Wade Walker, a paramount figure in OU athletics and a key contributor to the eventual dissolution of racial barriers in American sport, died Thursday in California. He was 90.
Walker was an Oklahoma football star during the early Bud Wilkinson years and OU's athletic director during a later golden age.
But Walker's most lasting impact came in 1963, when he was Mississippi State's athletic director and defied a court order seeking to keep the Bulldog basketball team from playing a racially integrated NCAA Tournament game.
Walker was a native of Mocksville, N.C., and was one of Wilkinson's '49ers, the group that arrived as World War II-veteran freshmen in 1946 and jump-started the Sooner dynasty.
“Older people with a definite cause” is how Walker described the collection of OU ballplayers in 1946. “We were not there piddling around.”
Wilkinson became head coach in 1947, and his 1949 team, with all those veteran seniors, went 11-0 and produced the meat of a 31-game winning streak.
Walker was a captain, an All-American and a four-time all-conference tackle. Then he went into coaching, at North Carolina State and Texas Tech, before joining Darrell Royal's staff at Mississippi State, 1954-55. When Royal moved to Washington, Walker became Mississippi State's head coach and athletic director.
Walker coached the Bulldogs six years, and though his record was just 22-32-2, Walker's 1957 team went 6-2-1 and he was named Southeastern Conference coach of the year.
Walker stayed on as AD at Mississippi State until 1966. In 1970, Walker replaced Gomer Jones as the Sooner AD.
Barry Switzer and Billy Tubbs were among the head coaches hired while Walker was athletic director. ADs were not one-man search committees then, as often they are now, but Walker's impact went far beyond personnel.
Under Walker, OU athletics underwent a transformation.
“We hadn't any major improvements in our athletic facilities for over 20 years,” former OU associate athletic director Leon Cross wrote a couple of years ago in a letter of support for Walker to be honored.
With Walker as athletic director, OU renovated Memorial Stadium, with the west-side upper deck, the south end zone seating and new press box, coaches offices, locker rooms, equipment rooms, meeting rooms and training center.
OU also built Lloyd Noble Center, Mitchell Park (baseball), the Viersen Gymnastics Center, the Mosier Indoor Facility and the Wilkinson House dorm. That's an amazing list of athletic infrastructure.
“Wade's many contributions to the University of Oklahoma will long be appreciated by Sooners everywhere,” said current OU athletic director Joe Castiglione. “In addition to a litany of championship teams fielded in many numerous sports, his vision for developing new facilities and improving existing OU venues is a thumbprint that still remains very visible on our campus to this day.”
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