skip navigation

Leroy Walker - June HOF Member of the Month

By Helen Ross, 06/25/21, 9:00AM EDT

Share

He was most happy when people called him “coach.”

By HELEN ROSS

       He had a master’s degree in biomechanics from Columbia University and a doctorate from New York University. He served as chancellor of North Carolina Central University, too.

       But the salutation that Dr. LeRoy Walker liked the best was simple.

       He was most happy when people called him “coach.” And literally thousands did during a truly legendary coaching and administrative career that spanned more than four decades.

       “When you call me that, it means you’re my friend,” Walker explained to the Associated Press in a 1996 interview. “That means you’ve known me for a long time. As coaches, we’re in the community somehow.

       “So, I like the word ‘coach.’ It gives a different connotation than a Ph.D. degree.”

       Walker was a pioneer as a track and field coach, too, developing young talent at NCCU and at the Olympic level across the globe. He became the first African-American to ever coach the U.S. men at the Olympics, leading the team to six golds, as well as medals in 19 different events, in 1976 in Montreal.

       Walker also was elected as president of the United States Olympic Committee, again another first for a Black man, and served from 1992-96. He gave up a six-figure salary to take the voluntary position, too. 

       George Williams, who was the long-time track and field coach at St. Augustine’s in Raleigh, followed Walker as an Olympic coach. He later joined him in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, Walker being inducted in 1975 and Williams in 2000.

       “It was Dr. Walker who told me how to run a track program,” Williams told WRAL when Walker died in 2012 at the age of 93. “Everything that I win is Dr. Walker. 

       “I was not one of his athletes and he took me under. He believes in people. Dr. Walker is, in body, he’s gone, but in knowledge and life, he’s still alive and he will always be alive. 

       “He taught one to teach one, and that will go on forever and ever.”

       Walker was born in 1918 in Atlanta, Georgia, the grandson of slaves and the youngest of 13 children. When he was 9 years old, Walker’s father, a railroad fireman, died and he went to live with his brother Joe, 25 years his elder, in Harlem, working in the family barbecue restaurant and window cleaning business.

       “My mother and Joe told me, ‘You determine your destiny. Don’t let somebody else tell you what you are capable of doing,” Walker told Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune just prior to his election as USOC president.

       Walker graduated from Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, in three-and-a-half years, the first in his family to earn a college degree. After earning his masters’ degree, Walker did short coaching stints at Benedict, Bishop College and Prairie View University before joining NCCU as a football and basketball coach in 1945. 

       Walker started the track and field program at NCCU as an offseason training program for those football and basketball players but soon focused all his attention on it. During his time at NCCU, Walker coached 11 Olympic medalists – including two-time gold medal hurdler Lee Calhoun -- and was represented by athletes at every Olympics from 1956-1980.

       Walker also coached or consulted with national teams from Israel, Ethiopia, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Kenya.  

       The Centennial Olympic games in 1996 were particularly special for Walker. The Games were held in Walker’s hometown of Atlanta -- and during his tenure as USOC president.

       "If I had to write the scenario for a movie, some people would not believe it," Walker said in a 1992 interview. "A guy born in Atlanta, where segregation was rampant, goes through all this, then returns for the centennial celebration of the Olympics as the top person of the national Olympic committee. 

       “It sounds Hollywoodish, yet there it is."

       Walker, who became chancellor at NCCU in 1983, chaired the men’s track and field committee for the Amateur Athletic Union and served as president of the NCAA and the Athletics Congress, as well as the USOC. The author of three books on track and field, Walker also was instrumental in bringing the Olympic Festival to North Carolina in 1987.

       “He had a passion for excellence,” NCCU Chancellor Charlie Nelms told WRAL when Walker died. “Anything less was unacceptable.”

       Walker received the Olympic Order, the highest honor bestowed by the International Olympic Committee and is a member of the Olympic Hall of Fame, one of 14 such bodies to which he belongs. He was the first African American to receive the James J. Corbett Memorial Award (1993) given by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of America, as well.

       But it all came back to being ‘Coach.’

       "What happened to my athletes is what I remember,” Walker once said. “Not only the All-Americans or the national champions or the Olympic medalists, I take pride in what all my athletes are doing now.

       "When I see them as doctors and lawyers and strong citizens in their community, I think that influence is what pleases me most."