No instruction manual exists for certain situations. There's a thousand books on surviving divorce, recovering from heart surgery, and even those handy Worst Case Scenario guides detailing the proper method for surviving plane crashes, animal attacks, and being recruited by Ed Orgeron. ("Step five: cross streams and river frequently to throw him off your scent!")
We know how to fend off an alligator. Replacing a coach taken by tragedy? Harder.
Having your coach die two months before a season? No contingency plan covers that. Short of having your entire team die in a plane crash, losing the brain trust for the program and its chief architect is as bad a thing as can happen to a football program, decapitating the organization and scotching any hopes for getting much done in 2006. Without being callous, Northwestern now has to tiptoe through decorum and reverence for their tragically departed coach and set operating standards in place. This is much like typing the phrase "Defusing mines can be a simple and pleasurable pasttime if certain guidelines are followed," but it's necessary.
A few painful truths that Northwestern bigwigs have likely already realized about this season:
1. This will take years to recover from. Walker had worked Northwestern up to respectability over a long time. His loss means '06 is gone, since a hire internally will likely come on to pick up the pieces in one long, difficult audition for the head job. And it will be an internal hire, since there's not enough time for a proper candidate search and decorum almost demands that one of Walker's get the nod for what will undoubtedly be a transition year. Take '07 off the map potentially, too, since the interim coach and staff could be jettisoned for a new hire if they don't show signs of putting the team back on the rails. (Note: signs of putting the team back, not actually putting them back; all that will be needed at a relatively low pressure job like Northwestern are signs of life toward the end of the season.) That's at least two years of reconctruction and setback for the Wildcats alone, and flubbed hires (they happen!) could extend the fallow stretch for Northwestern even further.
2. Beating them bad--which will happen--will suck immensely. There's no joy in beating a three-legged dog. There's less in beating a team whose young, impressionable men have just lost their surrogate father figure to the cruel whims of physiology and genetics. The scores will get out of hand, but Big Ten teams may actually exercise more restraint against them despite the conference being "the new Pac-10."
3. There is one upside in this horrid situation: playing time. Northwestern will eat this year and possibly the next, which leaves them with the option of accruing depth and experience by letting anyone and everyone take the field during 2006. It's a morbid thought, but for a team scanning the heavens for positives, it remains one of the few they can take to the bank.
It took years to accomplish. It'll take years to get back.