Dan Walker is a Wildcat through and through. —WSU director of athletics Jerry Bovee
OGDEN — Trying to replace a legend has gotta be a mighty difficult challenge.
Gary Crowton certainly found that out when he took over BYU's football reins from the Cougars' beloved, longtime head coach, LaVell Edwards.
And, in a much lower-profile sport, Dan Walker had to try and do the same thing when he replaced a popular Weber State icon, Chick Hislop, as the Wildcats' head track coach 10 years ago.
"Impossible," Walker said of that challenge he took on in 2007 after serving for 23 years as an assistant coach for the WSU program. "And I knew it was going to be impossible.
"But I knew somebody was going to have to do it, and I was in line to do it. I was ready to make decisions instead of suggestions, so I was ready to go but I also knew I wasn't Chick and I would never be him. I just tried to do the best I could and see what happened. I didn't try to live up to him; I wasn't him, I just tried to do the best that I could."
It was also impossible to find someone else as loyal to WSU, and someone who'd work just as hard as Walker did over all those years.
Well, after nearly four decades in all at the school where he competed as a distance runner in track and cross-country in the early 1970s, the 65-year-old Walker has decided it's time to say goodbye to the Wildcats' program that has been such a huge part of his life.
"It's been such an honor for me to coach at Weber State for more than half of my life," Walker said in a press release. "When I started here, I wanted an opportunity to help our student-athletes become better people as well as better athletes, and I think I've accomplished that.
"I've absolutely loved the opportunity to coach here and the many, many people I've associated with. I hope I've had a positive impact on their lives; they certainly have on mine. I feel like the timing is right for me to retire, but I will always cherish the relationships I've been able to make during my time here."
Walker's positive impact on the program has been immeasurable. In all, he had a hand in 41 Big Sky Conference championships in track and cross-country.
And while Hislop and longtime women's track/field and cross-country coach Jim Blaisdell piled up a career filled with impressive performances, and are both members of the school's athletic hall of fame, Walker was that quiet guy behind the scenes who was busy coaching the track teams' field event performers.
It was odd in a way, because Walker was a standout distance runner himself who still holds the school record for the mile run at Ben Lomond High, yet didn't coach the runners at Weber State.
Instead, when he came on board as an assistant 33 years ago, Hislop gave him a stack of videos and books and told him to get busy learning how to coach the Wildcats' athletes in the field events.
"I never coached a runner — ever," he said of working with Hislop and Blaisdell. "They didn't need that. I thought I was gonna help them with the distance runners, but Chick said, 'We don't need any help with that; we've got that covered. You need to learn to do the field events.'
"I said 'I didn't know anything about the field events,' so they gave me a stack of videos and books and said, 'See you in September.' So I spent all summer watching videos and reading books about how to coach the field events. And then forever since then, I've gone to seminars and picked other people's brains.
"Chick said, 'You're a scientist, so you can figure it out," said Walker, who graduated from Weber State in 1975 with a bachelor's degree in medical technology and a minor in chemistry and microbiology. He worked for 10 years in the lab at St. Benedict's (now Ogden Regional) Hospital before the lure of coaching young athletes steered him back to Weber State.
And figure it out he did.
Under Walker's guidance, Weber State athletes won three NCAA championships in the high jump, earned All-American honors in the high jump eight times and in the javelin five times, as well as similar honors in the men's heptathlon and triple jump.
His 2010 men's track team won the Big Sky outdoor championship, and he was named Big Sky Coach of the Year. He guided his men's and women's programs to a total of 11 top-three finishes in the Big Sky Conference, and Weber State athletes have won at least one conference championship in every field event under his tutelage.
But even more important to him than all the victories and successes are the tremendous relationships he's built with so many people over the years, and the opportunity he's had to help hundreds of young adults work hard, learn the value of discipline and dedication, and grow into responsible citizens who were taught so many valuable life lessons while running track for the Wildcats.
"When I was recruiting, I always told kids, 'If you come to Weber, I will help you forever — not for just five years — forever. And I always want you to remember that," Walker said, and it's a promise he has always kept.
"Not all kids who come through the program need help. But the ones that needed help, I was there to help them."
After all, getting a chance to work with the kids, he said, was always the best part about coaching.
"It's never been about me," he said. "By and large, we don't get into coaching for our own glory — especially track. You just do your deal because you love it, not because you're gonna be in the newspaper."
And his goal for his own children — Rick, Mindy and Brett — as well as his WSU athletes was always the same: for them to do the things in their lives to make him proud.
"When my kids went out on their own, I told them, 'Your purpose in life is to make me look good,'" Walker said with a smile. "And that means you treat people respectfully, you treat them like you would like to be treated, you use good language, you get home on time, all of those things. And when you're out there and you do those things, it'll solve every problem that'll come up."
Soon he started telling his teams that same phrase every year: "Go to class, be on time, be where you're supposed to be, treat people respectfully, work hard, all those things," he said, "and you'll make me look good.
"I told them, 'I don't care so much about winning as I do that you learn to work hard, do your best and be proud of what you do and, above everything, come out of the program as an assertive leader. Ask for what you want, get what you want and deserve what you want.
"I have tried to help them improve their vision of themselves," Walker said. "And when that happens, that just feeds your soul. And anytime you can feed your soul, how can you do better than that?"
Walker is a very bright, witty, yet humble and spiritual man who has seen the Lord's hand many times in bringing good fortune to his life.
"I believe very much that God takes care of us," he said.
And he's very grateful to so many people — Elaine, his wife of 43 years, as well as all the athletes, athletic directors, fellow track coaches, support staff and coaches and athletes from other sports, too, like former Weber State basketball star Damian Lillard — and he's pleased to see how much Weber State's athletic facilities have been improved over the years.
Walker has a lot of favorite sayings he likes to use, things like "you never know when maturity is going to strike" and "be where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be there," and "80 percent of success is showing up" — which, he said, pertains particularly to students' need to go to class — or "if at first you don't succeed, try trying," and "champions adjust."
Corbin Talley, another former Weber State distance runner who's been a highly successful head track and cross-country coach at Davis High School for several years, will take over as the new men's track and cross-country coach at Weber State.
But Walker's contributions won't soon be forgotten, because he's had such a positive impact on many, many people for such a long time, and he'll definitely be missed.
"Dan Walker is a Wildcat through and through," said WSU director of athletics Jerry Bovee in a prepared statement. "Starting with his days as a student-athlete and then 33 years as a coach, he has been a great friend and mentor and has impacted the lives of thousands of Wildcat student-athletes. We thank him for his many years of service to the university and wish him nothing but the best in his retirement. He will always be a Wildcat."
And one who did a terrific job of replacing a legend.