As I await the New Year from the seclusion of the Colorado Rockies, without television or radio, although with wireless internet and my laptop, I figure that I might as well look for the story of the year.
I’ve heard George Mason’s run to the final four mentioned, I’ve heard Tiger’s resurgence, I’ve heard steroids in baseball, no steroids in baseball, and steroids in the Tour de France. But none of those are the story.No, the story goes back 20 years ago, and also just a few months ago, to where Glen Mason first coached, to the main rival of the school Glen Mason just got fired from, and most recently, to another Big Ten school.
On June 29, 2006, Northwestern head football coach Randy Walker died of a heart attack, barely 20 years after Wisconsin head coach Dave McClain and his former assistant, Kent State head coach Dick Scesniak, died a few weeks apart in April of 1986.
And while it’s sad, it should also be noted that all three were on their way to building champions.
Wisconsin had gone 44-42-1 in nine seasons under McClain, including making three bowl games and winning the 1982 Independence Bowl, the first bowl victory in the school’s history.
However, McClain suffered a heart attack on April 26, 1986 while taking a sauna. Dr. Stephen Zimmerman, an associate professor at the medical school, pulled out the unconscious coach with the help of others, but it was too late.
“I remember Brian [Anderson] was putting water on him, and I was feeling for his pulse,” sophomore Paul Chryst said to the associated press. “Once the paramedics got there, we cleared out.”
While Barry Alvarez was credited with turning the program around, McClain laid the foundation, making 3 bowls in the final five seasons before his death. The team floundered, going 3-9 in 1986, never recovering from the loss of its coach, but also never giving up.
Kent State had only gone 8-25 under Dick Scesniak, a former assistant under McClain at Wisconsin, but had shown signs that they were turning the corner. After winning only 1 game in his first season, dropping the Golden Flashes to 1-22 over their previous 23 games, Scesniak’s teams would go 4-7 and 3-8 in 1984 and 1985 respectively.
However, on April 1, 1986, Scesniak died of an apparent heart attack while jogging around the KSU campus. The team rallied for Scesniak under new coach Glen Mason, the same Glen Mason who was fired earlier Sunday from Minnesota, going 5-6 in 1986 and then 7-4 in 1987 before he bucked for Kansas.
But Scesniak, like McClain, laid the ground for the future success of both programs.
Which brings me to the story of 2006.
Northwestern had been nothing only a few years before Walker arrived in 1999 to replace Gary Barnett. At one point, Northwestern lost 34 consecutive games. And over the four coaches before Barnett, including Dennis Green and Rick Venturi, who both later became NFL head coaches, the Wildcats went 36-170-3.
But under Barnett and especially Walker, Northwestern won. Walker’s second season concluded in what was only Northwestern’s third conference title in more than 60 seasons. And over his final three years, Northwestern won six games in three consecutive seasons for the first time since the 1930s.
But like McClain and Scesniak 20 years earlier, Randy Walker died of an apparent heart attack in the prime of his life while building a college football program.
Northwestern named Pat Fitzgerald, then only 31, head coach about a week later. The team struggled, going 4-8, but won two of its final three.
“This would have been Randy’s choice,” said Tammy Walker, Randy Walker’s widow. “The connection of Pat, from his days of playing on championship teams at Northwestern, then coaching with Randy for the last five years during that success, and now becoming the head coach will really keep all of the positive things at NU going in the same direction.”
While the team struggled in 2006, in no way was it a disappointment. The team fought all season long, hanging in the game at then-unbeaten Michigan and beating bowl-bound Iowa on the road down the stretch.
And that is the story of the year.
While it would have been so easy for Northwestern to pack it in and call it a season after coach Walker died in June, the team didn’t. The Wildcats fought, winning four games and they easily could have won two more.
I thought they would pack it in, especially after they gave up the largest single game comeback in NCAA history against Michigan State, but they didn’t.
I thought they would pack it in after they went winless in October, including getting crushed at Wisconsin and against Purdue, but they didn’t.
And I thought they would pack it in after they lost 17-3 to Michigan, eliminating them from bowl contention, but they didn’t.
No, they rallied for Pat Fitzgerald and more importantly, they rallied for Randy Walker, who like Dave McClain and Dick Scesniak 20 years earlier, was more than just a coach. He was a friend, a mentor, a father, for every single student on those three rosters.
And like Dave McClain and Dick Scesniak 20 years earlier, Randy Walker was taken from his players during the offseason, crushing bright hopes for the season.
But none of those teams gave up. Wisconsin and Kent State may have each had losing records in 1986, but I can tell you this much, they didn’t give up.
And neither did Northwestern this year.
I wouldn’t have blamed the Wildcats if they went into hibernation, but they didn’t. And that’s the story of the year.
Not George Mason, not Tiger Woods, not anything else.
No, the story of the year is that Northwestern didn’t give up, that Northwestern went out there and gave it its all, even after it had nothing to play for but pride.
And it played with a hell lot of pride, even if the standings don’t show it, even if coach Walker wasn’t physically there to see it.
But he was there, and he would have been proud of this team. I don’t know who wouldn’t be.
4 replies on “Final thoughts on 2006: Story of the year”
Nice Article Good job. I’d still vote George Mason but Randy Walker was one of the most underrated coaches in the country.
Nice Good article. I don’t necessarily think that this is THE sports story of the year but it’s definitely a big one and very inspiring.
Final thoughts on 2006: Story of the year — Thanks! Fine piece of writing. This Northwestern alum, living in Montana where the Big Ten, let alone NU, gets scant recognition, thoroughly appreciates this. Go Wildcats!!
Final Thoughts on 2006: Story of the year — I want to thank you for your story. Dick Scesniak was my lst cousin and he was a great guy. His life was cut short as were the other two coaches Randy Walker and Dave McClain. His mother, my aunt Virg, said he was running alongside with his team on a field track. He took a break and sat down on a bench with a few of his troops and saw a penny. He said “this must be my lucky day”. He bent over to pick it up but never got up. He died on the spot with a massive heart attack. Thanks again for recognizing his abilities. Reg Moskal, Oak Lawn, Il.