In 1975 Walker started coaching tennis, a sport he'd learned on a homemade dirt court on his family farm. He's now in his 26th year as Milligan's tennis coach. Walker tolerates no foul language or racket throwing from his players—he still remembers that his first tennis racket cost 50 cents at a time when farm labor paid a dollar a day—and any player foolish enough to violate his rules suffers the consequences. Walker once threw his top player off the team three years in a row for ungentlemanly behavior. "Country-club tantrums," Walker says, adding that the offender grew up by his senior year. "Tennis rats, I call them. I won't recruit them. I've always tried to teach my players to win with dignity and lose with grace." So they do. "We're not only tennis players," says Jeremy Epling of Lebanon, Va., a senior who plays No. 1 for Milligan. "Coach Walker wants us to grow up to be men and fine citizens as well. How you conduct yourself both on and off the court is important to him, and he lets you know that from Day One. He's a great role model. That's what I'll take away from playing for him."
At the heart of Walker's work is his bedrock belief that, as he says, "good sportsmanship is the oil of human relations." In a 1973 interview conducted by a fellow Milligan coach, Harold Stout, who was working on his doctoral dissertation in education, Walker summed up his philosophy: "In my opinion athletics is one of the few remaining bastions in our society which can help mold such badly needed personal characteristics as self-discipline, rugged determination, self-control in times of stress, unselfishness, good sportsmanship and fair play. I hasten to add that most of these qualities must be taught. It is certainly not true that all athletes have these characteristics, hence-the importance of the coach."
Twenty-seven years later, when that quote is read back to him, Walker thinks for a moment before deciding he wouldn't change a word of it. "A coach has got to be a teacher, and not all coaches are good teachers," he says. "Sportsmanship has got to be taught. It doesn't come naturally. The deterioration of sportsmanship and honesty is the biggest change I've seen over the years in sports, not just on the part of the players but the spectators too. It was a gradual change, and it started with the expectation that teams must win, win, win, no matter how."
How has always been important to Coach Walker: how a player practices, how he behaves, how he fits in with his teammates and how he develops into a man. That is how he'll be remembered, and be missed.