Sam Walker is an icon on and off the court to students, athletes, coaches and fans from all over this region. Coach Sam Walker reached a milestone in his career on January 9, 2013 as he became the all-time winningest coach in A&M-Commerce history against Midwestern State, 74-66, taking him to 202 wins. Jim Gudger previously held that title as the head coach for men’s basketball from 1969-1983. But this record alone is not what makes Coach Walker a role model in Lion Athletics. He is known by many as an intense, focused, and determined head basketball coach who has a tendency to pace back and forth from one end of the bench to the other, but not as many know him personally—as a jokester, mentor, loving father and loyal Lion. The story of Sam Walker and his 202nd win lies within his journey to, then, East Texas State University 21 years ago, the mentors who have paved the way to his success, and ultimately to become an example to the future of college basketball.
Old School Recruiting Never Grows Old
Walker began his coaching career as a student basketball assistant for Navarro Junior College in 1987 before transferring to Sam Houston State in 1989. After graduating from Sam Houston in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and health, Walker started his tenure at East Texas State University to serve as Paul Peak’s assistant coach. A 2012 Hall of Fame Inductee, Peak moved to Texas from California in 1991 to continue his career at ET where he spent nine seasons as the head coach for men’s basketball. Peak welcomed Walker beside him on the bench, as well as in his home. “I lived in the locker room for about eight months. I bought a mattress in a garage sale, put it in the closet and brought it out at night. I thought I had it made and said, ‘This couldn’t be any better.’ I’ve got all this space and got many compliments about being the first one there and the last one to leave since my car never left the Field House. Later, Coach Peak welcomed me into his home, and I shared the couch with the family dog, Sasha. I would always start off on the couch, and end up on the floor since Sasha would take it over,” recalled Coach Walker about his first places of residence in Commerce. Coach Peak believed that every athlete he coached had the potential to succeed on and off the court. Peak held Walker to that standard.
“It was funny watching him divide his time between basketball, where his passion was, and school, which he had to get done as a student. To say he was a shining example of what a student should be was a bit of a stretch, because his interest was in basketball, and he knew that was what he was going to do for the rest of his life. But, he did get it done, and I was proud of him for that because we had him on the road most
of the time.”
But what Coach Peak realized is while it seemed like hard work for Sam to earn his master’s degree, recruiting came naturally to him. He quickly established himself as one of the top recruiters in Texas and in the southwest region—a reputation that continues to this day.
“Sam knows everybody in Texas in basketball. He knew so many people, and just like crashing on my couch, he would turn in his expense reports and there would never be a night of lodging, because he would crash on everyone’s couch every night while he was scouting and recruiting,” Peak said.
Coach Peak officially passed the ball to Walker as Head Coach for Lions basketball in May 2000 while Peak handled the Athletic Director position. “He was a great find for me as an Assistant Coach. He really made my last couple of years coaching nice, and he was just taking over. When I became Athletic Director, I was ready to hand it over.”
Coach Walker began making
strides in his career immediately.
• Earned a 17-10 record in his first season, 2000-2001
• Ended 2002-2003 with a 16-12 record and a third place finish in the South Division
• Unforgettable 2004-2005 with a 28-5 record and 10-2 overall in the South Division.
This paved the way for the 17th Lone Star Conference championship defeating West Texas in the title game, 77-62, and then qualified them for their first NCAA Division II tournament since 1988.
Continuing The Legacy
Similar to how Coach Peak dedicated his time to share and educate Sam Walker about basketball and life’s lessons, Coach Walker, too, instills the same foundation in his future legacies.
“Len Bishop and Ross Hodge were two people who were just loyal student-athletes. If being a student-athlete here was all they did, then we got more money out of them than we put in. Both those guys stuck around and were Assistant Coaches and gave back to other teams. And the relationship I’ve had with both those guys, different as a player, and different as a coach to work with, I have a strong connection,” Walker expressed.
“He taught me the importance of relationships with players. The biggest thing he taught me is keeping things in perspective and having a balance between coaching and your family,” Hodge said. Ross transitioned from player to assistant coach for Coach Walker from 2004-2005, where he helped the Lions to the 2004-05 Lone Star Conference Championship, and a spot in the NCAA Division II Sweet Sixteen. Coach Walker’s teachings have had a lasting effect on Hodge as he entered this basketball season as Assistant Coach for Colorado State University where they made it all the way to the 3rd round of the NCAA Tournament in Lexington, KY. Another one of Coach Walker’s legacies is currently Assistant Basketball Coach at Texas State University-San Marcos, Jason Burton. The Plano, Texas native played collegiate ball at Austin College, where he was a three-year letter winner. After earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration and sports psychology, he spent the 2005-2006 season as the top assistant for Austin College’s Chris Oestreich. Jason started his MBA at Texas A&M University-Commerce in 2007 and joined Walker on the basketball court for four years; three years as Assistant Coach before being promoted to Associate Head Coach in fall 2010.
“He was just different from the coaches I played for, and from the coaches I worked for. I’ve heard some stories about how intense he is, but people will run through a wall for him. He cares about making sure his guys graduate and grow as young men, and he gets the most out of them on the court,” Burton said.
But like Peak and Coach Walker, Burton also experienced humble beginnings with his coach. This included Coach Walker opening up his home to Jason when he first moved to Commerce, and offering his couch for as long as he needed. This East Texas hospitality would become a constant in Walker’s legacy, and serve as a metaphor for humble beginnings and dynamic teamwork. To this day, Jason Burton, Ross Hodge and Coach Walker talk constantly about the game, the wins, the losses, and on personal matters. Also, just like clockwork, Coach Peak, enjoys the phone conversations from Coach Walker about the very same things, reminiscing about the great times, and always leaving off on a good note.
“I’m sure proud of the success he’s had. I’m proud of him; what a great coach, father, and husband he is. I tell him to keep doing what he’s doing, making people around him better people. Keep it going, Sam,” Peak expressed.
Coach Sam Walker’s legacy is full and continues to grow as he instills the lessons from his mentors and shares his own passion for basketball and his love for his athletes and coaches.
Coach Sam Walker shared, “Anytime you have a job where you have a score board in your office, you’re going to be rated on wins and losses. I hope what my tenure here has [proved] is that our successes are not solely looked at by how many games we won. When I represent our university recruiting or on the floor coaching, it’s more than just trying to win that basketball game. It’s about giving back to the people who made sure I had my life in order to be able to do the things [I’ve been able to do] and be successful…”