Friday, June 30, 2006
RANDY WALKER, 1954-2006
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Not exactly breaking in our world of instant information gratification, but awful news this morning out of Evanston, Ill.:
Walker didn't get much attention because of his team's relative mediocrity and its proximity to a big, shiny, pro-crazy town, but his impact on the college game today should be immediately apparent to any observant fan: his team's breakout, co-Big Ten championship season in 2000 made the innovative, run-first, make-the-fast-linebackers-think spread from the shotgun all the rage for overmatched teams everywhere, to the point that anyone with a remotely athletic quarterback is incorporating it as the predominant system and virtually every team west of Los Angeles contains some element of the read option in its offense six years on. Urban Meyer used it to take a talented (by Mountain West standards) Utah team to new heights for a mid-major and himself to a megabucks dream job in the SEC, West Virginia used it legitimize the Big East in January and Texas showed us what Walker's offense might have looked like with real talent when it unleashed Vince Young from the shotgun misdirection set to win two Rose Bowls and a mythical national title while mythlogizing a new college football god. Even Joe Paterno put the package in at Penn State.
And on a local TV news report on a I-AA university's summer camp for kids SMQ saw last week, nine-year-olds were taking shotgun snaps, faking handoffs left and making option pitches to the right - you know, the fundamentals. This was happening because of Randy Walker.
Walker himself showed the system's malleability in his final season when he adjusted it for a veteran quarterback and a skill set built to throw it all over the field, led the Big Ten in passing by a mile and still produced a 1,000-yard back from a short, not-highly-touted true freshman.
Walker is not necessarily the inventor, nor, certainly, the only innovator. But was a pioneer, and a popularizer who helped bring a new chapter of the gospel to the masses, and here is just part of his legacy:
At Northwestern, achieving something slightly better than mediocrity - like a school record three bowl appearances, and a versatile, chart-topping offense when most coaches would have been content to play slow-down, hang-on, within-the-system ball with subpar Big Ten talent - is its own small legacy. He was supposed to continue that in his hometown in September when the Wildcats visited his old school, Miami of Ohio, without anybody paying much attention. Now they will, briefly, and then Walker will fade quickly into somber history. His mind, though, has helped spawn an offensive era in the sport that, at the moment, looks like it will easily outlive the collective memory of one of the era's major innovators - if we've seen the extent of Randy Walker's influence on the game, it's still more than most of his more highly-paid, high profile colleagues could ever aspire to.
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The spread option offense that Urban Meyer invented and perfected is based on the single wing offense, a fact Meyer will tell you.
Those fundamentals they are teaching kids at that I-AA camp are straight out of the single wing handbook.
That said, Walker did a fantastic job at NW, and I will miss watching him coach their team.
The players listed here weren't influenced by Walker directly, but wound up running versions of his system adopted by their own coaches. Seeing as no one was doing the read option in that way, out of the shotgun or out of the spread, prior to 2000, it's fair to attribute this popularity - if not the invention - to Walker's success at Northwestern.
I'm going to research this some more, and get back to you. I will point out that the running game from the shotgun formation was not something new done by Walker; in addition to already being a feature of the single wing offense, Meyer had already been experimenting with option football from the shotgun since his time at Notre Dame in the early '90s.
"It was very much the same recipe that helped Utah -- whose coach at the time, Urban Meyer, once said he fell in love with the spread while watching Northwestern's wild 54-51 victory over Michigan in 2000 -- to its improbable 12-0 season two years ago."
I read the same article yesterday.
From the SI 2005 college football preview online:
"While the Ohio native grew up on the traditional power-I styles of Ohio State and Notre Dame, Meyer developed an interest in the more modern, one-back offense as an assistant at Colorado State from 1990-95. While the receivers coach at Notre Dame ('96-2000), he studied Louisville's spread offense and, later, the run-oriented versions practiced by Northwestern and Clemson, which he used as the basis of his own offense upon arriving at Bowling Green in 2001."
Urban Meyer Spread Option
This all goes back to my original statement about Rich Rodriguez and the Dart series being run at Tulane (when he wasn't promoted to head coach at Tulane after Tommy Bowden took the Clemson job, Rodriguez followed him to Clemson).