Dave Walker has retired before, but this time he means it.
The 81-year-old East Tennessee State University icon laughs when the subject of retirement is brought up. He had threatened to step down as the school’s track and cross country coach many times, even tried it for a bit, yet never could walk away.
“This time it’s real,” Walker said. “I even have a replacement now.”
On Friday night, a dinner was held to celebrate Walker’s official retirement. More than 100 people turned out, some from as far away as Ireland, to honor the man who spent more than 50 years at ETSU.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Walker said. “What a crowd. It was really something.”
ETSU hired a new director of track and field last week. Longtime Tennessee assistant George Watts takes over a program Walker built.
Through the years, Walker coached 34 All-Americans, including three Olympians, and won 33 track and cross country conference championships. He was inducted into the ETSU Hall of Fame, the U.S. Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
Walker has earned so many coaching-achievement awards that he probably had to rent a storage unit to hold them all when he emptied his office.
For many of his athletes Walker’s retirement has been a time for reflection. Few ETSU coaches, if any, have achieved such a level of loyalty from their former athletes.
“Through the years, the relationship with Coach Walker evolved from coach and disciplinarian to father figure to now being a close friend,” said Mark Finucane, a former All-American and member of ETSU’s Hall of Fame. “He always treated us in a first class manner. He put in a lot of time and effort in always making sure we were at our best during competition. He was a master of preparation.”
Walker’s career really took off in the 1970s when he began importing Irish runners. The Irish Brigade, as it was called, put ETSU on the map.
Walker’s teams qualified for the NCAA cross country championships 14 years in a row. His Bucs, led by national champion Neil Cusack, finished second in 1972 at Houston, losing only to Tennessee. Cusack went on to win the Boston Marathon in 1974.
“We missed winning that cross country championship I thought we’d win,” Walker said. “People realized ‘Hey, those Irish guys know how to run.’ We were second in the nation and nobody had a full scholarship. We just had half-scholarships. I don’t care who you are, if you can do that, you apparently were a good picker.
“They could run like a deer. I was really appreciative. When I stopped to think about it ... I just beat Oregon and all of those big schools and I knew their kids were on full scholarships.”
Ray Flynn, one of the most successful Irishmen at ETSU, credited Walker for making the newcomers to America feel comfortable so far from home.
“He was one strong figure in so many of our lives who were far from home and far from our families,” said Flynn, who ran 89 sub-four-minute miles and is now an influential agent in the track world. “He was always there. He was a father figure to us all and we all loved him.
“More than anything else, Dave was a mentor to those he coached. He taught us to believe in ourselves, to be strong, to go out and get the job done without talking about it.”
Walker worked under eight athletic directors and six school presidents. With his retirement, golf coach Fred Warren becomes the elder statesman of the ETSU coaching staff. He’s been here since 1986 and got to know Walker well.
“Coach Walker is a true legend,” Warren said. “They don’t make coaches like him anymore. After so many years, it is difficult to imagine ETSU athletics without him being there. It is the passing of an era.”
Walker said Friday night’s dinner was a fitting punctuation mark to his career.
“It was like the end of a long, long road,” he said. “And it’s been a good road.”
Along the way, Walker won 28 coach-of-the year awards, yet somehow even that doesn’t seem adequate. Those who ran for him and those who have gotten to know him through the years know better.
If ever such an award existed, he would deserve this: Dave Walker is the coach of a lifetime.