At 80, with 50 years of service to East Tennessee State, Dave Walker figures he’s finally reached a nice, round stopping point in his coaching career.
The track and field icon said Wednesday that the outdoor season this spring will be his last bit of official business at the university. He’ll start to focus on life at a slower pace, with a golf club in his hands more often.
“I think we can say that you’ll see somebody new doing this next year,” said Walker, who was scrambling through preparations for the Niswonger Invitational meet this weekend. “We’ve got some good people doing most of the work now, and it’s time for me to go out the back door. You won’t even know I’m gone.
“I’m going to hit the pasture and see if the grass is really greener on the other side of the fence.”
Walker didn’t sound like retirement was completely his idea — “The bosses have told me it’s time,” he said — but he admits the clock in his head has been ticking for awhile.
“I’ve worked with a lot of great kids, coaches and administrative people here,” he said. “I think I counted up 16 athletic directors that I’ve worked under, and quite a few presidents. I started with Burgin Dossett Sr., which was a long time ago.
“Now we’ve got a new fella (Brian Noland), and he’s so much younger than I am … I met him the other night at the basketball game, and when I shook hands with him he said, ‘Sir, it’s certainly nice meeting you.’ I said, ‘I’m supposed to say sir to you.’ He said, ‘Coach, I’m only 44.’”
Athletic director Dave Mullins says there was no pressure for Walker to retire coming from his office. In fact, he was surprised to hear the coach had made up his mind.
“He and I have had some conversations over the last two or three years, looked at what-ifs, how to approach this whenever he was ready,” said Mullins. “I think the world of Dave and have told him he’s our coach as long as he’s healthy and enjoying it.”
Walker, who once played professional football, is about as distinctive a figure as ETSU has ever had in its athletic department. Everybody in the community knows the big man with the crewcut.
He’s coached about three dozen All-Americans and three Olympians — Ray Flynn, Neil Cusack and Eddie Leddy. His teams have won 22 conference championships in cross country and another 10 in track and field.
Cusack won the NCAA cross country championship in 1972, leading the so-called Irish Brigade to a second-place finish that year. The Bucs made 14 straight appearances at the national cross country meet from 1970-83, which was a record for a coach at the time.
Flynn became one of the top milers in the world after leaving ETSU, and is still a player in professional track and field, managing athletes around the globe. For years he was the director of the Niswonger meet — it was sponsored by Kodak in its heyday — which is preparing for its 34th run.
The Invitational has turned into more of a proving ground for college teams, rather than the high-profile showcase for Olympians it once was, and high school athletes have increasingly been added to the mix. It still draws more than 1,500 participants to the university, reportedly making it the largest track meet on the East Coast.
Walker, who used some of his own money to keep the event alive during leaner years, still sees the meet as a labor of love.
“The labor is with a capital L, and the love has a small one,” he said with a laugh. “It’s kind of like these awards I’ve been getting. They’re not necessary, but they’re nice and they make me happy. What really makes me happy is being around these kids.”
Walker was inducted into the ETSU Sports Hall of Fame in 1996, and the U.S. Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2003. On May 19, he’ll be part of the new class to be inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in Nashville.
The lasting impression of Walker to many on campus, however, may be him sitting in the white van outside the Dome, waiting for his athletes to pile in so he can take them out into the country for another training run.
“My bottom size just fits right in a van about eight or 10 hours a day,” said Walker. “I’ve gone through four of those vans. They were each very old and clunking down the road when I turned them in. I said, ‘I’ve got to get a new one, or we’re not going to make the next meet.’
“Now, of course, we travel a lot by bus. We have about 50 athletes, and you can’t pack them into a van. And I don’t have to drive.”
Walker said he learned a lot while at the wheel of those vans.
“Flynn and those guys found out that my hearing was excellent,” he said. “I could hear them plotting about what they were going to do that night. Then I’d show up and meet them wherever they were going. They couldn’t believe I knew what they were up to.
“I always act like I don’t hear a thing, just sitting up there looking out the window.”
Walker has waged a couple of bouts with cancer in recent years but says right now “my counts are all low, which means it’s at least under control.” He admits he doesn’t go up and down steps real well and has a little eye trouble.
Otherwise, he sounds like a guy who’s ready to move into the next phase of his life.
“I like to play golf and I like to travel,” he said. “I’m not sure how much traveling I’ll do, but I have a daughter in California.”
Walker’s legacy at ETSU is secure. Mullins, who has been at the university for 25 years as a coach and AD, puts it in perspective.
“Dave’s impact on cross country and track and field at ETSU is immeasurable,” he said. “He literally started the program and built it from the ground up, put it on the national map and has had incredible long-term success. He could have gone many places to coach if he had not wanted to stay at his alma mater and keep track and field at the forefront.
“The fact he has decided to step aside now and enjoy other parts of his life, and make it possible for young coaches to assume leadership roles, shows his pride in the program. He’ll always be a mentor and a tutor for those of us at the university.”
Kelly Hodge is managing sports editor of the Johnson City Press. Contact him at email@example.com.