There is nothing more Chris Walker could have done.
That is what Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt said Tuesday about the man who guided the Red Raiders as an interim coach this season, taking the job just three weeks before the start of official practices in October in the wake of a tumultuous saga that ended in the resignation of Billy Gillispie.
Walker, heading a young and inexperienced team, didn’t win a lot of games (11-20, 3-15 in Big 12 play), but support for him grew as the season progressed, both from fans and from the players on his roster.
“Chris Walker is a good young man,” Hocutt said. “There is nothing more he could have done. I think the world of Chris Walker. But the proven track record of success is something Tubby Smith brought to us that no other candidate did.
“Chris Walker will have the opportunity to be a head coach, and when that day comes, Chris Walker is going to be a very successful head coach and do a tremendous job.”
Walker wanted the permanent position. He believed he had earned it by the way he led his team through a season that could have been ripe for distractions. He saw the Red Raiders improve by season’s end, bolstering its scoring average in the second half of Big 12 play and winning a game in the conference tournament for the first time since 2010.
“My goal,” Walker said after Tech lost to Kansas in the quarterfinals March 14, “was to make sure that I made those guys the best men, the best students and the best players they could be. And I honestly believe that we achieved all three of those things.”
Walker did not return a message left by the Avalanche-Journal on Tuesday.
Tech point guard Josh Gray has been most vocal in his support of Walker, who served for 17 seasons as a college assistant at six different schools before being tabbed Tech’s interim coach last season.
Gray posted a picture of himself and Walker on his Twitter account Tuesday with the caption, “He guided me when the vision was blurry and corrected me when I was wrong (...) forever will be my (No.)1 coach.”
That ability to relate to players is what a sizable portion of the fan base behind Walker believed could make him successful in the permanent position. That along with the recruiting acumen that helped him land the likes of Gray and Aaron Ross (a former ESPN150 recruit who was sidelined by a knee injury this season), while drawing strong interest from McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier, who committed Tuesday to SMU.
But despite recently hiring Kliff Kingsbury — a 33-year-old with no head coaching experience and only three seasons as an offensive coordinator — to run the football program and a baseball coach in Tim Tadlock who had never been a Division I head coach, Tech wasn’t ready to make that same leap of faith when it came to the basketball program.
Hocutt said finding “a nationally respected leader, an individual who has experienced success at the highest levels” was one of the main criteria in Tech’s search for the next coach. The school found those qualities in Smith, the veteran with a national championship on his resume.
Smith said he’s known Walker “for some time,” and he’s had experience taking over for an interim coach. Smith at Minnesota replaced “a good friend” in Jim Molinari, who had assumed an interim position seven games into the 2006-07 season when Dan Monson resigned.
“I know how tough it is because I’ve seen people go through that,” Smith said.
So on Tuesday, Tech’s new coach professed gratitude for the man who came before him.
“I’m hearing nothing but great things about you guys and the energy and effort that you guys have been putting in,” Smith said, turning his attention to the Tech players attending his news conference. “And through the leadership you had from Chris Walker, I know we can build on that.”
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