(Ed. note: This is the final installment of a six-part series of columns on the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016, which will be inducted Saturday night at the Jackson Convention Complex.
What you first need to know about Joe Walker, Jr., besides the fact he’s the most successful track and field coach in Mississippi history is this: The guy has no ego. None.
This would make most other people egotistical: In 49 years of coaching, Walker has coached two Olympic gold medalists, four Olympic medalists. He has coached several world champions, a whopping 160 All Americans, more than 200 collegiate conference champions.
Says Walker, “It was never about the championships or the trophies. It was always about the people, the athletes. My trophies are the people.”
His “people” love him, as we shall see. Many will attend his induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Saturday night at the Jackson Convention Complex. Walker will be the first-ever MSHOF inductee to go in strictly as a track and field coach.
That’s as it should be. Walker should be the first.
His daddy, the late Joe Walker, Sr., who coached high school track and field, would be proud. His son, Joe Walker III, who coaches track and field at the University of Louisville, is proud. Joe Walker Jr. ran track for his dad. He has coached his son and, for the past six years, has coached with him.
“All I ever wanted to do was coach,” Joe Walker, Jr., says. “I’ve been able to live that life for 49 years. I’m not sure it gets any better than that.”
His first job out of Mississippi College – where he ran track, cross country and played basketball – was as an assistant coach at Meridian High where he was a paid assistant coach in football and basketball and volunteered to coach track. That Meridian track team won the state track championship.
The next year, he was back at Mississippi College as the head track and field coach at age 23.
“I looked like I was 12,” Walker says, chuckling.
He won big at MC and recruited a young long jumper/sprinter out of Forest Hill named Larry Myricks, who became an All American, a four-time Olympian, a world champion and a Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer. Myricks was the first of many Walker products who would become world famous.
Brittney Reese, a long jumper recruited out of Gulfport to Ole Miss, is another. In 2012, with Walker at her side in London, Reese won Olympic gold. She called Walker “a father figure who has played an important role in my life. He’s the main reason I’m accomplishing what I am accomplishing right now.”
Still active, Reese has accomplished plenty more, including seven world championships.
When a reporter mentions Reese refers to him as a “father figure,” Walker remarks, “She’s been like a daughter to me. Love her. I’m so proud of her because I know how much she’s put into it.”
Jackson native Savante Stringfellow went to Ole Miss out of Provine High, despite several other opportunities “because after meeting Joe Walker I thought he was the most genuine, authentic person I had ever met. I still do.”
After a disappointing freshman season, Stringfellow told Walker he was quitting Ole Miss, transferring to Jackson State. “This isn’t working for me,” Stringfellow says he told Walker.
Walker told him that was Stringfellow’s decision to make. Walker said he was fine with it, as long as Stringfellow thought he had given it everything he had, done everything possible to succeed during his freshman season. Walker told him he thought Stringfellow had the ability to become a champion.
Stringfellow thought it over, decided to give Ole Miss and Walker his best shot for one more year. He won the SEC in the broad jump as a sophomore, finished third in the nationals. Eventually, he won a silver medal in the world championships at Edmonton and a gold medal in the outdoor championships at Budapest. In 2002 he was the top-ranked long jumper in the world.
“I owe so much to Coach Walker,” says Stringfellow. “I will use lessons I learned from him for the rest of my life.”
About that non-existent Walker ego, you should know that after building an SEC runner-up program at Ole Miss, he left in 1985 to go to Florida for more money and a better chance to win championships. He did win five SEC championships at Florida but says, “It just wasn’t the right fit for me and my family.”
He returned home to Ole Miss and remained until 2012. That’s when he made a truly ego-less career move, leaving to go to Louisville as an assistant coach. That’s right, he left an SEC head coaching job to go be an assistant at Louisville.
“My son was coaching at Louisville,” Walker explains. “He was going through a divorce and had two really young children. They had a coaching opening and he called me to ask about possible coaches to hire.”
Walker thought about it. He called his son back. “What about me?” he said.
“Titles don’t mean anything to me, never did,” he says. “I saw a chance to coach with my son and knew my wife and I could help him out raising two young children. I had my Mississippi retirement in so money wasn’t a factor.”
And that’s what he has done for the past six years at Louisville: coach the jumpers. He has coached 12 All Americans and 13 Atlantic Coast Conference champions.
More importantly, where Walker is concerned, “I’ve watched my son’s two munchkins grow into young adults.”
And now, at 71, he has called it quits. He announced his retirement on May 31.
“I’ve still got my health,” Walker says. “I could coach four or five more years, but it’s time to spend more time with Faye (his wife) and do some things we haven’t had a chance to do.”
Yes, he says, he will still keep up with all his athletes: “Like I said, they are my trophies. They make me proud.”