Dick Walker led Sonoma State to the NCAA tournament twice during 16 seasons as head coach of the team. (Photo by KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat, 2005)
By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Dick Walker was a player’s coach, putting Sonoma State men’s basketball back on the map over 16 years, creating a legacy of future coaches who called on him until his death at 77 from cancer Monday at his Cloverdale home.
A standout prep and college player in his native Minnesota, Walker coached at a half dozen high schools and colleges in the Northeast and California before resurrecting the Sonoma State men’s team after the program was cut. In his fifth season, Walker led Sonoma State to the NCAA tournament, one of two appearances under his leadership.
Known for getting the most out of players, Walker motivated often through positive coaching. Walker enjoyed working with players who didn’t quite fit in on other teams and those trying to stay in the game.
“He was good at putting players in positions to do their best. Through the course of his career he gave a lot of guys a second chance,” said Jim Feeney, who played on Walker’s first two teams and himself became a college head coach. “Guys were fiercely loyal to him.”
In retirement Walker found more time for golf, his other passion in sports.
Still, he stayed in touch with basketball, a game he coached more than 30 years. Walker showed he still was a smart sideline tactician who could work with players when he led the Cloverdale girls to the North Coast Section Division 5 semifinals and quarterfinals over two seasons. He was named Empire small school co-coach of the year following the 2004-2005 campaign.
That same year Walker was inducted into the Sonoma State Athletic Hall of Fame.
“He was a dear friend and competitor. I will miss him,” said Tom Wood, who as Humboldt State coach matched wits with Walker over more than a decade.
Raised in Minneapolis, Walker was an all-city guard at University High and played at Hamline University, an NCAA Division III school in St. Paul. He also served a two-year Army stint stateside during the Korean War.
Walker’s first coaching job out of college was in Chestertown, Md., where he taught physical education.
College coaching, though, was his goal. So Walker obtained his master’s degree at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, where he also was a graduate assistant for the basketball team.
The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown gave Walker his first college coaching opportunity. Like Sonoma State, the school plays NCAA Division II athletics.
“He was sort of one of those natural born teachers,” said his wife Virginia Walker. “He just cared for people. Having a positive influence on the players kept him motivated.”
Coaching at Johnstown wouldn’t be the capstone on Walker’s coaching career. On a blustery, freezing winter day, Walker turned his sights on coaching in California.
After a two-year stint at Columbia High in South Orange, N.J., he landed at Flintridge Prep in La Cañada, near Los Angeles.
Walker kept moving. Two years at Flintridge Prep was followed with another pair of seasons leading the Barstow Community College team.
“For a lot of guys, on the way up you have to be on the move,” said Feeney, who made three stops in his 22 years coaching college basketball.
The next stop would be Walker’s last.
“Sonoma State turned out to be the perfect fit for him. He relished the idea of building a program,” Virginia said.
The year was 1978. Sonoma State had cut men’s basketball four years earlier. Walker was charged with getting the school back in the NCAA tournament.
Walker was a good salesman to bring players into the fledgling program, and the talent always improved, said Feeney, a starter on Walker’s first squad and a reserve on the second.
“Dick had a big personality. He made playing here sound appealing, to resurrect the program at Sonoma State, which had a proud tradition,” Feeney said.
In addition to a conference title and two NCAA Division II tournament appearances, Walker’s legacy was as a motivator with compassion for his players.
“He believed really strongly in treating all his players with fairness and respect,” Virginia said.
The civil rights movement and ideals of social justice had a great effect on Walker. He was an early proponent of positive coaching.
“His players were always relaxed and confident. He didn’t over-coach,” Wood said.
The longtime opponents were competitive, but far from foes.
“He wanted to beat you, but he had a genuine warmth,” Wood said. “We were obviously fierce competitors, but also very good friends.”
Walker retired in 1994. Three years earlier he suffered a heart attack during a game. Walker returned to finish his coaching career — or so he thought at the time.
In retirement the Walkers moved to North Carolina, back to Santa Rosa, and then to Florida, each time to be closer to family. They returned for good in 2003, moving to Cloverdale.
That same year, Cloverdale High boosters encouraged Walker to lead the girls basketball team. Walker took over three days before the season started.
Two section playoff runs and a coach of the year honor were Walker’s send-off from coaching.
Diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, Walker was comforted by calls and visits from former players and parents, coaches and officials he came to know through basketball.
“It just meant the world to him,” Virginia said.
Surviving Walker are his wife, Virginia; and two daughters, Juli Robards, of Saxonburg, Pa., and Heidi Walker, of Johnstown, Pa.
The family plans a memorial service in the new year.
You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.