Northwestern coach toiled in pressure cooker
Terence Moore - Staff
Thursday, July 6, 2006
Whenever Georgia Tech baseball coach Danny Hall and I speak for more than a few moments, the old days live. The conversation returns to our stay in Hepburn Hall, a three-story, Georgian style dormitory at Miami (Ohio) University, where the future gave us no promises but wonderful dreams, and our youth was synonymous with invincibility.
Illinois football coach Ron Zook was one of us. So was former Braves pitcher Charlie Leibrandt, along with Randy Ayers, who coached at Ohio State and for the Philadelphia 76ers. Then you had Sherman Smith, the assistant head coach for the Tennessee Titans in his 12th year after a nice playing career in the NFL. You also had Bill Doran, a former All-Star second baseman for the Houston Astros, and Rob Carpenter, a former Pro Bowl runner for the New York Giants. Carpenter's son, Bobby, was picked in the first-round of this year's NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys after starring at Ohio State.
There was Randy Walker, too, the only football coach ever to lead Northwestern to three bowl games. He ranked with Ohio State's Jim Tressel and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz as the best in the Big Ten at their profession, but nobody surpassed Walker in terms of character and enthusiasm. Walker's funeral is today in Evanston, Ill., after he died last week of a massive heart attack. He was 52. Hall is 51. I'm 50, and I'm still in shock. The same goes for Hall, especially since Walker's trim frame and easy smiles made him look much younger than his years.
"I was running on my treadmill in my basement, and I had ESPN on the television and saw the news, and I just about got sick," said Hall, who, along with me, saw Walker, Smith, Carpenter and Zook play on those Miami (Ohio) football teams during the 1970s that were ranked 15th, 10th and 12th in consecutive years by the Associated Press. That's because the Redskins (now the RedHawks) defeated Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in bowl games after each of those seasons to go 32-1-1. Walker was the superlative fullback, who could run, block, pass and inspire.
To have the ability to inspire is a good thing, especially if you're Walker, and you're destined to coach. It's just that such an attribute is a bad thing if you become so obsessed with trying to help others succeed that your insides resemble a football pumped with too much air from self-inflicted pressure.
"Randy always was very competitive, and if you're competitive, sometimes you can get stressed out," said Hall, an acquaintance of Tech football coach Chan Gailey who watched his intensity evolve into a heart attack last year. Gailey's predecessor, the highly combustible George O'Leary, suffered one two years before that after he took the Central Florida job. "You watch these situations take place, and it all becomes a reality check for yourself," said Hall, entering his 14th year at Tech as one of the nation's most successful college baseball coaches. "You just hope you're eating the right things and doing the right things to take care of yourself."
So far, so great for Hall, a consistently pleasant soul, who also makes you believe that time is standing still through his ability to remain fit. Unlike Walker and others, though, Hall keeps his explosiveness (both outwardly and inwardly) to a minimum. Which is some trick. Not only is Miami (Ohio) noted as the Mother of Fraternities, the birthplace of the McGuffey Reader and the school of President Benjamin Harrison, but as the Cradle of Coaches. The majority of those coaches were a clogged artery waiting to happen. Woody Hayes. Bo Schembechler. Bill Mallory. Paul Brown. Ara Parseghian. I mean, Earl "Red" Blaik, who left Miami (Ohio) to build those Army powerhouses in the mid-20th century, was the first coach ever to view "off days" as satanic. He worked before sunrise until beyond midnight in search of eternal victory, and he established the bar for his Miami (Ohio) successors.
Just wondering: Did the old alma mater ever teach you guys to relax?
"Oh, you know. I don't think so," said Hall, laughing. "You probably just watched how the people reacted that coached you and some of that is going to rub off on you. Even the guy I played for in college (Bud Middaugh), he was the Bobby Knight of college baseball."Hall laughed again. So did I. It kept us from thinking about lost innocence lying in a coffin, and crying.