Coach Duard walker's windowless office is as cluttered as a garden shed, with the detritus of a lifetime in sports. Dusty trophies line the top of the 76-year-old athletic director's bookcase, and shelves overflow with outdated Milligan College schedules, team yearbooks, instructional videotapes and such arcane coaching volumes as a 1949 edition of Modern Football by H.O. (Fritz) Crisler. The floor is a minefield of bursting boxes—collection points for rule books, pamphlets, posters, record books and Milligan memorabilia. Photographs of long-vanished playing fields and teams hang from the painted cinder-block walls, each a special memory to the man with the twinkling blue eyes who is seated behind his desk.
"A friend told me a retired person is someone who gets up in the morning with nothing to do and goes to bed with only half of it done," he says with a chuckle. Walker, the only athletic director Milligan has had since 1951, wouldn't know much about that. But he'll find out in May, when, after 50 years of coaching and administrating, of teaching and supervising a dormitory for this small (900 students) liberal arts college in northeastern Tennessee, he will call it a career.
To say it will end an era in this lovely portion of the Appalachian Mountains is to understate the impact Walker has had on his school. He's a local legend, and his longevity and integrity are of another time. He is one of the last of a breed of coaches whose lives were shaped while growing up in the Depression and fighting in World War II. So he knows that winning and losing on a college athletic field is only important in the context of how it prepares young men and women for life.
Walker has had a direct hand in molding the values and habits of thousands of Milligan students in a career of coaching basketball, baseball, track, cross-country and tennis. "He's one of the finest gentlemen in basketball, in the same breath as John Wooden," says Del Harris, the former Los Angeles Lakers coach who is now an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks. Harris played four years for Walker in the late 1950s. "To him, players weren't X's and O's; they were human beings," Harris says. "It's incredible that he lasted 50 years when you look at how we move around today. He represents everything a basketball coach should be."
"He made you play hard, and he got you in shape," says Sonny Smith, another one of Walker's disciples, who coached Auburn basketball from 1979 to '89. ( Charles Barkley was one of Smith's players.) "If you broke a rule, it didn't matter who you were, he sat you down. He was the same, win or lose. He wasn't happy about losing, but he didn't get in your face about it. He was an even-keeled kind of guy, and we wanted to play for him. He gave you freedom, but he had discipline."
Walker never judged himself, or his teams, by their won-lost records, and he has no idea what his lifetime winning percentage is. "If you're below the .500 mark, you don't remember those things," he says, noting that in the years he coached basketball, from 1951 to '66, Milligan, whose rivals included far larger powers such as Austin Peay and East Tennessee State, didn't give athletic scholarships. "I've worked under seven college presidents, and I've never had one of them say, 'Win or get out.' They knew what the limitations were."
Born in 1924 and raised in Piney Flats, which is 15 miles from the Milligan campus, Walker grew up on a 40-acre subsistence farm. Like most of their neighbors, the Walkers were poor but well-fed, raising cows, pigs, corn, beans and potatoes. "People of my generation lived through hard times," Walker says. "We had good discipline at school and were taught about fairness at home."
He came to Milligan as a sophomore in 1942, joined the Navy as an ensign in 1944 and served on the USS Newberry, an attack transport, seeing action in two of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater: Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Honorably discharged in 1946, Walker returned to Milligan, where he met his future bride, Carolyn Roberts, who became the homecoming queen the following year. Walker lettered in five sports—baseball, football, basketball, tennis and track (one of his track teammates was Francis Gary Powers, who was captured by the Soviet Union in 1960 in the infamous U-2 spy-plane incident during the cold war)—and in 1948 won the Virgil Elliott Trophy as the college's top scholar-athlete.
After graduating he earned his master's degree at Teachers College of Columbia University, then returned to Tennessee to coach one season at Farragut High outside Knoxville. In 1951 he was hired to coach Milligan's baseball, basketball and track teams (for financial reasons Milligan had dropped football in 1950) and serve as athletic director. He's been at it ever since. In the years that followed, Duard and Carolyn raised five children, all of whom graduated from Milligan.
It was a different world, of course, when Walker started. Different values, different expectations. Walker had no athletic budget. He rolled the track by himself and laid the foul lines with the help of his players before baseball games. In the fall he also worked as a high school football referee, which he continued to do for 36 years. Looking to expand Milligan's sports curriculum, Walker started a cross-country team in 1961 and guided it to seven straight Volunteer State Athletic Conference titles, between 1962 and '68. His secret? "We worked hard," he recalls. "I'd get them up before daylight for training runs and drive behind them in my car, showing the way with the headlights."