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Reunion of Former Track and Field Athletes to Honor Coach Who ‘Put MC Athletics on the Map’

Legendary coach Joe Walker often referred to Philippians 3:14 when encouraging his student-athletes to
Legendary coach Joe Walker often referred to Philippians 3:14 when encouraging his student-athletes to "press on" toward their goals in track and field - and in life.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Joe Walker Jr. built one of the most successful – and highly regarded – collegiate track and field coaching careers in the history of American sports.

During his 49-year career leading student-athletes, the Utica native and Mississippi College graduate won five straight Southeastern Conference championships at the University of Florida, led the University of Mississippi to 11 Top 20 finishes in National Collegiate Athletic Association competition, and was named the SEC Coach of the Year six times. He coached 124 All-Americans, 60 SEC individual champions, 12 NCAA individual champions, four Olympic medalists, and two Olympic gold medalists.

In 2002, he was named the United States Olympic Committee National Track and Field Coach of the Year. In 2018, he was the first Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame member to be inducted strictly as a track and field coach.

The launchpad to his success at the highest level of intercollegiate competition – the place where he earned his reputation as a trailblazing leader of student-athletes – was at Mississippi College.

As head track coach from 1970-78, he won two Gulf South Conference championships, coached Larry Myricks and Joe Boyles to NCAA titles in the long jump and steeplechase, respectively, was named NCAA District III Coach of the Year five times and GSC Coach of the Year twice, and was selected to the Mississippi College Athletics Hall of Fame.

What Walker accomplished during his stay in Clinton far exceeded any accolade. His greatest contribution to the Choctaw program was helping a generation of student-athletes reach their greatest potential.

Jim Turcotte, vice president and executive director of the Alumni Association at MC, said Walker had an undeniable talent for identifying potential in student-athletes.

“This is where Coach Walker first entered the national scene in track and where he was able to have a profound impact on the lives of his students,” Turcotte said. “He took a chance on countless athletes and believed in them. The records and accomplishments of his teams and individual performances demonstrate his uncanny talent for inspiring track athletes.

“He represents the ideals MC holds most dearly: He found ordinary runners, taught them about life, faith and track, and helped them accomplish extraordinary things in their lives.”

“Coach Walker made everyone feel that they were a part of something bigger than the sport,” said Lee Dukes ’75, vice president of clinical outcomes at Catapult Health. “It didn’t matter if a person was one of the best performers or as physically blessed – you learned from effort. Do your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.

“We believed that every person on the team was a contributor.”

Attorney Roland “Rollie” Wall ’75, ’80 credits Walker with putting MC Athletics on the map with his first GSC championship.

“He took a bunch of guys that, in many cases like myself, other schools rejected, and built a championship program,” Wall said. “Of course, in a few cases – like Larry Myricks, rated the No. 1 long jumper in the world in 1980 when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics – there were super talents.

“But the success of the track program during that time built a strong foundation and helped promote other MC athletic programs as well.”

At 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 27, in Anderson Hall in the B.C. Rogers Student Center, former Choctaw student-athletes of Walker’s will gather to salute the man who helped shape them into one of the most formidable track and field programs in Division II and III athletics. Anyone associated with MC’s track and field and cross-country teams of the 1970s are invited to attend and swap stories, share laughter, and revel in the presence of their mentor.

“The purpose of the reunion is straightforward: to recognize Joe Walker for his many accomplishments at Mississippi College and honor him for the profound and positive influence he had in our lives while we competed – and won – under his leadership,” Wall said.

Walker said he is deeply moved by his former student-athletes’ gesture.

“Words can’t express what this means to me,” he said. “That’s the deepest kind of love you can have, and I have the same deep love for them.

“It is good for an old man to have somebody come back and say they love you in this way.”

Walker’s ascent on the state’s track and field scene began in high school when he ran track for his father, Joe Walker Sr., a legendary coach in his own right and principal at Utica High School. The younger Walker lettered in track and cross country as well as basketball. He was selected to play in the state basketball all-star game, and he contributed to the Utica track and field team’s state championship.

After graduation, Walker attended the University of Mississippi – his father’s alma mater – ran track and played freshman basketball. When he didn’t make the varsity hoops squad, he was asked to serve as team manager.

“I managed for a year and it was beneficial to me, but I really missed playing,” he said. “God had a plan for me.”

He enrolled at Mississippi College to resume his basketball playing career. He also participated in track and cross country – a sport Ole Miss didn’t offer. He earned letters in all three sports and met his future wife, Faye, while at MC. The couple enjoyed a loving marriage of 55 years before she died a few short months ago.

Walker earned his B.S. in education and took an assistant coaching job at Meridian High School, where he coached football and basketball and volunteered to coach track. The track team won the state championship, and after one year, he was back at Mississippi College as the new head track coach.

“I expected to be at Meridian for quite a while,” Walker said. “I thought I’d be a high school coach all my life, but Bernard Blackwell (a Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame coach for whom the Mississippi High School All-Star Football Game was named), a key figure at MC, and his son, Doug, a great distance runner, were looking to hire somebody to coach the track team. I’m sure my father’s background entered their thinking, because I was so young. But they ended up giving me the opportunity.”

Walker brought a couple of athletes with him from Meridian High: Willie Price and Calvin Holmes. His first recruits happened to be the first Black athletes at Mississippi College.

“I wasn’t trying to integrate MC – I was just trying to bring two young men that I loved and respected to help the program. It turned out to be a special time.”

“Coach Walker took a risk to recruit Black athletes at that time,” Dukes said. “Calvin and Willie were our teammates. I did not realize until recently that they were the only Blacks in our freshman class.

“I realize now the risk that Coach Walker took in doing what he knew was right, and the courage that Willie and Calvin had in coming to MC.”

Their collective achievement heralded a new era for track and field in the state. For the first time, Walker said, the sport was beginning to garner national significance.

“Particularly in the South, it was considered a minor spring sport,” he said. “Things were changing. The majority of our great athletes at Mississippi College came from 40-to-60 miles from campus. Most of them were not highly recruited. Most didn’t have a lot of opportunities.

“I probably gave a large majority of them the only opportunity they had to participate in track and field. It was a matter of saying, ‘You’ve been in a school where nobody cared about track. Come over to MC – we care about you and we care about track.’ It was almost a miraculous thing.”

Myricks, Boyles, Price, and Holmes weren’t the only prized student-athletes to put on a Choctaw uniform for Walker. He considers Doug Blackwell, a holdover from the previous coach, to be one of the first great athletes with whom he worked. There was Lee Dukes, “a phenomenal athlete and one of the great leaders ever in the history of Mississippi College athletics,” and Bobby Waterbury, who set the record for most points scored in a four-year career in track and field at MC.

There were many others, too.

“I just fanned the flames a little bit, threw a little oil and gasoline on the fire,” Walker said. “Mostly, it was them. I witnessed their incredible talent. It was a unique experience.”

During his coaching stretch at MC, Walker earned his master’s in education and raised his young family right on campus.

“My oldest two sons grew up at Mississippi College,” he said, referring to Joe III and Brian. Luke, his youngest, grew up in Oxford. “We lived in a dormitory and they threw their toys out of the windows of Ratliff Hall at the college kids walking by.

“I had a lot of success at several schools, but that was a special time for me.”

His coaching philosophy, steeped in faith, was, at its core, quite simple: believe in your student-athletes. Because he demonstrated that faith, Walker was able to instill it in those he coached.

“They started saying, ‘If he believes in us, maybe we can do it.’ At MC, we just kept believing and kept working and thinking that if we do the right things, good things are going to happen. And they did. It was fascinating.”

“Press On” was a phrase Walker used often, encouraging his team to train hard. It references Philippians 3:14, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.”

“Coach cared deeply for all of his athletes,” Dukes said. “His Christian faith was demonstrated in the way he coached us. He pushed us hard, and we appreciated it. He cheered for us, and we appreciated it. When we needed it, he corrected us, and we appreciated it.”

Walker loves the finite qualities of his sport. Time and distance can be measured. When you compete against others in track and field, there’s a definitive winner – the sport is devoid of opinion.

“In basketball, I may be a great shooter, but if they never throw me the ball, I can’t do anything about it,” he said. “In track, I don’t depend on others - I depend on myself. If I’ve got the right attitude and the right work ethic, then regardless of what my teammates are doing, I can still excel.

“I spent my lifetime in coaching emphasizing what we call PRs, which are personal records. If you do your best ever, even if you don’t best everyone else in the competition, I don’t see how that can’t be a victory. I also worked on the ides of a team atmosphere, of caring about your teammates and understanding we can’t win the meet unless everybody gives their best individual effort.”

In 2012, Walker experienced the summit of track and field coaching when he witnessed one of his prized pupils, Brittany Reese, win Gold at the Olympic Games in London. That year, after more than four decades as a head track coach, he left Ole Miss to join the University of Louisville to serve as an assistant coach alongside his son, Joe Walker III.

It had been several years since the elder Walker had visited his alma mater when several of his former student-athletes – many in their late sixties and early seventies – contacted him about returning to the Clinton campus for a formal reunion.

When he returned to MC for the meeting, Walker said he could hardly believe what he saw.

“I discovered MC has grown so much that I couldn’t find my way around campus,” he said. “It was amazing. Then I found out that, thanks to Leland Speed, every incoming or transfer student from Mississippi who meets certain requirements is eligible for the Speed Scholarship to attend Mississippi College tuition-free.

“If that isn’t God acting in a special way, I don’t know what is.”

To mark how special Walker’s career and legacy has been to Mississippi College, a committee of his former student-athletes, including Wall, Dukes, and Jack Wood ’75; his teammate at MC, Buddy Wagner ’69; and Turcotte planned the Joe Walker reunion around MC’s scheduled meet on Friday, April 26.

“It has been a pleasure and an honor for each of us to be a part of this mission,” Wall said. “Like a good relay race, this has been a highly coordinated team effort.”

“As time passes, we recognize that our opportunities to celebrate will be limited,” Dukes said. “For many of us, it will be the completion to the journey that began with Coach Walker.

“As we have aged and grown wiser, we recognize those positive people and moments in our lives that helped set our course. Coach Walker would be at the top of that list for many of us. We need to let him know that we appreciate him.”

Walker said the years he spent at MC weren’t just special to him – they marked a significant period in the development of Mississippi College Athletics.

“Our kids grew and developed and did things that nobody thought they could do,” he said. “It was fun to watch them do it. All I did was fan the flames and give them an opportunity; they’re the ones who seized the opportunity and made things happen.

“I wouldn’t take anything for my nine years at Mississippi College.”

The lessons Walker taught outside the classroom were no less valuable than those offered within, his former student-athletes say.

“(Upon graduation) I carried with me many of the things that I had observed in Coach Walker that applied in other workplaces: listening, caring, being helpful, being patient, being slow to anger,” Dukes said.

“What did Coach Walker teach me?” Wall asked. “He taught me what dedication to a cause means, that the team is everything and no amount of sacrifice is too much to make in order to accomplish your goal, that you can do more than you think you can, that you never quit under any circumstances – ever.

“Other than that? Not much.”