminisce about him. Fitzgerald, named head coach just a week after Walker's death and less than two months before the 2006 season began, didn't change anything in that first campaign.

He gradually shaped his own program but continued to reflect Walker's values, which included being brutally honest with players.

"He didn't want to necessarily be your best friend," said Adam Paoli, a wide receiver under Walker from 2001 to 2005. "But he knew by challenging you, you would walk out being thankful for being challenged. Did he kick our ass? Yes. Did he put us through some stuff? Yes. But he did it to make us better, to give us the best chance to win.

"He should be remembered for his ability to teach teams how to finish."

Paoli and his teammates created a Facebook page with Walker sayings. One of Paoli's favorites: Sixty minutes or whatever it takes.

Walker's teams recorded some of the wildest wins in program history, including the 54-51 thriller against Michigan in 2000. Walker won 10 of his final 11 games decided by seven points or less. Northwestern became known as the Cardiac Cats, a nickname that has remained under Fitzgerald, 30-18 in games decided by seven points or less.

Paoli wishes more of Walker's players got to know him away from football. He wasn't a robot coach or a grouch. He loved golf and lawn care; his dog, Magic; and his family, most of all Tammy, whom he met in high school. He kicked coaches out of the office for working late.

He carried a cell phone but it was usually switched off and stored in his briefcase. He wouldn't have been glued to social media.

"He liked coaching, but he didn't make it everything," said Jamie Walker, Randy's son. "A lot of coaches have a hard time stepping away. All they do is coach. He never wanted to be that guy. He wanted to have fun, play with his grandkids, play golf, hang out in Florida. He didn't want to be 80 years old, still worrying about getting run over on the sidelines because he didn't know what else to do."

His daughter, Abbey Boudreau, gave birth to a daughter, Clara, four months after he died. Two years later, she had son, Walker Randolph, named after Randy.

When the family gathers, they talk about "Grandpa Coach."

"He loved little kids," Tammy said. "He always had fun playing with the [assistants'] kids. That's the one thing that's very tough for me, when I see some guy and it's obvious he's with his grandchildren."

Early summer is difficult for Walker's family. He would have turned 62 on May 29. He and Tammy would have celebrated their 41st anniversary June 28. Sunday is Father's Day.

"Ten years, it's hard to believe," Tammy said. "I don't know if it's tougher, but I guess I get reminded more. I'm happy that he's remembered."

Fitzgerald will ensure Northwestern's players understand Walker's impact, and how it goes beyond a two-by-four or a placard hanging in the team room.

Randy Walker might have considered himself a coaching copycat. At Northwestern, he always will be a true original.