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UPDATE: Legendary ETSU track and field coach David E. Walker dies at 82

January 11th, 2014 2:26 pm by Tony Casey

UPDATE: Legendary ETSU track and field coach David E. Walker dies at 82

David Walker (Contributed)



When his mother dropped him off at East Tennessee State University, Mark Finucane remembers the chat his mother had with legendary distance running coach David E. Walker.


“Now you take care of my son,” Finucane’s mother said to the coach.


Take care of him, Coach Walker did. 


Finucane can’t say enough about how Walker treated his runners, and how immense Walker’s impact was on the local running community and how it will not soon be forgotten.


Walker, who put Johnson City on the map as one of the best running locations in the world, died at around 11 a.m. Saturday. 


Sources confirmed that the former ETSU track and field and cross country coach died at the age of 82. He recently retired from coaching, after a career that spanned five decades.


Walker’s accomplishments as a distance running coach were many, having coached Olympians, world record holders, NCAA champions, major marathon winners and many other high caliber athletes.


He originally came to ETSU from upstate New York as a track and field athlete, as well as a member of the football team. After ETSU, he went on to play professional football for the Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns before returning to his alma mater as a coach. 


As he molded into a distance coach in the 1960s, and honed his ability to use the local Johnson City terrain to get the most of his athletes all the way to his retirement in the spring of 2012, greatness and success always seemed to be the by-products of Walker’s coaching efforts. Ahletes he coached included members of ETSU’s “Irish Brigade”, an unofficial program in the early 1970s where Walker brought over many of the best distance runners from Ireland.


From that he trained Neil Cusack to win the NCAA individual cross country title in 1972, and Boston Marathon victory in 1974, Louis Kenny into the Irish national record holder in the marathon, two-time Olympian Edward Leddy, three-time All-American Adrian Leek, Ray Flynn to run a three minute, 49.77 second mile and compete in two Olympic Games. For his Americans, Walker coached former assistant chief at the Johnson City Fire Department, Finucane, to log a 2:11:55 marathon, as well as squeezing top performances and accomplishments from his other American, Canadian, and Kenyan runners on the NCAA level.


Walker tallied 28 coach of the year awards in his respective conferences, but, awards briefly aside, one of the most impressive aspects of his career was his ability to rally his athletes around him throughout his career and until his last days.


Former Buccaneer runner Gerry Duffy, of Jonesborough, was one of Walker’s scoring distance runners in the 1980s. He referred to “Coach”, as all his runners called him, as completely selfless, and shared a story of Walker’s generosity.


After a conference meet in North Carolina, Duffy said Walker noticed his shoes were a little ragged. Duffy said the meet was in a tiny town, but knows with certainty that Walker purchased him a new pair of shoes with his own money. Duffy said actions like that made runners feel special under Coach, and he said he would do things like this for his other runners, too.


Flynn said he and the Irish runners were from across the sea, far away from their homes, and looked up to Walker as a father figure. He was someone you could trust and someone who could really unite the team.


“He was the unifier of us all,” Flynn said. “He was the conduit that kept us together long after we left ETSU.”


Flynn said he was coached by Walker for 10 years after his college career, and knew his coach was always available to help. He said Walker lived by the clock and was always where he said he was going to be, and on time, too. 


The impact Walker made with his athletes reverberated through the local community, Flynn and Duffy said.


His success with running was widespread in the elite scene, but it also trickled through the region to turn this traditional farming area into a global running hub. 


“He built it,” Flynn said of the running community around Johnson City. “It didn’t exist before him. His legacy lives on after him.”


Duffy and Flynn, among many other of Walker’s athletes, have stayed well informed, keeping each other up to date on his declining health, and have acted as a form of support to the Walker family. Over the years, they’ve missed few opportunities to get together and celebrate with Walker through parties, and share tales of old. Flynn said they’ve all stayed so close because of Walker’s father-like position in many of the Irish runners’ lives.


Using every bit of the area’s available space, Walker trained his runners with thousands upon thousands of miles run through residential roads, up and down mountain roads, and many loops at the Veteran Affairs campus across from ETSU, where two different lengths of loops were utilized, called “long sides” and “short sides”.


Finucane said the guidance and support never stopped after college, with many runners, like himself, continuing their coaching under Walker. Running aside, Walker offered more than that. Often, when a former runner would have any kind of problem, Walker was the first person they’d call for help.


But distance runners aren’t the only ones with an appreciation for Walker’s ability to coach people. In 1987, Dave Mullins came on as a tennis coach at ETSU, having heard of the legendary distance coach, and immediately formed a friendship with Walker. Although it was a difference sport, Mullins took notice of the way Walker was able to motivate his runners, and enlisted the storied coach’s help in how to coach his athletes.


Mullins said Walker’s success spread through the ETSU campus because winners like to be with winners. He said he liked Walker’s “old school” ways, and continued to work with him as he became ETSU’s athletics director in 2003. Mullins said the news of Walker death hit him hard, but that the memories will carry on.


“It’s a sad day for those of us who knew and loved him,” Mullins said. “But his legend lives on.”


Walker, a regimented man, would get lunch three or four times a week at a local restaurant with his friends and coaches, and have former Sessions Court Judge John Kiener join him. Kiener said he received his law degree from Drake University, a track and field powerhouse, and was always impressed with Walker’s coaching resume.


Kiener and his wife would sponsor the pole vault event at the ETSU’s indoor track invitational, and Walker let them present awards to the winners, and even let Kiener’s daughters hold up the finish line for winning runners. Through his meets, coaching style, and father-like status with his runners, Kiener said Walker impacted the area.


“He’s had a great influence on the area,” Kiener said. “A big impact, and he did so without making a lot of noise in doing so.”

Earlier version of the story

The man who put Johnson City on the map as one of the best running locations in the world has died. 


Sources confirmed that former East Tennessee State University track and field and cross county coach David E. Walker has died at the age of 82. He recently retired from coaching after a career that spanned over five decades.


Walker’s accomplishments as a distance running coach were many, having coached Olympians, world record holders, NCAA champions, major marathon winners and many other high caliber athletes.


He originally came to ETSU from upstate New York as a track and field athlete, as well as a member of the football team. After ETSU, he went on to play professional football for the Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns before returning to his alma mater as a coach.


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