SOFTBALL: Walton Brings Track Record Of Success

During the past week, Tim Walton's five-year-old son Brooks has been watching the College World Series on television. His favorite team? The Florida Gators. Perhaps Brooks had a premonition of things to come because on Tuesday, his dad was named the softball coach at the University of Florida.

Walton comes to UF from Wichita State University, where he did a phenomenal job of turning the Shockers program around. In three years, Walton turned a dormant program in the Missouri Valley Conference into a power, going 123-54 including a 46-18 record this year that included the school's first trip to the NCAA Tournament, a berth in the Oklahoma Regional. Walton is a former pitcher for Oklahoma's baseball team, fondly remembered in Norman as the winner pitcher over Georgia Tech in the 1994 NCAA championship game. He played minor league baseball in the Philadelphia Phillies chain then began working as an assistant coach at OU before taking the job at Wichita State.

Walton replaces Karen Johns, who the Gators the past five years. She was not offered a new contract after the Gators went two and out on consecutive weekends at the Southeastern Conference Tournament and the NCAA Regional. Both tournaments were held in Gainesville.

Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley said the Gators had a difficult but thorough process of identifying the right candidates for the job. Linda Tealer, Florida's Assistant Athletic Director who is in charge of women's sports, had a big hand in the weeding out process. Foley said when it came time to make a choice, Walton was the right man for the job.

"When he [Walton] came on campus, it was apparent he would fit in with this campus and this community," said Foley. "There was a lot of interest but Tim is the one we identified as the one who could take us to the next level."

Walton understands the challenges that the Florida job presents. The Gators play in the rugged Southeastern Conference which sent two teams (Alabama and Tennessee) to the College World Series along with nine teams to a regional tournament.

"I got into coaching for the daily challenges of being a coach," said Walton. "The SEC is a top notch program top to bottom in every sport. That's the great opportunity of being in the SEC. There are great schools and a bunch of great programs. This is a wonderful opportunity."

In 2004 Wichita State earned an NFCA Academic Top 10 Award for having one of the top 10 cumulative GPAs in the nation. His teams also have been involved in Habitat for Humanity, Toys for Tots, the Kansas Food Bank and reading programs at elementary schools.

On the field, his teams have shown marked improvement every year. In his first year at Wichita State (2003) his team improved by 18 wins to 39, then a school record. His first team also set MVC and school records for home runs (42).

During 2005, the Shockers finished second in the regular season in the Missouri Valley Conference while hitting 52 home runs. During the season they also ranked among the top 30 in the nation in earned run average (2.13) and finished fifth in the nation in fielding percentage (.977).

He's aware of the challenges next season for the Gators, who often shot themselves in the foot with poor fielding and a lack of timely hitting. The Gators will return 17 players from the 2005 team including All-SEC outfielder Lindsay Cameron, who is on track to break the school record for home runs. Walton is already familiarizing himself with the returning players and he knows what is in store to improve the team.

"It will come down to hard work," he said. "We've got some power and we've got some speed. I'm looking forward to making us better."

Tealer has been doing double duty during the hiring process by continually staying in touch with Florida's outstanding recruiting class that includes two pitchers, Lindsay Littlejohn and Stacey Nelson, infielders Brooke Johnson and Kim Waleszonia, and utility player Alicia Spack. Foley said that Tealer's conversations with the recruits have been very reassuring and that all remain committed to the Florida program.

"Everybody's on the same page here," he said, noting that the recruits want to be at Florida where they can have the best of both worlds, academics and athletics. "Linda's had very positive conversations with those recruits. We chose Tim, those recruits chose Florida because we all want the same thing."

Foley said that Walton's quick turnaround at Wichita State figured prominently in the decision.

"I think at the end of the day that's what led us to this decision," he said. "He went into a program that hadn't had much success and in three years the job he did was phenomenal. He turned that program around in three years and that was very impressive to us. If he can come in and have that type of success here, then a lot of things are in store for the Gators."

Walton said that first and foremost, his goal is to get the Gators ready to compete for the SEC championship.

"First and foremost, my goal is going to be to achieve success at the Southeastern Conference level," he said. "From the first day of meetings we are going to be geared toward working hard to win that conference title. The SEC is one of the top three conferences in the country, so if we take care of that goal we can work on regional and national success."

Walton is married to former Oral Roberts University basketball player Samantha Rhoten. In addition to Brooks, age five, the couple has a three-year-old daughter, Camden

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