The Texas Bowl and What Might Have Been

by GoUPurple

Northwestern’s game against Texas A&M could very well be a landmark—the Wildcats’ first bowl win since ’49—but it will also mark the passing of what might have been: it would have been the planned end of the Randy Walker era.

The bowl game, NU’s final game of the 2011 season, would likely have been Randy Walker’s last game as NU head coach, had he not died in June 2006.  In April of that year Mark Murphy, NU’s athletic director, announced that the school had extended Coach Walker’s contract (due to expire in 2007) through 2011. 

At the time, Murphy said, “I’m really pleased that we were able to reach an agreement with Randy on a contract extension.  I have tremendous respect for the way he runs the program.  We’ve enjoyed great success in recent years.  Just as significantly, we’ve seen this improvement while continuing to be one of the nation’s leaders in student-athlete graduation rate and winning the AFCA Academic Achievement Award three of the past four years.” commented at the time, “Should Coach Walker remain at NU through the period of the new contract, he will have coached the ‘Cats for 13 seasons, which would give him the record for longevity (Pappy Waldorf coached at NU for 12 seasons).  Of course, Walker is closing in on another of Waldorf’s records: Waldorf is NU’s winningest coach.  His teams won 49 games, and Walker’s have so far won 37, giving him sole possession of second place.”

Coach Walker had made it clear that he wanted to retire after the 2011 season.  Referring to taking the Northwestern head coaching job, Walker said, “It's the last stop, it's the last thing for me, it's all I have in my life. I think our kids know that, and everyone who knows me knows that. It is entirely what I'm about.”  In a 2001 interview, he continued to map out how he envisioned his career concluding: “If I could script it, part of the severance package would be two season tickets. And on Saturdays Tammy and I would walk down Sheridan Road, come over to the stadium, sit in the stands and watch some other crazy person coach this team!”

After his death, it was revealed that Coach Walker had known just who that “crazy person” should be.  He had wanted to groom Pat Fitzgerald for the job, with Fitz assuming the reins in 2012.

And here it is, the eve of the end of the 2011 season.  Coach Walker has been gone for five years.  Coach Fitzgerald is now the second-winningest coach in NU history, with nine wins to go until he ties Waldorf.  And we stand at the gate of the bowl game that, if life had worked out the way we would have scripted it, would have signaled a farewell to one age of Wildcat football.

Instead, the game will be, perhaps, a milestone of another sort—the kind we can’t script or predict, but can strive to make a fitting and fair chapter in the team’s story, one that can build on the legacy left by those who loved the program and its players.