EVANSTON, ILL. — Northwestern football coach Randy Walker's sudden death left the school stunned Friday, with players praising the 52-year-old as an inspirational leader whose influence reached far beyond the field.
"I'll never forget coach Walker," kicker Joel Howells said at a somber news conference on campus. "He's had a huge impact on my life the last four or five years. If you really knew him, I don't know how you wouldn't remember him."
Walker died Thursday of an apparent heart attack, after feeling chest pains around 10 p.m. at his suburban Chicago home, said Mike Wolf, the school's assistant athletic director for media services.
"Everything he taught us could be applied to life," linebacker Nick Roach said. "You can't really measure something like that."
Two months ago, Northwestern gave Walker a four-year extension through the 2011 season - he was the only coach to lead the Wildcats to three bowl games. Walker joined the school in 1999 after nine years at Miami of Ohio.
"He was resilient in life and I think his teams took on that personality," athletic director Mark Murphy said.
In October 2004, Walker checked himself into a hospital after experiencing chest pains. He was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle; the condition is not a common ailment, and is usually caused by a virus.
Walker was out of the hospital in two days, and said he was taking a new approach to his diet and work schedule.
"I've really taken my doctor's orders to heart, because frankly, I want to see my grandkids someday," he said at the time.
Walker's Wildcats were 37-46 and made three bowl games, going 7-5 last season after a 50-38 loss to UCLA in the Sun Bowl. Northwestern shared the Big Ten title in 2000 and went to the Alamo Bowl. The Wildcats also went to the 2003 Motor City Bowl.
Walker was the first Wildcats coach to guide the team to four seasons with at least six wins since C.M. Hollister in 1899-1902.
"A lot of guys are still kind of in shock," Howells said, his voice cracking.
A native of Troy, Ohio, Walker was a fullback at Miami of Ohio and graduated from there in 1976. During Walker's playing days, Miami compiled records of 11-0, 10-0-1 and 11-1 in the mid-1970s and won three Tangerine Bowls.