Walker reaching for new heights with UM track

Ole Miss head track coach Joe Walker has been with the program since 1979, except for three years when he was the head coach at Florida in the mid-1980s. Actually when he first arrived in Oxford, he restarted a program at Ole Miss that had been dormant for a few years.

When he came to Ole Miss to coach, there was no track facility. Past teams had run on the old track inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, and by 1979 it was unsuitable for a major college track program.

So UMAA built one just to the south of the football stadium. It was in a remote area, hard to get to even by foot, all but impossible by car, save one entrance that people had to travel behind the east stands at Vaught-Hemingway to get to. And that route took some figuring out.

Eventually some stands were brought in from old Swayze Field for the fans. That didn't happen until 1988 when current Swayze was built, which was just after Walker returned from Florida. Getting proper facilities was always a challenge. But Walker pressed on.

In 1988, after three highly successful years with the Gators, the Mississippi native headed back to Oxford to lead the Rebels and Lady Rebs again. Simply put, Ole Miss and Oxford and the state of Mississippi were where he felt he needed to be, where he wanted his family to be, and where he felt he could have the most impact with young people.

It hasn't always been easy. At times, it's been down-right difficult.

There have been some tremendous challenges, from having arguably the worst track facilities in the Southeastern Conference through the end of the last century to a period of about three years in 2001-03 when his program had no track at all. The old track was the staging area for the south end zone expansion of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, and a new track was built just to the south of the old one while the IPF was being constructed.

Walker and his program endured a lot, but their drive and determination to see the projects through never wavered. Then in 2004 when their beautiful new facility opened, the program moved to a level it had never known. The prestigious SEC outdoor track and field championships were held there that spring, and Ole Miss track was back on the map. Walker and his staff had something to recruit to; certainly more than just a set of blueprints and plans they'd shown recruits for years.

Now some three years later, the value of that facility is beginning to show in a number of ways, but most importantly in terms of winning. While track and field is a sport that might be hard for fans to statistically follow as far as a team concept is concerned, the bottom line for them is how the team fared at the end of the day – or in this case at the end of the season.

In the school year recently completed, the Rebels had their best finish in the program's history in the outdoor season with a 12th-place national showing, while the Lady Rebels were a strong 27th.

Walker and staff are eager and ready for a new school year to begin with a host of returnees and several new faces that should help them sustain and even better their outstanding marks of last season.

Walker is actually the head coach of six sports in the eyes of the NCAA. When a list of NCAA-sanctioned sports offered at Ole Miss is made, the following are under his guidance: men's and women's indoor track and field, men's and women's outdoor track and field, and men's and women's cross country.

It's easy to see how important track is to the overall athletics picture since most D-I schools nationally offer all six of those sports.

Walker spent some time recently with the Ole Miss Spirit, and he shared many thoughts on several items of interest. We'll have those in the next couple of days as he talks about the past, present, and future of Ole Miss track and field.

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