Derek Murphy experienced the same good luck as many Irish when he crossed paths with legendary East Tennessee State track coach Dave Walker, whose recent death has inspired countless runners to dash back through time while letting grief run its course.
Walker was a mentor to many such as Murphy, who was tending bar in Ireland and nearly two years removed from being a suspect high school student when Walker made him an offer to run at East Tennessee State.
Now, Murphy’s a former Southern Conference cross country champion (1995) and – at risk of making many former teachers in Ireland die laughing or roll over in their graves, as he says – an assistant principal at Lamar School.
Walker was Murphy’ passport, his scholarship and, you might even say, his marriage certificate. Murphy said he wouldn’t have met his wife Robin if Walker hadn’t sold him on staying at ETSU for grad school instead of attending Furman.
“Looking back on it and kind of reflecting on the last 19 years of my life, I don’t know what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for Coach Walker,” Murphy said. “And I guess the reason I feel like I have a close bond with him is because, technically, he only coached me for two years and then he somewhat retired after my sophomore year. … But even though he wasn’t coaching me one on one, we still had that relationship.”
Walker, who maintained a significant role with the program through 2012, had quite a connection with Ireland. Murphy came along two decades after the “Irish Brigade” had put ETSU’s cross country and track programs on the national map.
In fact, although he knew of accomplished countrymen such as Ray Flynn and Neil Cusack, Murphy didn’t associate them with ETSU when he was a 19-year-old in Leixlip, Ireland looking for a ticket to ride.
“I didn’t know anything about Johnson City or ETSU,” Murphy said. “I wasn’t aware of the big tradition that was here. … I knew who Ray Flynn was, but because of his Olympic appearances and things like that. … Him and Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O'Sullivan and Frank O'Mara, they all still hold the four by a mile record – the world record.
“I mean, he was a celebrity back home. But I was only aware of him because of that.”
ETSU runner Cronan Gantley, an Irishman who was a senior during Murphy’s freshman season, was Walker’s link to Murphy.
“When I got the offer to come to ETSU,” Murphy said, “my coach back home, Peter McDermott, he actually accepted the offer on my behalf, because he said, ‘You’re not getting too many other offers.’ Of course, I’d already been out of high school for two years. So I didn’t really have much choice.”
Murphy gave Walker a good run for his money. Along with winning the SoCon as a freshman in Greenville, S.C., where Gantley and fellow Irishmen Declan Fahy and John Fenton helped the Bucs also win the team title, Murphy assisted ETSU in winning another league championship his sophomore season and set an ETSU indoor record in the 3,000 meters in 1999. But in between were many bumps in the road.
“I do feel like I had a lot of injuries over my time here,” Murphy said, “and if it wasn’t for Coach Walker – I mean, I don’t know how he felt about me, but I guess his affection for me kept me here. There were probably times I could’ve been sent home. I know my freshman year he could’ve sent me home because of my grades coming up to Christmas break.
“And this was after … I was I Freshman of the Year and Runner of the Year in the Southern Conference and won cross country and we won it as a team. I had a 1.2 GPA and Coach said, ‘I don’t really care what you’ve won, but if your grades aren’t good enough you can’t stay.’”
Murphy was a quicker study thanks, in part, to Walker’s matter-of-fact, low-key tutelage.
“He was a good motivator, but he wasn’t like a big speech guy,” Murphy said. “He was … kind of quieter, but what he said mattered. He didn’t use a lot of fluff, and I appreciated that because you knew where you stood with him.”
Walker always showed up when an injured Murphy rehabbed in the pool his sophomore season.
“I was injured throughout the whole cross country season my sophomore year but still ran because we didn’t have a very deep team,” Murphy said. “I didn’t really train with the team. I would go to the pool and he would meet me there every day and we would have workouts in the pool. I would have an aqua jogger on and I’d be doing intervals in the pool. …
“He could’ve sent an assistant coach to do that with me. But he sat by the pool every day and we did our workout for an hour.”
Maybe the duo was making up for lost time. Murphy had Walker, more or less, for an intro swimming course the previous year.
“My first semester … he was our beginning swimming teacher,” Murphy said. “And I get in the van one day and he said, ‘Hey Murph, how’s that swimming class going?’ I said, ‘I don’t know Coach. You tell me.’ And he just kind of chuckled and said, ‘Well you know, I used to tell the guys before you, ‘If you show up the first time you’ve got to show up for the semester. So you just keep doing what you’re doing.’
“He said, ‘Can you swim?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said ‘Okay.’ So I ended up getting my A not going to class. And it was a beginning swimming class. … He wasn’t cheating me of an education.”
Walker provided an education on how to treat people.
“He took me for acupuncture on my heel,” Murphy said, “and I’m pretty sure he was paying for that out of his own pocket. … He did everything he could for everybody. He wasn’t looking for praise or recognition.”
Walker’s teams won championships in the Ohio Valley Conference, Southern Conference and Atlantic Sun Conference, and his runners dashed to many of them on shoestring budgets. Murphy said a SoCon title might produce a steak dinner, but little else yielded anything more than standard fare.
“Usually, you know, we’d go into a restaurant,” Murphy said, “and he’d look at the menu and we’d all be kind of looking over and he’d hold whatever number of fingers in the air – that was the dollar amount you could spend.”
You can’t price the memories Murphy has of running with the likes of Gantley, Fahy and Fenton, as well as Canadian Zach Whitmarsh and Fred Reinhardt (Greenville, S.C.). Even Texan Brent Nicolay has remained close friends, Murphy says, despite staying at ETSU only one year. The camaraderie that’s stood the test of time was a byproduct of Walker.
“We got a lot of feedback from coach about it’s a team sport,” Murphy said. “A lot of people look at running as an individual sport, but he really looked at the group effort.”
Walker cared more about ETSU than himself, many say, and his teams were a reflection of such a philosophy. He steeped an individual sport in selflessness, which Murphy learned after winning the SoCon individual title in ’95 as a freshman. Walker had been out on the course encouraging runners, and was initially unaware of the winner when he arrived at the finish line.
“When he found out I had won he just said, ‘Good job,’” Murphy said. “He put his – just put the big paw on your shoulder. You could tell he was proud of you, but he didn’t jump up and down for individual achievements. It was about the team.”
Walker used the extended ETSU running family to motivate too, and the proverbial older brothers set daunting marks.
“We were always held to that same standard as guys like Ray Flynn and Mark Finucane and even later – guys like Mike Mansy and Ray Jones,” Murphy said. “We always used to gripe to each other, like, ‘We can’t run like the Ray Flynns and Rick Pattersons and all these guys. We just don’t have that skill set.’
“But the more I’ve thought about it … he didn’t expect us to perform like them, but he certainly expected us to work like them. He would pull out times from Ray Flynn back in the ‘70s from 400s or something like that, and I guess we always were focused on what time they ran. … He didn’t expect us to be Ray Flynn, but he expected us to work like Ray Flynn.”
Walker was an assistant football coach/former linemen with no running experience – well, perhaps he’d occasionally been a pulling guard in his playing days at Wofford and ETSU – when the Buccaneers track job landed on him like a shot put in a jumping pit.
“I guess he was an assistant (football) coach at ETSU,” Murphy said, “and the head coach at the time said, ‘What do you know about track and field?’ And he said, ‘Well, I threw the shot put one time in high school.’ They said, ‘All right, you’re the new track and field coach.’
“So I guess he was a self-made man when it came to coaching. And I guess he leaned a lot (on runners) early on – when he brought Michael Heery over, being the first foreign athlete. And I think he learned a lot from the kids he recruited back then and their coaches. And he kind of just put it all together, and I guess over time he found out what was successful and what worked.”
Walker tempered passion with compassion, and he was a good listener, which helped the novice become an icon.
“He was a very smart man,” Murphy said. “When we had math problems we would go to him and he’d help us with our math homework and things like that. He was very good at figuring out by talking to people what made them successful. … I think he learned a lot from his athletes and other coaches back in the ‘60s when he took over. He must’ve had a natural ability … to get the most of people and read personalities … and knew when to push them and when to back off. He was a natural coach.”
Walker’s athletes seemed to leave more tread on Washington County pavement than automobiles. And then there were the adventures on golf courses and mountains.
“It was like we ran from Jonesborough to Johnson City every day,” Murphy said. “He knew exactly where to split times and he’d be there sitting with his watch.”
Walker stood the test of time. His flat-top haircut remained the same for decades. So did his rapport with runners. His Bucs won an A-Sun cross country title in 2008.
“You think about it, he was in his mid-70s and still getting a bunch of 20-year-olds to perform for him,” Murphy said. “It just shows his relationship. There’s a 50-year gap between him and the kids he’s coaching, but he was still able to relate to them and still able to motivate them. To me, that says a lot about him. I guess he just transcends time.”
Murphy dropped by to speak with Walker from time to time through the years. He told Walker he was going to be a grandfather when Robin was pregnant with Murphy’s first son, and Walker got a kick out of that.
Murphy visited with Walker once shortly before his death. He prefers remembering their chat at Walker’s retirement celebration in 2012.
“I thanked him for everything he’d done and told him that if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here,” Murphy said. “Of course, his response was, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here either.’ Again, that just shows his humility. He wasn’t a bragging kind of guy, but he knew that the more successful his kids were, the more successful he was gonna be.
“But he didn’t do it to leave a legacy. His goal was, day to day, to get his kids to perform. And we all looked at him like we were his kids.”
Murphy remembers his first extended conversation with Walker clearly: “He said, ‘Now Murphy, glad to have you. You’ll work hard and there’ll be a lot of days you want to go home.’ And he said, ‘But I’m not gonna be your friend. You don’t want me to be your friend. Because if you’re my friend, I’m gonna expect more from you and push you harder than anybody else.’ And I said, ‘I’m okay with being your athlete and you can be my coach.’
“I guess he thought that was funny that I didn’t want to be his friend. I don’t feel like I probably told him enough how grateful I was, but I think he knew.”
Indeed, Walker was overrun with friends at the finish line.