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.”
But Walker's finest moment in sports came in 1963. Mississippi State was an all-white school until 1965 — its athletic teams held out until 1969 — but the racial segregation went even beyond that.
School policy prevented Mississippi State teams from even competing against black players, which is why MSU's basketball team didn't compete in the NCAA Tournament in 1959, 1961 and 1962 despite winning SEC titles.
In 1963, the civil rights movement was bubbling, coach Babe McCarthy had turned out yet another SEC champion and MSU president Dr. D.W. Colvard convinced the board of regents to allow the team to play in the NCAA Tournament against Loyola-Chicago, which had four black starters.
“We decided, hey man, it's time to try this deal,” Walker told The Oklahoman in 1996.
But a Mississippi legislator thought otherwise. The day before the team was to depart for East Lansing, Mich., an injunction was filed to keep the squad from leaving the state.
People today “can't believe the situation was that acute in 1963,” Walker said. “You have to remember, Starkville was deep, deep South.”
So the trip turned into a clandestine affair. Colvard, McCarthy and Walker met at the rural home of a friend. The injunction would be served to one or all of them, and they were determined to not be found.
Walker sent his pastor for a change of clothes, with orders not to tell Walker's wife, Jean, where he was, so she wouldn't have to lie to authorities.
The team trainer took the team's backup players to the airport the next day, and when they were not detained, an assistant coach brought the starters and all boarded the plane.
Meanwhile, Walker and McCarthy drove to Memphis, caught a flight for Nashville and met the team.
“We made what we thought was a bold stance,” Walker said. “It took a lot of courage, particularly on the president's part. But we did it, and we were proud.”
The team made it to Michigan and lost 61-51 to Loyola, which went on to win the NCAA title. They returned home heroes to a changed Mississippi.
“The general public was with us,” Walker said. “I'm proud I was part of all that stuff. People will say we've got a long way to go, and maybe we do. But what great things have happened.”