The Runnin’ Walkers – Mississippi’s First Family in Track
Oct. 2, 2012
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – You've heard of the Fightin' Sullivans?
How about the Runnin' Walkers - possibly the true first family of American collegiate track coaching?
Starting with Joe Walker Sr., a legend in Mississippi and Southern track coaching circles and still an avid follower of world track and field at the age of 87, has been involved with the sports since he was a student in high school in the 1930s. He later coached and was a school administrator for 40-plus seasons, primarily in the Utica and Jackson, Miss., areas and has served as a legendary track announcer and meet official for such prestigious events as the Mississippi State Indoor Invitational in Jackson, Southeastern Conference Cross Country Championships, SEC Indoor and Outdoor Championships, and other prestigious NCAA regional and national meets for several years.
Now the Runnin’ Walkers can add a special prize to their long list of honors – a gold medal for Ole Miss long jump protegee’ of coach Joe Walker Jr. - Brittney Reese – in the 2012 London Olympiad.
“We are just walking on air with the entire Reese family, the City of Gulfport, the whole State of Mississippi, and Ole Miss athletics,” Walker Jr. said with a large grin. “We’re so proud of Brittney for many hours of hard work and for just an amazing Olympic performance in the long jump.”
Many friends and partisans in high school and college athletics – particularly track and field – have placed Joe Walker Sr. in nomination for the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and believe he will earn the prestigious honor in the near future.
Then there’s Joe Walker Jr., a member of the Mississippi College Sports Hall of Fame and about to turn the page on a new chapter in his coaching career as an assistant track coach at Louisville, literally is a chip off the (starting) block.
Joe Jr. brings a wealth of experience to Louisville with 40-plus years of coaching experience, including 33 in the Southeastern Conference, and has spent 24 consecutive years building Ole Miss into a consistent national power.
He also observed closely as two of his Ole Miss protégées – Reese and 200 meters’ sprinter Isiah Young – competed for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in London, England. Walker Jr. actually went to London to work with Reese on technique and strategy in the days prior to her competition and stealing the show in favorite’s role in the women’s LJ with a winning jump of 23-4 ½. Reese also joined Hall of Fame member Jackie Joyner-Kersee in 1988 as just the second U.S. woman to capture the long jump.
His teams have produced 16 Division I national titles, 147 All-America distinctions and 105 individual conference titles (71 in the Southeastern Conference; 34 in the Gulf South Conference). Walker has guided his squads to eight collegiate conference crowns, and he helped lead the only high school he coached for to a state title.
Now Joe Jr. is being reunited as an assistant track and field mentor with his son and Mississippi native Joe Walker III with the University of Louisville program for 2012-13.
“I have been a head coach for 42 of my 43 years total,” said Joe Jr. “There are a lot of pluses about being an assistant, and I got excited. To get a chance to coach with (UofL head coach) Ron Mann and my son (Joe Walker III) just seemed like the perfect situation.”
Reese, a three-time world champion in the long jump, joined Young in the 200 as leading medal candodates for the U.S. squad while Walker Jr. may have another future Olympian in the Rebels’ Mike Granger, who won the 100 meters at the 2010 U.S. Junior Championships and was a member of the 4x100m relay team, which won a gold medal at the ’10 World Juniors.
Joe Jr. has guided other mainstays such as jumper Larry Myricks, a four-time Olympian; Savante’ Stringfellow (a silver medalist at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Canada), Marquita Aldridge, (former USA World Junior Team member), Denise Mitchell, gold medalist in the 4x400-meter relays at the World University Games; Tony Dees, 1992 Olympic silver medalist in the hurdles; and Antwon Hicks, fifth at Olympic Trials in 2008 and fourth in 2012 in the 110-meter hurdles. One of his other prized scholar-athletes at UM was Rhodes Scholar Calvin Thigpen.
Those are just a few of the hundreds of student-athletes Joe Sr., Jr and III have started on the roads to success, and many others have been successful coaches, business people, parents, and model citizens.
Standouts such as these helped Joe Jr. earn 2002 U.S. Olympic Committee National Track and Field Coach of the Year. He also was head coach of the 1985 USA Pan Pacific Games team, manager of the 1981 U.S. team at the World University Games and assistant coach of the 1978 Division II USA Team.
His numerous college honors have included five-time NCAA District III Coach of the Year, conference coach of the year honors eight times (SEC six times, Gulf South Conference twice). Since becoming bhead coach at Ole Miss in ’88, he took two teams to Top 10 NCAA finishes (1991, 2001) and five Top 15 finishes (1993, 2000, 2007-08, 2011). He has trained seven of his athletes to win a total of 12 NCAA individual titles.
Walker Jr. served two terms as Ole Miss’ head coach from 1979-85 before going to Florida as head coach from 1985-88 as the Gators captured five consecutive conference indoor and outdoor team. He rebuilt the Rebels’ program from ’79-’84 when UM ’s 1984 crew finished a school-best second in the 1984 SEC Outdoor Championships and perennially contended indoors and outdoors.
His 1989-2011 Rebel squads won dozens of SEC individual crowns over his combined 30 seasons at the helm along with five All-America standouts, five 1984 Olympic Trial participants, two Drake Relays individual champions, and a Penn Relays individual champion.
His first college assignment was at Mississippi College in 1970 where his teams won three Gulf South Conference titles during his last four years along with a fourth-place finish at the 1978 Division II NCAAs. He produced four Division II national champions and 34 Gulf South champions from 1970-78.
The Utica, Miss., native’s first coached at Meridian (Miss.) High in 1969-70 and helped Eddie Echols run the fastest high school mark nationally in ’70 for 220 yards at 20.9 seconds (hand). Walker actually played freshman basketball at Ole Miss and later served as a varsity manager before transferring to Mississippi College where he played cross country, track and basketball before earning his bachelor’s in ’69 and master’s degree in education at MC in 1972.
Walker Jr. and III literally were groomed to be track coaches by patriarch Joe Sr. and grew up practically living on track complexes in Utica, Oxford and Gainesville, respectively, as youngsters.
“My dad attended Ole Miss on the G.I. Bill,” noted Walker Jr., “and later growing up in Utica and around some great athletes was just a dream come true. We went to all the state high school track meets and a lot of the college meets in the area to see many of my Dad’s student-athletes perform.”
Joe Jr. also demonstrated his court skills by playing in the Mississippi High School All-Star basketball game and going to Ole Miss with one of the initial M-Club hoops’ scholarships.
“Ole Miss has been a big part of my life since I was a very young child,” Joe Jr. continued, “but this was such a great opportunity to coach with my son and see our grandchildren Kai and Maia.
Now Walker III is walking in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps with a tradition steeped in track and the Magnolia State.
Joe III came to Louisville In 2011 after spending 11 seasons at Alabama as head men's cross country coach and an assistant for the men's track and field team.
He helped the Crimson Tide roll to three Top 10 team finishes and four in the Top 11 at the NCAA Cross Country Championships with sixth place in 2007, 10th in 2008 and third in 2009 as a squad. The Tide seized the NCAA South Region title eight times from 2000-10 and won back-to-back SEC team cross country titles in 2008 and ‘09.
Prior to his coming to Alabama, Walker III was assistant track and field coach at South Alabama (1998-2000) and head cross country coach where he led the Jaguars to a berth in the NCAA Cross Country Championships. In ’99 USA took the Sun Belt Conference cross country team title and won the 2000 SBC women's indoor track and field. He also coached South Alabama’s David Kimani to the 1999 NCAA individual c-c title.
Like his Dad, Walker III spent time in Meridian at Meridian Community College from 1995-98 with a NJCAA team championship in track and field and cross country (1996-97 seasons) and three runnerup finishes. Twice, he was NJCAA National Indoor Championship Coach of the Meet. The youngest Walker also was an Academic All-SEC member of the Rebels’ world-ranked 4x1,500-meter squad in 1994 and closed his career with the third-fastest 3,000 meters’ mark in school history. Joe III’s children are looking especially forward to time with grandmother Carolyn Faye Walker.
“This is just so great to get the families back together,” Joe Jr. noted. “I love one-on-one relationships or small-group relationships and having an influence in a person’s life whether it’s our family or the student-athletes. You just have to realize the things that are okay to change and the things that can’t ever be changed. Also, I may not be young, but I dadgum sure ain’t old.”
Joe III is similarly proud of the family’s legacy on and off the tracks of the country.
“From a coaching aspect, I believe he’s one of the best,” Joe III noted. “Any influence or impact he can have to basically just help you become what you desire is what he wants to do. He taps into what that person’s hopes and dreams are and mentors the athletes on the path that they ultimately choose.”
A person close to rival Mississippi State's athletics program for several decades summed up the warm feelings for the Walker family throughout the region and nation.
"I just wish they had attended and worked at Mississippi State," said the official. "The Walkers are a class act."
From Joe Sr. to Joe III and covering some 70 years, the Walkers truly are the first family of track and field and coaching the sport in Mississippi, Kentucky and throughout the nation.