By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – After 30 years in the race, Joe Walker is at the finish line.
The founder of modern-day track and field at Ole Miss, Walker will retire at the close of the NCAA championships and will begin work July 1 as an assistant coach at the University of Louisville – his next race.
His work as a track coach at Ole Miss – more importantly as a figure of influence, he says – began in 1979, included two different employment periods and touched five decades.
Track tradition and the lure of opportunity were not driving factors in Walker’s decision to leave. It was family.
Walker will join his son, Joe Walker III, the Louisville cross country coach and track assistant, and will be closer to his grandchildren, nine-year-old Kai and six-year-old Maia Malin. During the work day Walker’s focus will be with the Louisville jumpers.
“To me coaching has always been mentoring, watching young people grow and making a difference in their lives,” Walker said. “For me, coaching was natural. I literally was born to coach, I guess. I can’t ever think of a time I didn’t dream and hope to be a coach. I always thought I’d be a high school coach I never thought I’d get the opportunities I’ve gotten.”
Presently, Walker’s most visible coaching opportunity is Olympian Brittney Reese, the American record holder in the women’s long jump and one of the favorites for the gold medal in London this summer.
There have been many other Olympians, 115 All-Americans and 12 individual NCAA champions, a number that could rise before his time at Ole Miss is done.
Perhaps the next Brittney Reese emerges.
“Coach Walker is the reason I’m in the situation I’m in now. He’s been behind me 100 percent. He’s more like a dad than a coach to me,” Reese said.
Being a dad is what led Walker to leave what many in the track and field world would consider a much more prominent job at the University of Florida to return to Ole Miss.
It’s not that he wasn’t successful. Upon his hiring away from Ole Miss in the fall of 1985, Walker told the Gainesville Sun it was a “wonderful opportunity” to be named head coach at Florida.
At one point his Gators teams won five-straight SEC championships, a streak that included titles in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track.
“I just think that for me and my family, it was a better decision. I like the smallness of Oxford and Ole Miss. I’m a Mississippi guy so it was a variety of situations, and I just love being at Ole Miss. I enjoyed my time at Florida. It was just a better situation in all for me to come back,” Walker said.
The administration at Florida didn’t really understand his decision, he said.
His first stint at Ole Miss began when the school did not even have a track. The coach was Doc Knight, the football trainer, who Walker describes as knowledgeable but without the resources to field a serious team.
The program was birthed, Walker says, because the school needed to add three sports to be able to compete in Division I football. Cross country, indoor track and outdoor track became the most cost-effective means to this end.
“Every once in a while they would take a handful of people to the SEC track meet,” Walker said. “Some years they wouldn’t. It was a haphazard thing.”
it’s a Family tradition
Through his time at Ole Miss and Florida, and his first job at Mississippi College, his alma mater, Walker has specialized in the jumps and has coached college track for 43 years.
After getting his degree from MC he was named assistant coach in football, basketball and track at Meridian High School.
After helping lead Meridian to a track state championship, he returned to MC. He was eventually hired at Ole Miss by former athletics director Warner Alford.
With his father, the original Joe Walker, having coached in the 1940s, the family business stretches from Harry Truman and the early years after World War II all the way to the world of the IPad.
With that timeline, did Joe Walker III ever really have a chance?
He laughs at the thought and says he might have enjoyed teaching Religious Studies.
“It hit me around 20 that this was what I was going to do, so I just embraced it, fell into it,” he said.
He ran for his dad at Ole Miss and now applies many of the pearls of wisdom from back in the day.
“He told me to coach people, not events,” Walker III said. “He’s a teacher first and foremost. He knows there’s a bigger picture than straight wins and losses. That’s the thrust of what he’s all about.”