Buckeye Sports Bulletin endeavors to cover Ohio State sports as deeply as possible both in print and online, but not every story in the newspaper makes it to the website each week. With that in mind, we're posting some of our best newspaper stories from the past few weeks here on BuckeyeSports.com during OSU's open week. This story ran in the Oct. 19 issue of BSB. Buckeye Sports Bulletin print is free with a year's subscription to BuckeyeSports.com; sign up today!
It was a quiet, deserted evening at Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse when Lori Walker got the call.
She was working in her office, a converted utility closet under the bleachers of Kansas’ historic basketball arena. Then a 26-year-old North Carolina alumna, Walker was two seasons into building the Kansas women’s soccer program from the ground up. She was hired in 1995 by then-Kansas athletic director Bob Frederick as the first coach in program history and was given the task of laying the foundation for the program. Things were obviously going well as she had recently bought a home near campus.
The call on Feb. 5, 1997, changed everything.
It was the Ohio State athletics department on the line, and she had just been offered the head coaching position of the four-year-old Buckeyes program. Walker wasn’t sure what to do, but luckily for her, and for the future of Ohio State women’s soccer, Hall of Fame basketball coach Roy Williams happened to be keeping office hours that night.
For Walker, the offer from Ohio State was an enticing one but one she never expected to receive. Suddenly faced with the life-altering decision, Walker immediately emerged from her office in search of help. She needed someone to help her digest the unexpected circumstances.
“I was kind of in shock so I wandered around aimlessly looking for someone to talk to,” Walker recalled to BSB. “Literally, it was like a ghost town. There was nobody there.”
As night fell in Lawrence, Kansas, only one office remained lit, and it was that of Williams, then the head coach of Kansas’ legendary men’s basketball program.
Walker had become close with Williams, a fellow Tar Heel and former assistant coach under the legendary Dean Smith. Every day for at least 15 or 20 minutes, Walker said she would observe Williams leading Kansas’ practice. Williams took her under his wing, Walker said, and she was a welcome guest in his office that night, as she always was.
Williams’ No. 1-ranked Jayhawks had been stunned by unranked archrival Missouri, 96-94, the night before in Columbia, but he gave Walker a warm welcome anyway.
“(Williams) saw me coming and he had a big smile on his face,” Walker said. “He said, ‘Come on in. What can I do for you?’ ”
The pleasantries were short-lived. Walker burst into tears as she entered Williams’ office.
“I didn’t get two words out,” Walker said. “He was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ He gave me a box of Kleenex and said, ‘Sit down. What’s going on?’ He came around from his desk and sat next to me, and he spent an hour and a half with me. I will never forget the time that he spent with me and the things that he said.”
Walker was hesitant to part company with Frederick, with whom she had a great relationship, but as Williams explained during their talk, letting people down is part of the coaching business. After all, Williams’ situation wasn’t so different from Walker’s at that point in his career.
Williams explained to Walker that he, too, would have to make a similar decision in the near future. Frederick would want Williams to remain the coach at Kansas, but Smith was expected to call on him to take the reins at North Carolina when his illustrious career ended, or when other replacements failed to deliver.
“I’m going to have to let down the one of the two most important gentlemen in my life,” Williams said of his own decision, according to Walker.
Almost 18 years have passed since Williams helped Walker through the decision-making process. She left for Ohio State and never looked back, and her Buckeyes program has flourished since the move.
“It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” Walker said of her talk with Williams. “I don’t know how I would have made the decision without him. He gave me the courage to realize that you’re always going to disappoint people. It’s hard. It’s emotional, but as a coach you have to be looking toward building what you’re looking for in your long-term goals.”
Just as Williams foretold, he too would leave Kansas. After 15 seasons in Lawrence, Williams became North Carolina’s head coach in 2003.
Building A Program
Walker arrived at Ohio State to find the young program graduating a large group of seniors. The remaining players left her with a lean pool of talent.
“We had rough start,” Walker said with a chuckle.
She can laugh about the rough start now because it’s so far in the rearview mirror. Ohio State women’s soccer will celebrate its 20th season with festivities centered on an Oct. 20 home game against Northwestern, and there’s much to celebrate because of her.
With Walker at the helm of the program, Ohio State has advanced the team to eight NCAA tournament appearances in the last 11 seasons, and an appearance in 2013 would be the fifth consecutive for her program. The Buckeyes have hoisted the Big Ten tournament championship trophy three times (2002, 2004 and 2012) and advanced to the 2010 College Cup before losing in the NCAA semifinals.
While the decision to come to Ohio State was a hard one for Walker, few, including Williams, are surprised by the success she’s enjoyed since arriving in Columbus.
“I am so happy that Lori is still doing so well at Ohio State, but it doesn’t surprise me at all,” Williams said in an email interview with BSB. “I remember our conversation, and I truly felt she was going to be a great coach. She is extremely talented and I knew how hard she would work, and that is a great combination. She has everything it takes to be an outstanding coach, and I am really happy for her.”
Much has changed on campus since Walker arrived, including her bosses. Originally hired by former Ohio State director of athletics Andy Geiger, Walker has been overseen by Gene Smith since March 2005.
Walker might be considered something of a luxury item for Smith, who said it was great to have a head coach of her caliber entrenched in the athletics department when he arrived. And there’s been no stagnation for Walker. Smith credits her for continuing to grow the program and her own national profile as a head coach as well as for the expansion of the women’s soccer program’s staff.
“She’s become one of the premier coaches in the country,” Smith told BSB. “She’s just done an awesome job with her program. She’s a genuinely kind person. The biggest thing is making sure you have a quality staff, which she does.
“The other piece is recruiting. We’ve really upped our game in recruiting. The talent has gotten better and better every single year. So, she’s done a marvelous job.”
Success on the recruiting trail has borne fruit in the form of a successful start to the 2013 season. Ohio State sat at 7-3-3 and 1-2-2 in Big Ten play through Oct. 6.
Like Walker’s first Ohio State team, the 2013 Buckeyes are young and somewhat inexperienced, Walker said. The youth showed in a 0-0 draw with Minnesota, an Oct. 4 result that was sullied by the amount of missed opportunities in the offensive third of the field.
Also like her early Ohio State teams, Walker said her expectations remain the same.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to play best with each other,” she said. “I’m really enjoying this group. The highs and lows are kind of large when you’ve got a young squad, so you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to get every single day, but I’m much more levelheaded in coaching. We’re in a good spot.”