Family and Faith Central In Joe Walker's Storied Legacy

OLEMISSSPORTSDOTCOM Joe Walker (photo by Joey Brent)
OLEMISSSPORTSDOTCOM
Joe Walker (photo by Joey Brent)
OLEMISSSPORTSDOTCOM

May 24, 2012

By Sean Cartell, SEC Digital Network
Twitter: @SEC_Sean


OXFORD, Miss. – Sometimes, they say, timing is everything.

In the case of Ole Miss head track and field coach, Joe Walker, he has seemingly always had time on his side. Perhaps that’s because Walker has spent his entire life doing things the right way from the beginning of the process to the end result.

It’s fitting that Walker has announced his retirement from a 30-year career, spanning two tenures, as the head coach of the Rebels for the right reasons.

Following the conclusion of the 2012 track and field campaign, Walker will leave his home state and head north to Louisville, Ky., where he will join his son, Joe III, as an assistant coach on the University of Louisville coaching staff. Walker will coach the jumps, his son the distance program for head coach Ron Mann.

It will also give Walker and his wife Faye the opportunity to be near their grandchildren Kai and Maia.

“This has been something that has just worked itself out to be perfect for me,” Walker said. “I have known that I don’t want to coach beyond a certain age. As much as I love it and feel viable, I had been trying to figure out how many more years to do this before I retire. All of a sudden, I had this opportunity to be with my grandkids and coach alongside my son. At my age, it’s a good time to release my head coaching responsibilities and go back to being a teacher because it’s what I love to do, and what I really do well is coach and teach. It’s just been perfect.”

A perfect ending to a lengthy chapter in Walker’s career.

He is, at the core, a man of integrity and character; one who places more emphasis on learning than winning, more significance on family and faith than money and power, and he can quote Shakespeare just as easily as he can recite Southern folklore.

Simply, “he’s just a good person,” says Don Weber, the head track and field coach at the University of Kentucky since 1984.

“I’ve always liked him,” Weber said. “Over the years, he’s been a voice of reason in the conference among coaches and programs that emphasize different things and think of things differently. He has always been somebody who was level-headed. I think he’s been a real leader among the coaching group, especially in terms of working with the SEC and improving the championships from year to year. He has always been so personable and friendly, and just a really good person.”

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Walker comes from humble beginnings, which explains the sincerity and humility that he exudes to this day. The son of a high school coach and principal, Walker was born in Oxford, where his father attended college after returning to the United States on the G.I. Bill following World War II.

He grew up in Utica, Miss., where he played every sport imaginable in an effort to fulfill his competitive drive.

“I wouldn’t swap growing up the way I did with anyone in the world,” Walker said. “Every cliché or stereotype you can think of about a small town in Mississippi fits it. If you did anything wrong, by the time you got home, somebody had called your parents. I have a great mom and dad – they were just phenomenal and I was really raised by a village.”

Walker’s father was a coach-of-all-trades at Utica High School, which was customary for a school of that small size. After ascending to the role of school principal, the eldest Walker continued to coach the track and field team.

Walker took an instant liking to sports, he said by phone from his office on Wednesday. In fact one of his earliest memories comes from a high school football game.

“When I was about three or four years old, I broke my leg making a tackle in the stands while the real game was going on,” Walker said with a chuckle. “Athletics was something I loved from the very beginning. It was just a natural fit. My brother was into the arts and participated in musicals, but I was always playing some kind of game. Just as much a part of me as my height and my weight was my love for athletics.”

It wasn’t just a love for sport that Walker took from his father. So too did he share an appreciation for education.

“I’m standing on my dad’s shoulders,” Walker said. “I’m blessed and so lucky. I have one of the neatest dads that’s ever lived. He loved the school business and watching kids go on. I remember when we first went to Utica, nobody there had been to college. When he started, I was in the first grade and by the time I graduated, virtually all of us went on to college or junior college. He was just one to be able to make people dream big and do stuff like that.”

********

For all his accomplishments in the track and field world, Walker was a pretty good basketball player in his prep days. He played in the Mississippi High School All-Star basketball game and enrolled at Ole Miss as a recipient of one of the very first M-Club scholarships.

He played on the Rebels’ freshman basketball team and became a team manager to the varsity squad as a sophomore. But he was hungry to compete once again and turned to track and field, for which he had come to develop a deep appreciation.

“I loved track and one of the things that my dad imparted to me was that there’s no opinion in track,” Walker said. “That was one of the main reasons track was attractive to me. It is really one of the fairest and most equal things to do in life. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, tall or short, Jew or gentile, if you can get it done, you get it done. You might speculate about how good a basketball or football player is, but if you’re a track athlete and you hold the world record, you’re the best there is.”

Walker transferred to Mississippi College for his final two years, where he lettered in track and field and basketball.

“I came to Ole Miss as an undergrad and a walk-on basketball player and I just wasn’t good enough,” Walker said. “I loved Ole Miss, but I decided that I really missed [competing]. I went back to Mississippi College and lettered in basketball and track there. It ended up being a unique combination.”

Following graduation in 1969, Walker quickly entered the world of coaching as an assistant coach in football, basketball and track and field at Meridian High School. He helped lead the track and field team to the state title that season. At the time, Walker was living his dream.

“I can’t think of an age where I didn’t want to be a coach,” Walker said. “I thought I would coach high school all my life. Coaching has always been a dream for me.”

But Walker could hardly put down the championship trophy when his alma mater came calling after just one year asking him to return as the head track and field coach at the age of 23. He spent nine years directing the Mississippi College program and would have been quite content there long term.

The Choctaws won three Gulf South Conference titles over his last four years becoming the first Mississippi College team to win a GSC title. Walker also directed his 1978 team to a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Division II national championships and mentored future Olympian Larry Myricks.

Timing seemed to be fitting once again, as Ole Miss had decided to revive its track and field program in 1979 after nearly a decade-long hiatus. There wasn’t a track and field facility and, candidly, there wasn’t much of anything else. Still, Walker was excited about the challenge.

********

Walker has never considered coaching to be his job.

It’s been more of a calling; a mission, if you will. He sees himself as a teacher first, and he doesn’t stop helping his students once they leave his classroom.

“Coach Walker wants to make sure it’s not about four years, it’s about 40 years,” said Brian O’Neal, a 1993 Ole Miss graduate who was a middle distance runner for the Rebels and coached with Walker for nearly 15 seasons before taking a position at Florida. “He cares about you as a person and tries to teach you life lessons that, once your track career is over, applies to everyday life.”

For Walker, it’s not simply a philosophy. He is a true people person and loves mentoring college student-athletes.

“I think it’s that cliché that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Walker said. “Embedded in me is a genuine love for people. I think you just have to enjoy the coaching and teaching. I think part of it is just a matter of not doing it for the ultimate reward. You’re doing it for the moment and for the experience for that kid. The journey is more important to me than the destination.”

That Walker, a man who wears many hats, considers his primary role as that of an educator is the reason his system has stood the test of time from one decade to the next, even as the landscape of college athletics has changed greatly.

“A teacher is what I have always thought of myself as,” Walker said. “I love one-on-one relationships or small-group relationships and having an influence in a person’s life. The things that have made men and women successful since the beginning of time are the same things now; that hasn’t changed. Fashion and music and how you wear your hair changes. You just have to realize the things that are okay to change and the things that can’t ever be changed. One thing about it is that coaching has kept me young. I tell my kids all the time, I may not be young, but I dadgum sure ain’t old.”

Walker’s son, Joe III has watched the impact his father has had on countless athletes over the years.

“From a coaching aspect, I believe he’s one of the best,” Joe Walker III said. “When you go beyond coaching, it’s just so much deeper. The direction he tries to take is that he may only be with a kid for four or five years and track is just a small part of that. Any influence or impact he can have to basically just help you become what you desire is what he wants to do. He taps into what that person’s hopes and dreams are. He mentors them along the path that they ultimately choose.”

That one-on-one approach to coaching has also served Walker well when it comes to the technical aspect of track and field. He gets the best out of each and every athlete because he realizes that each person who comes through his program is different.

“Joe always had a way of making sure that in coaching, you coach the athlete and not the event,” O’Neal said. “If athletes are going to have different ability levels, you’re going to have to relate to them on how to do each specific event. He always did things that way and instilled that in me. My coaching style is very similar in that I coach each athlete different even in the same event.”

Communication is a major factor in Walker’s ability to relate to athletes. Not only does he have a keen understanding of what makes each individual athlete tick, he is able to relate to his pupils in a way that makes sense to them.

“It’s just the simplicity of communicating at a one-on-one level with where each person is coming from,” Joe Walker III said. “He doesn’t overspeak. He knows his science and the background of it, but he also knows that life is not a laboratory. There’s so many other factors involved and each person is both completely different and all alike in a lot of ways. It’s just knowing how to approach each person on their level. It’s probably one of his better skills.”

********

There were just three athletes on the Ole Miss track and field program when Walker returned to Oxford as head coach. There wasn’t even a facility where the Rebels could train.

By the 1984 season, Walker had led Ole Miss to a second-place finish at the SEC Outdoor Championships, a pair of third-place showings at the SEC Indoor Championships and finished third at the 1984 SEC Cross Country Championships.

He produced 14 SEC individual champions, two Drake Relays individual champions, five All-Americans, one NCAA Champion and sent five athletes to the 1984 Olympic Trials.

Walker’s success drew interest from the University of Florida for its men’s head coaching position. The Gators had established themselves as a power under the direction of the legendary Jimmy Carnes, who later went on to be named the U.S. Olympic Team coach, in the 1960s and 1970s.

Florida was looking for someone to return its program to national prominence and was impressed by what Walker had done at Ole Miss.

And he didn’t disappoint once he moved to Gainesville.

Walker directed the Gators to five consecutive Southeastern Conference titles, including their first outdoor league title since 1956. Florida turned in what was then its best ever performance at the NCAA Indoor Championships, placing third in 1988. The cross country team was eighth at the 1987 NCAA Championships.

His athletes earned 31 All-America honors and 17 SEC individual championships, including 1988 NCAA Indoor 200m Champion Dennis Mitchell, who set the collegiate record in that event.

“Joe may not have gotten all the credit he deserves in terms of the quality coaching at Ole Miss,” Weber said. “But I remember when he was at Florida and they were absolutely killing it. That run at Florida was indicative that he could compete with the very best at the very highest level and has the ability to draw in the best talent.”

Walker spent three seasons at Florida, but had the opportunity to return to Ole Miss in 1988 as the program’s head coach. It may have seemed like an unconventional move, but Walker was committed to making a decision that was in the best interest of his family.

“I got stars in my eyes and coached at Florida for three years,” Walker said. “We had a lot of success and I loved my three years at Florida, but it was just kind of a family move. I got a chance to come back to Ole Miss just because of my love for Ole Miss and love for the state of Mississippi. It has been just a dream come true. I’ve been very blessed.”

Joe Walker III said the move back to Ole Miss made perfect sense for anyone who truly understands what his father is all about.

“Most of his really hard decisions are based on family,” he said. “When we left Gainesville, they had won five straight SEC titles and probably a lot of people didn’t understand it. Internally, it was just a family decision to move back to Mississippi. Family was more important than anything else.”

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It’s tough to balance being both a father and a coach, but it was a juggling act at which Walker thrived.

“I think that’s the tough thing about being a collegiate coach – the time problems that you have,” Walker said. “Family has just always been very important to me. I love Oxford, but I’m not tied to Oxford. What I’m tied to is family. I took the responsibility of being a dad as seriously as I could. That’s way more important than being a coach. You don’t want to coach everybody else’s kid and not coach your own. Not that you’re coaching your kids, but you’re teaching them and helping them while they’re growing up. I certainly tried my best to do that.”

Walker has three sons – Joe III, Brian and Luke. Joe III was the only one who really gravitated toward athletics. While that created a special bond between father and son, Joe III says that Walker was committed to always being there for each of his children.

“He often left work at work,” said Joe Walker III. “When he got home, he was trying to be the best dad that he could be. I had a real love for athletics and sports. My two brothers went a different direction and were talented from an arts angle and musically. My dad and I were really close from that perspective.”

Joe III wasn’t always sure he wanted to coach track and field. In a rebellious teenage stage, he was uncomfortable with the idea of turning into his father. But looking back on it, he knows he couldn’t have chosen a better role model to follow.

“I fought it a little bit when I was 18 or 19,” Joe Walker III said. “I was just a typical youngster that didn’t want to become his dad. But I just saw a whole lot of his influence on me. When I was about 20, I realized what I was going to do. I just said to myself ‘You know you’re going to coach, why fool yourself.’”

Joe Walker III ran for his father at Ole Miss from 1991-94, earning academic All-SEC honors and finishing his career with the third-fastest 3,000-meter mark in school history. He also was a member of the school’s world-ranked 4x1,500m squad in 1994.

“It doesn’t work for everyone, but for us it was ideal,” Walker said. “We had just moved back to Mississippi from Gainesville and I had always kind of pictured myself running for him at Florida. When he went back to Ole Miss, I knew that I wanted to run for him there. It probably brought us together because we had a commonality and shared a purpose. I just definitely wanted to be around my dad and with my dad.”

Walker said he and his son also bonded over some health issues that Joe III struggled with during his collegiate career.

“It was a really, really odd time because he had kind of a weird blood disease that really interrupted his running career,” Walker said. “He stayed sick a lot. When he was in his fifth year, he seemed like he was really coming out of that. I thought that he could have been really fast.”

In an interesting turn of fate, Walker helped his son acquire his first coaching job. Walker was trying to help a few of his coaching colleagues get the head coaching job at Meridian Community College when the school suggested Joe III.

“They were starting a program at Meridian Community College and I was trying to help a couple of older coaches get the job,” Walker said. “I was trying to sell them on those guys and they finally basically told me that they weren’t able to pay that much. At the time, Bobby Bowden and all of his sons were at their peaks. I told them, if they wanted to do that, they should just hire a coach’s son. Then they wanted to know if my son wanted to come and interview.”

Joe III nailed the interview and had great success during his time in Meridian as the men’s and women’s head coach from 1995-98. He guided his program to a National Junior College Athletic Association title in track and field and cross country (1996-97) and three runner-up finishes. He twice was named the NJCAA National Indoor Championship Coach of the Meet.

“He left my house heading down to the interview as a young man,” Walker said. “A few years after they hired him, you could see a change; he was a man. I don’t think I groomed him because it wasn’t like me who knew from age 10 what I wanted to do. He was planning on doing other things and kind of fell into it. He found out he really had a great talent for it.”

Joe III had tremendous success as an assistant coach at both South Alabama and Alabama, where he was a three-time SEC Cross Country Coach of the Year and a six-time USTFCCCA South Region Coach of the Year. He is currently in his first season at Louisville and is looking forward to being able to work alongside his father in the future.

“I think I’ll just enjoy having that day-to-day interaction,” Joe Walker III said. “We talk a lot on the phone and are really close. He’s truly to me not just a father but a best friend. It puts me together with the one person on the planet that I feel the closest to and can confide in and bounce ideas off of. From that perspective, it’s really unique.

“We may have a few more arguments now than we normally do,” he joked.

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Since returning to Oxford in 1988, Walker’s impact has been immeasurable.

He has guided his teams to 11 top-20 national finishes, including six times in the last five seasons. His pupils have earned more than 100 All-America honors and more than a dozen NCAA individual championships.

“I think in a lot of ways, he is identified with Ole Miss track and field,” Weber said. “You think of Ole Miss track and field and all the great jumpers and sprinters they’ve had, and it’s Joe Walker in many, many ways. It’s very obvious that he’s very athlete oriented. He’s great to the athletes on the team and he’s very good with all the other coaches. He indicates that you can be successful and also be a really good guy.”

Walker has coached some of the most elite athletes in the sport. In fact, at least one of his athletes or former athletes participated in every Olympic Games from 1976-2000 and then again in 2008. Most recently, he worked with Brittney Reese who finished fifth in the world and was the top American finisher in the long jump at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China. Reese went on to win multiple world championships in that event.

“I think that’s always great,” Walker said. “I don’t think that anybody that teaches doesn’t enjoy teaching somebody that’s a genius. God has put something in them that’s a form of genius. It’s exciting to be able to share that with them.”

Still, as much fun as Walker has had coaching the very top athletes in the sport, he enjoys watching improvement in all of his athletes just as much, whether that be in the classroom or on the track. He has had numerous athletes earn a wide variety of academic All-America and All-District honors throughout his career.

“I love achievement, but I base my achievement on who you are and where you are,” Walker said. “I’m a big PR guy and I’m pushing that all the time. Let’s make our best be better. There are two times in your life that are really significant: from birth to age 6 and from 18-24. From 18-24, you have an opportunity if you grew up in a tough environment to choose a better environment. It’s an important period and it excites me to have a chance to impact where they go from there. I get just as excited about that kid who maybe had no chance of graduating who found a chance as I do with kids who win McWhorter Scholarships. We’ve had both of those kinds of kids and I’m proud of all of them.”

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There’s no question that family is of the most important of priorities in Walker’s life, but the definition of “family” extends well beyond his wife and three sons.

The athletes he has coached over a period of five decades comprise his extended family.

“My last home meet at Ole Miss was on a Saturday and a lot of the old kids came back and coaches came back,” Walker said. “I looked around the room and told them, ‘The one thing you need to understand is that my trophies are the people in this room.’ Anyone who knows me would tell you that I’m a competitive coach. But the people who I’ve had the opportunity to share time with and whatever impact I’ve been able to impart, that’s what means the most from me. I get Father’s Day cards from various kids from time-to-time who didn’t have a father around growing up. That means more to me than the championships or national rankings. The lives and people mean the most.”

O’Neal has experienced this first hand. Hailing from Pontotoc, Miss., and coaching with Walker for a decade-and-a-half, O’Neal developed a close relationship with his mentor. When offered an opportunity to join the coaching staff at Florida in advance of the 2009 season – he has since helped the Gators to three NCAA Indoor Championships – it wasn’t easy to leave Ole Miss.

“It was almost like when a son leaves home to go to college or moves away to start his own life,” O’Neal said. “It was conversation where he told me that I was absolutely prepared and it was almost like getting a father’s blessing. He understood my drive to want to compete for championships and be the best and knew that Florida was the perfect opportunity to do that.

“We were both sad and very emotional when it happened,” O’Neal continued. “It was like leaving all the comforts of home that you know. He was very reassuring. He told me that I would be successful, just to be me and do what I’ve always done.”

Walker not only took an active role in being involved with his family, he also imparted the importance of that characteristic on his coaches and athletes.

“He was always the guy who would tell me to get out of the office and go home to be a dad and be a husband,” O’Neal said. “Those are lessons I have come to appreciate now that I’m at UF, creating that balance of striving to be the best day in and day out, winning and being a husband and father every day.”

Walker takes special pride in what he has been able to accomplish at Ole Miss, largely because it is his home state. He’s had the opportunity to help improve the lives of many student-athletes from the Magnolia State.

“That’s always been very special to me,” Walker said. “I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder to give these kids a chance and an opportunity. I saw a guy who is now 45 years old and he said, ‘Coach, you helped open up a world to me that I didn’t realize existed.’ I didn’t do anything, but at the same time, I did something. I was part of opening up that world to him. He has a nice family and is really doing well.”

Joe Walker III has seen, growing up, how important his father took his role as an ambassador for the people of Mississippi.

“I think that means a lot to him,” Joe Walker III said. “I know that my family came up through the civil rights movement. He saw where Mississippi was then, where it is now and where it can be in the future and he played somewhat of a role in that development from the aspect of moving the state forward and giving kids from varying backgrounds an opportunity. He has just been involved in so many people’s lives. He has always said, you can’t save everyone, but you can always save one. He has given so many Mississippi kids the opportunity to go to college and get their degrees. He has changed not only their lives but their family’s lives as well.”

O’Neal said Walker imparted that pride in the state of Mississippi to each of his athletes.

“He always said that you may be the only person someone ever meets from Mississippi or Ole Miss, so you need to make sure that’s a good impression,” O’Neal said. “I take that with me everywhere I go. You talk about the pride he has in his home state and he instills in all of us to be proud of who you are, where you’re coming from and making sure you know who you represent.”

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It’s not easy to put into words the impact Walker has had on Ole Miss, collegiate track and field or the countless people he has touched, but nonetheless, his impact has been widespread.

“I’ve never worried a whole lot about what people call a legacy,” Walker said. “One of my favorite quotes from Shakespeare is ‘Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.’ I hope people would just think of the character things that I brought, that I do care about you, I’m going to come in early, stay late and get after it.”

When Walker walks off the track at Drake Stadium this June following the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, it will be for the final time as the Rebels’ head coach. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet, but Walker is appreciative of the time he has spent in Oxford and the people who have impacted his life.

“I think every day it gets closer, I think about it a little bit more,” Walker said. “I’ve always been a day-to-day guy. I really can’t do anything about yesterday and tomorrow’s uncertain. I realize that this chapter is over. I’m not leaving Ole Miss because of anything other than because I’m starting a new chapter. I feel like I’m really doing something I’m supposed to do and, because I feel that way, it has made it fairly comfortable. It has been the dream of a lifetime.”

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