Upcoming Niswonger meet sure to be tribute to Walker

Joe Avento • Jan 13, 2014 at 9:01 PM

East Tennessee State University lost a legend last weekend, but his memory will be honored with every step taken on a track bearing his name.ETSU will be the site of the 36th annual Niswonger Invitational this weekend, and the meet will be a natural tribute to Dave Walker, the man who began the event.Walker, the popular longtime ETSU track and cross country coach, died on Saturday morning after a long battle with cancer. He was 82.Fittingly, the running events in this weekend's meet will be held on the David E. Walker track inside the Minidome."That tells the impact he's had on this university and the success he's had," current ETSU track and cross country coach George Watts said. "The fact that it's called Dave Walker Track, that's pretty neat. We'll think about him and honor him the best way we can."Walker will be on many minds during the meet. A moment of silence will be observed just before the running-event finals begin on Saturday afternoon.Walker's death was still reverberating through the ETSU athletic department as coaches at the school came to terms with the loss of the man credited with making Johnson City a running town.Walker is being remembered as a tough coach who had a heart of gold.Before ETSU golf coach Fred Warren even got to Johnson City, he had heard of Dave Walker.Warren was an assistant coach at Oklahoma State when he took the ETSU job in 1986, and Oklahoma State's former track coach Ralph Tate gave him a piece of advice before he left."He told me 'When you get to East Tennessee, you go see Dave Walker. He's a great coach and hell tell you what's really going on. Don't listen to anybody else,' " Warren said."The first thing I did was go to see Dave Walker."That began a relationship that lasted right up until the very end. Through the years, the two often had lunch together. Warren visited Walker in the hospital last week."We shared a lot of things," Warren said. "We became good friends. He was very funny, a good coach and he had a heart of gold. Obviously, he's a legend at ETSU and I have a lot of respect for him."Longtime ETSU strength coach Lee Morrow was the track and cross country coach at Milligan College in the late 1970s when he met Walker. It turned out to be a lifelong friendship."We would sometimes go over to the VA to train so I got to rub shoulders with him," Morrow said. "One of the things about him was that he was so unpretentious. I was a small fish and he treated me so well. I will always remember that."Not long after that, in 1982, Morrow was at ETSU beginning his career as the school's strength coach. His path would cross Walker's many times throughout the years."He liked the fact that I was a strength coach that had a track background," Morrow said. "A lot of my coaching style in the weight room I took from stuff he talked about. His methods of dealing with people, I took a lot of what I try to do from Dave Walker."Dave was the same all the dang time. If something bad or something good was happening, he was the same. That's a heck of a compliment. People reflect their emotions and sometimes take things out on you, but Dave was always even. He was evenly good."Walker found out how much he meant to several people, Morrow included, during a ceremony shortly before his retirement. It was a moment Morrow relishes to this day."Before you know it, somebody's gone," Morrow said. "I look at that now and treasure it. I even got choked up and that's OK. I was thankful to be allowed to stand in front of a whole bunch of people and say what I thought. I can't tell you how good I feel now that I got to do that."I just have nothing but good memories. He had a tremendous life. I'm just glad he was able to be around as long as he was."ETSU basketball coach Murry Bartow was on hand that night and remembers enjoying all the stories told about Walker."That was a real neat night for me because I was able to kind of learn about him a lot and hear all the stories," Bartow said. "I knew all the records and what he accomplished, but to hear from his former athletes ... That was a cool night."What Bartow and the rest of the assembled crowd heard was how loyal Walker's former athletes, many of whom he brought into this country, remained to their coach throughout the years."They just had an incredible loyalty to him," Bartow said. "Obviously, he was a great coach, but he was certainly a father figure for them. He took them in and treated them like his kids. You could really see that whenever you talk to them."He was an incredible coach and obviously a great man."Watts ran at Tennessee during the 1970s and competed against Walker's teams that had the likes of Ray Flynn, Mark Finucane and Louis Kenny."It was a rivalry," Watts said. "Every cross country season we knew that we were going to get their very best every time they raced. That starts with the coach. There was no doubt his athletes were gonna be tough to beat. They knew they wanted to beat us and we knew we wanted to beat them."Watts said his college coach, Stan Huntsman, and Walker were competitive but friendly."They wanted to beat each other while the race was going on, but after that, they were best friends," Watts said. "They wanted to be competitive but not take it off the field of play."ETSU baseball coach Tony Skole recalls meeting Walker during his first days in Johnson City some 15 years ago."He was always very welcoming to me," Skole said. "As a young coach, when I first got here, he was one of the coaches I sought out. He was a great mentor."Skole was also impressed by the relationships Walker had with his athletes long after their competitive days had ended."Two things stuck out to me," Skole said. "Number one, he was a tough coach. He coached toughness in his teams. You could see that through the runners he's had. And, more than anything, I saw the love and the respect and compassion all his former runners had for him."Just a tremendous man. He had such a tremendous heart. I'm very fortunate that I got to spend a lot of time with him. He always had an open door for me. What a career he had."

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