Late Northwestern coach was bred an Ohio football star

TROY, Ohio -- Before he became a nationally recognized and universally respected football coach, before he became the Most Valuable Player of a Top 15 team, before anyone outside this western Ohio town knew his name, Randy Walker was Tevye.

As a senior at Troy High School, Walker played the lead role in the school's 1972 production of "Fiddler on the Roof." A guy who grew up as a nonstop jock put on a fake beard and sang his heart out.

"He got some of the other football guys to get in the play," said John Terwilliger, who coached running backs -- including Walker -- at Troy in the early 1970s. "You go to the play because he's your player, but you're kind of prepared for this to maybe not be all that good."

Terwilliger smiled.

"He was good," he said. "He was really good."

That was another bridge built by a young man who would make a lifetime out of such work. A lot of star athletes would be indifferent at best to the kids in the drama club, disdainful at worst -- but Randy Walker wasn't that type. He could connect with anyone, winning them over with sheer enthusiasm for everything he did. Including the school musical.

So they played "Sunrise, Sunset" at the memorial service in Evanston two months ago, after the Northwestern coach suddenly left so many admirers behind at the age of 52. And when the sun sets Thursday night in Oxford, Ohio, and the Wildcats begin life after Randy against Miami, the stands at Yager Stadium will brim with people who felt the way Tevye felt during that song:

    Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,
    Swiftly fly the years,
    One season following another,
    Laden with happiness and tears …

Where did the time go? How can there be a football season without Randy Walker -- in Evanston or in Ohio? How could the years fly by so swiftly that Walker, of all vibrant people, is no longer here?

"If you were going to draw up a list of guys who were going to croak first, because of lifestyle choices or the way they treat their body, it's not Randy," Terwilliger said. "Randy doesn't go first."

When word spread of Walker's death June 29 from a heart ailment, Mike Bath was as stunned as anyone. Bath, who played quarterback for two years under Walker and is now Miami's tight ends coach, said a former teammate put it best: "Coach Walk's one of those guys who isn't supposed to die."

Yet even in death, his presence will be palpable Thursday night. This game defines his very legacy.

He played at Miami in the 1970s, rushing for 1,757 career yards on teams that went 32-1-1, losing that single game by a single point. He was MVP of the 1975 team that went 11-1 and wound up ranked 12th in the final AP poll his senior year.

He coached Miami from 1989 to '98, taking over a proud program that had crashed. He departed as the winningest coach ever at the Cradle of Coaches.

Then he coached Northwestern to 37 victories, second most in school history, and became the first coach to take the Wildcats bowling three times. What Gary Barnett miraculously started in Evanston, Walker remarkably advanced.

Most of the national focus leading up to this game has been on Northwestern's coping with Walker's death. But the tragedy left a trail of tears through western Ohio as well. His spirit still flows through the two programs he personally stabilized and energized.

"Obviously, Northwestern is going to play for coach Walker," said Dawn Clark, longtime Miami football secretary. "But so are we."

The state of Ohio has produced many football players better than Randy Walker. But you could do worse than name Walker as the guy who best personified what Ohio football is all about.

When Terwilliger got to Troy in 1970, he took over coaching a backfield that included future Michigan standout Gordon Bell and this stubby little kid who had played center the previous year. That was Randy.

"He's 5-7 and 168 pounds," Terwilliger recalled. "And he's a little bit to the chubby side -- he had the Randy Walker full face. He was certainly not the prototype running back -- not long, not smooth. But the one thing he had that few others had, he'd outwork you. That's probably a trait that marked his whole life."

Terwilliger remembers once, during two-a-days, when the players conspired to slow down as a group during wind sprints. If everyone was running slowly, who would notice? Walker blew up that plan.

"He lit 'em up," Terwilliger said. "He said, 'That's not what we're about! We don't cut corners here!' That's a pretty good sign of leadership."

When his football coaches turned him on to weightlifting during his junior year, Walker became a zealot. He won the school's first Sam Huff Award for weight training and eventually took up bodybuilding. He once was named Mr. Teen Ohio.

The Trojans trained five days a week on the weights, and that still wasn't enough for Randy. Terwilliger recalls being at school one Saturday and hearing a crashing sound by the weight room. When he investigated, he found Randy and his younger brother Rob. In an effort to break into the weight room and lift, they had tried to climb a fence topped with barbed wire and fell.

The Walker brothers had grown up playing every sport imaginable. Whenever there was a game going on in their part of Troy, Randy and Rob and all the neighborhood kids were there.

"They'd play all day, play all night, then they'd fight," said Walker's mom, Ruth Ann. "Then they'd make up in the morning and start playing again."

Sometimes the sibling fights were so intense that they required a peacekeeping force. Jim Walker, Randy's dad, remembers being summoned to one such donnybrook in the backyard. After failing to get Rob and Randy to separate, he finally had to hit them both in the head.

"Rob was a better boxer," Jim Walker said. "Randy would take punches just to get inside and get ahold of him, then try to break him in two."

When the two weren't competing outside, they were competing inside. They played the old Foto-Electric Football game, in which the offense would lay down the diagram of a play and the defense would lay a diagram on top, then a light would shine up from the bottom and show the play's success. Randy had a way of maneuvering the cards to his advantage.

"This boy could cheat with the best of 'em," Jim Walker said with a laugh. "Rob would say, 'You're cheating, Randy!' They'd play euchre and Randy would stack the deck."

But the boys were on the same side at Troy High, and that's where it mattered. Trojans football is the biggest thing in town -- a fact that is readily apparent when you set eyes on the 10,000-seat concrete stadium in a city of roughly 21,000. Men would congregate to watch the team practice, and Jim Walker said major monetary wagers were commonplace when Troy played rival Piqua.

"All you have to do is have a winning record in Troy football and you'll pass bond issues," Jim Walker said. "Football is it. It's a way of life."

Nobody in Troy could have been happy with the Trojans' 3-7 record Randy's sophomore season. But on the final play of the final game that year, something happened that set the groundwork for the success that was to follow.

With Troy trailing by less than a touchdown, Randy caught a long pass. While fighting for the goal line, he was pushed out of bounds 18 inches short and the game ended. Several weeks later, all the players on the Troy team began carrying 18-inch strips of cloth everywhere they went.

"Randy and the guys were determined that they were never going to be a foot-and-a-half short of anything," Terwilliger said.

And so they weren't. Troy reeled off 20 straight wins, and many folks are certain the Trojans would have won the state title in '72, Randy's senior year, if there had been a state playoff at the time. That team put seven players on major-college rosters, including Randy.

Ohio State legend Woody Hayes came calling, schmoozing Ruth Ann and making his pitch for her oldest son. It seemed like a natural fit.

The Walker boys had grown up Buckeyes fans and attended several Ohio State home games. Troy wore red and gray, just like the Bucks. Surely, if Woody wanted Randy, he'd say yes.

He didn't. Figuring he'd get more playing time at Miami, Walker signed with coach Bill Mallory. The fact that his high school girlfriend and future wife, Tammy, was a freshman at Miami didn't hurt Mallory's chances, either.

Among the possessions Randy took with him to school were his homemade weight bench and his character.

Jim Walker said that Randy pledged a fraternity, and asked the frat to accept the team's quarterback, Sherman Smith. One problem with that plan: Smith is black. Jim Walker said his son quit the fraternity on the spot.

Teammate Mike Watson, now the school's associate athletic director, said he hadn't heard that story. But Watson, who is black, was not surprised.

"That would define him pretty well," Watson said. "Randy didn't see any of those barriers that our society sees today -- which made him a great coach. Randy saw people."

His former Miami players say that's what Walker saw when he looked around the locker room as well. Not stars and scrubs, but a group of guys, each worthy of individual attention and respect regardless of playing ability.

He could be strict, harsh and explosively angry. When he stood on his toes and pointed his index finger your way, it was not going to be pleasant. But he could also walk up with a vicious look in his eyes, then playfully jab a guy in the ribs and walk away smiling. Walker rarely stopped talking, and he never stopped caring.

Bath, a quarterback, was tabbed to be the personal protector on the punt unit as a redshirt freshman. He remembers Walker going out with him 15 minutes before practice to work with him on the blocking sled -- the kind of duty that would probably fall to a grad assistant at a lot of schools.

"I'd never blocked anybody before," Bath recalled. "He'd say, 'C'mon, quit being a quarterback. Hit the sled, all right?' "

Matt Hohman is currently the Miami offensive line coach, but a dozen years ago he was a backup lineman playing for Walker. He had to give up the game before his junior year because of a back injury, but he didn't give up the relationship with Walker.

"I always had a great relationship with him, even though I wasn't a star," Hohman said. "He didn't need to spend time with me or talk to me, but he did."

Now, Hohman returns the favor. Every morning when he walks down the hall to his office at Yager Stadium, he says hello to the picture of Randy Walker on the wall.

"I think about him daily," Hohman said. "I knew when I was 15 years old I wanted to get into coaching, but I learned from Coach Walker what a coach is. It's not about drawing up the right blocking scheme on a trap play. It's about the mentoring, seeing a guy grow from an 18-year-old to a 22-year-old college graduate. It's about caring for your players.

"If you played for Coach Walker, he didn't forget you."

And vice versa.

Jim Walker is sitting at the kitchen table, jaw muscles flexing, eyes welling. He's trying not to lose it.

He's been telling stories for nearly two hours about his oldest son. Funny stories, proud stories. But the thought of coming to this football game and attending the pregame ceremony honoring Randy, and feeling the grief wash over him and Ruth Ann again, is tearing him up.

"We're doing it for his memory," Jim said. "It's going to be pretty tough.

"It's just the reverse of what it should have been. Your kids shouldn't go before you. It doesn't matter whether they're six months old or 66 years old, it's still the same."

And that's when Jim Walker cracked.

"The only thing I can figure out," he said between sobs, "is that God needed … another coach up there … to argue with Woody."

The Walkers will try to grit it out through the ceremony, but say they might have to walk out if it becomes too much. Truth is, all those who knew Walker well are worried about how they'll handle Thursday night.

"I've known Randy for over half my life," said Watson, the former Miami teammate. "We all kind of grew up together. I know why those kids in Evanston love him, I know why. He's the kind of guy you believed in.

"Sitting in that service in July in Evanston was probably one of the toughest things I've ever done. This person who loved life, this extremely vivacious, healthy person -- to know they're no longer with us? That's hard.

"So I try not to think about [the ceremony]. Honestly, I don't want to think about it. I know the emotions all of us are going to go through again.

"But it is the absolute right thing to do. Because Randy is Miami."

Randy is Miami and he is Northwestern. And once upon a time, as a kid, he was an actor in a school play singing "Sunrise, Sunset."

The sun has set on Randy Walker's life. It still shines brightly on his legacy.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.