A fuzzy image flashed onto the two giant screens in the banquet room. Those seated at the 190-odd tables turned their attention to the man projected on the screens. There stood a smiling Randy Walker at a press conference, excited about the opportunity to coach at Northwestern in 1999.
Not only did the tribute to the coach, husband and father who died earlier this summer affect those in the audience, but also the 11 men sitting at the head table. Those chosen 11 annually make the trip to Chicago for Big Ten Media Day in early August for two days filled with questions and expectations.
This year was no different.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno had to remind the media he can’t put a number on the years he will continue to coach. But he did confess the doctor gave him a clean bill of health to coach at least 10 more years, much to the chagrin of his coaching staff. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr had to entertain inquires into the unheard of five-loss season at Michigan. Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner and Illinois coach Ron Zook donned the suits of used-car salesmen in an attempt to sell their teams as possible Big Ten title contenders.
But for one coach, Big Ten Media Day took on an entirely different meaning.
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald became the youngest D1 coach at the age of 31 when Randy Walker died suddenly of a heart attack in early July. Fitzgerald finds himself in the tough spot of replacing the man who brought a Big Ten Championship back to Evanston. Still, he stood tall, embracing questions concerning Walker and the current state of Wildcat football.
“Coach Walker played such a key role in our lives,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re trying to deal with it as a team. As one family we are coming together to get through this.”
Even though Fitzgerald gets his chance under inopportune circumstances, he has his fellow members in the coaching fraternity and Walker’s example to help him. He talked to Paterno, a coach who won his first game before Fitzgerald was even born. The Penn State coach told him to write “you’re the boss” on the mirror. Having served under the optimistic Walker, Fitzgerald can take the field with the reassurance that through the tough and good times he has to take the forward-thinking attitude of his former tutor.
Walker’s death made me think of the term “coaching fraternity”. I’ve often heard it used when new coaches join the ranks, but the phrase didn’t come alive to me until the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon on the last day of Big Ten Media Day.
During the season, the 11 Big Ten coaches fight it out on the gridiron every Saturday hoping to outlast their counterpart on the opposing sideline. Even though these coaches live off of the competition, they also identify with each other.
At the kickoff luncheon, all 11 coaches stood at the podium and addressed the state of their respective team. But instead of just going through the motions, they had fun coming together as a unit. I saw there was more to these guys’ lives then winning Big Ten championships. They actually liked to have fun.
Purdue coach Joe Tiller said he didn’t have new jokes because his Boilermaker team last year was a big enough joke. Paterno told Carr that he had a three minute and not a three minute and two second limit on his speech. Carr responded by declaring next year’s luncheon an 80th birthday party for Paterno with a Paterno-funded open bar.
But it wasn’t all lighthearted jokes.
Each coach expressed regret over the loss of one of their own, Randy Walker. A choked up Hoeppner confessed he had to call Walker’s brother on his drive to Chicago just to talk. Zook remembered when his Fighting Illini, winless in the Big Ten, played Northwestern at the end of last season. Walker told Zook before the game, “Zooky, you got to enjoy this.” Fitzgerald relived the last time he saw Walker alive. He was at the office, and Walker asked about his kids and his upcoming vacation.
While the coaches were happy to welcome Wisconsin’s Bret Bielma and Fitzgerald to their coaching ranks, they also expressed sadness at the departure of Walker.
As the last slide of a charismatic Randy Walker faded from the screens, I realized what those 11 coaches came to understand. You can’t take life for granted, so you have to have fun and enjoy it. Just take it from the beaming smile of Randy Walker.
– Kevin Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org