Randy Walker, the Northwestern University football coach whose training methods were scrutinized after the practice-field death of defensive back Rashidi Wheeler nearly five years ago, has died. He was 52.
The cause was an apparent heart attack. Walker experienced chest pains before dying late Thursday night at his suburban Chicago home, a university spokesman said.
Walker's death stunned a program that under his leadership shed its pre-1995 label as a college football laughingstock. Since Walker took over as coach in 1999, Northwestern regained stability by appearing in three bowl games. Two months ago, Northwestern rewarded Walker with a four-year contract extension through 2011.
"He was a spiritual leader on our team and worried about people's integrity and character first and foremost," Northwestern kicker Joel Howells said yesterday at a tearful news conference on campus in Evanston, Ill.
Northwestern posted a 37-46 record under Walker, finishing 7-5 last season with a 50-38 loss to UCLA in the Sun Bowl. It was Northwestern's third bowl game under Walker.
Walker brought a hard-nosed, almost-militaristic reputation to Northwestern. In the days after Wheeler's death, the coach said, "I have no doubt a better-conditioned athlete is a whole lot more likely to survive the game of football. I didn't write the rules. But it is a rigorous sport."
Wheeler died Aug. 3, 2001, after enduring a challenging set of wind sprints at a Northwestern practice field. In a violation of NCAA rules for voluntary workouts, the sprints were being timed by Walker's assistant, and the drill was described to players as a mandatory test that would have playing-time repercussions.
Trainers on the field were late in summoning emergency help and failed to identify the asthma symptoms.
"I am beyond sorry," Walker told the Los Angeles Times in an interview five days after Wheeler's death. "Sorrow and grief doesn't begin to express it. ... I know ultimately it all ends up on my desk."
Lance Pugmire writes for the Los Angeles Times.