TAMPA, Fla. — No official line of succession had been planned, but Northwestern’s players already had a sense of how it would unfold.
Pat Fitzgerald, the young, well-spoken, former All-American-turned-linebackers coach would someday take the reins at his alma mater from Randy Walker, the self-described “Johnny off the pickle boat” who returned the Wildcats to respectability in the Big Ten following Gary Barnett’s departure.
Unfortunately, the timetable was accelerated following Walker’s unexpected death of a heart attack at age 52 in the summer of 2006.
“I think what (Walker) set was a precedent for Northwestern and what we’re about,” quarterback Mike Kafka said. “I think Coach Fitz has taken that to the next level and the team to the next level, and I think Coach Walk definitely is still ingrained in our program.”
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It’s with Fitzgerald on the sidelines and Walker in their minds that Northwestern’s group of fifth-year seniors — the last Walker recruited and coached — will play Auburn in Friday’s Outback Bowl.
Walker, who had great success at Miami of Ohio, took over the Wildcats in 1999, introducing a spread offense that the team still employs today. He brought Fitzgerald back to Northwestern in 2001 as a linebackers coach, grooming him for bigger and better things.
But suddenly, Walker was gone, leaving the program’s players in shock.
“I thought it was a bad dream at first, a very bad dream,” Kafka said. “I think it was just one of those moments where it was just kind of surreal, and it really didn’t hit you for a couple days until you’re actually at the wake and doing those things.
“So it was definitely a sad time, but as Coach Walk would have put it, ‘It’s how you respond to adversity.’ And I think we have responded to something like that.”
It didn’t take long for Northwestern to promote Fitzgerald as Walker’s successor, mostly because the fit seemed so perfect.
Fitzgerald was a local legend, an All-American and College Football Hall of Famer from Barnett’s Northwestern teams of the mid-1990s that ended the Wildcats’ decades of futility. Fitzgerald led Northwestern to a 10-1 record in 1995 and its first Rose Bowl berth since 1949, although a broken left leg and ankle prevented him from playing in a loss to a Southern Cal squad led by Keyshawn Johnson.
Fitzgerald’s NFL career never took off, but coaching seemed like a natural next step. He spent one year each at Maryland, Colorado and Idaho before returning to his alma mater, where he coached linebackers for five years.
But Walker’s death put Fitzgerald in charge of the program at the ripe age of 31, by far the youngest at the Division I level, an overwhelming position to be in but one he wasn’t concerned about.
“To go back in time and think about the circumstances, I didn’t think a whole lot about myself,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought a whole lot more about Tammy (Randy’s widow) and the Walker family and about coach and how I could help our players and coaching staff through that time period. …
“The challenges that you have to be a head football coach and our roles pale in comparison to what it means to be a father and to be a husband and to be a friend. That was what was important during that time period.”
Intense and passionate, Fitzgerald has fit right in, building the program into a consistent factor in the Big Ten. After going 4-8 and 6-6 in his first two seasons, the Wildcats are 9-4 and 8-4 the past two, the team’s first back-to-back winning seasons since 1995-96 and the third-most combined wins in successive seasons in school history.
With a four-year record of 27-22, Fitzgerald, now 35, has won more games faster than any Northwestern coach in the past 100 years.
“He’s a rising star in the profession,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
But Fitzgerald hasn’t lost sight of his place in the program, keeping Walker’s memory alive as he tries to build on the former coach’s vision for the Wildcats.
“We think and pray about coach every day,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s with us every day at practice. What we do and how we do things are molded in a lot of the values that coach taught all of us. That’s why this game is so special to our football family.”