Shortly after Wyking Jones was hired as the next head coach of Cal men’s basketball, a close friend of his, Chris Walker, came on board as one of his assistants. Walker and Jones go back to their days at LMU, when Jones was a player and Walker was a very young assistant coach. For Walker, the opportunity to reunite with Jones was something that he just couldn’t pass up.
“Met him initially, I was the coach,” Walker recalled. “I was his coach for three years at Loyola Marymount. Relationship after he graduated, obviously he went to play overseas and I continued to go through the business end and once he came back from playing and became a coach and wanted to get into coaching. We just kept in contact, kept in contact, helped him when I could, then once he worked for Nike, I was leaving to go to Villanova from New Mexico, I told Steve Alford 'this is the perfect guy to hire.'
So, we’ve been great, we’ve been confidants, bouncing things off of each other for a long time and just growing through the business. I’ve had a chance to see him grow as a man. We’re close and similar in age even though I was his coach. I was a young coach back then, so our relationship is very solid and it’s been great over the years.”
After his days at LMU, Walker made stops at Vanderbilt, Pepperdine, Villanova (where he played), UMass, New Mexico, back to Villanova, and Texas Tech, where he was promoted to interim head coach during the 2012-13 season after Billy Gillespie's resignation. After the 2012-13 season, Walker decided to go into broadcasting and worked for CBS Sports until he came on board Jones’ staff.
Walker was only interested in returning to coaching if it was the right fit at the right time. When Jones offered him a position on his staff, Walker felt that it was an opportunity that met the criteria he was looking for in a coaching job.
“I did not,” Walker said about whether or not he knew he was going to get back into coaching. “It was very specific and intentional with why I would go back. It would have to be the right person, the right place, and the right profile of the school. Obviously one day I want to be a head coach again, so it has to be somewhere where quality of life is tremendous and I’ve turned down probably 10-15 jobs in the last four years where one of those things weren’t there or the timing wasn’t right to go back and broadcasting was pretty cool!
So, with that aside, once Wyking got the job and it caught us all by surprise when it happened, I mean it was a no-brainer if he had asked me to come. I would be here in a heartbeat.”
Switching to broadcasting enabled Walker to sit back and reflect, while also waiting for the perfect opportunity. Now that he’s diving back into the profession again, he has a good perspective on what matters in coaching and what it takes to be successful.
“Well, the last time I was a coach, I was a head coach, so there’s a lot that I learned about college basketball, about myself, about being in an adverse situation, and learning how to navigate through treacherous waters,” Walker said. “When I took over the job it was like, I want to say right before practice started after they interviewed a number of people along with myself I got the job and then going through that whole year with uncertainty of whether or not you’re going to remain the coach and still trying to win, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. So you learn a whole lot about this business and you learn a lot about yourself and your ability to lead.
So, fast forwarding to now, the number one thing that is paramount to me is (A) How you treat kids, is something that I’m big on, a stickler on, is that when kids love you, they’ll do more for you, and how you treat the people around you. You need everybody that’s happy when you win and they’re hurting for you when you lose. So, the culture of the program is the one thing that I think is huge and a lot of people seem to ignore that sometimes and they think it’s all about just winning, winning, winning, winning.
But there’s a lot of that happen before you win and we gotta take these baby steps, whether it’s in recruiting, whether it’s in how we treat support staff, whether it’s in how we treat alums, a lot of those things are important and I think if you do all those things, people will rally behind you and you’ll win games, and everyone will be happy.”
Walker feels that his experience as a head coach is one of his biggest strengths as he goes about trying to help build up the Cal program, especially when coupled with a first time head coach in Jones. Being a head coach isn’t something you can really understand unless you’ve been there before and had to experience the pressure and responsibility that comes with the job.
“Being a head coach is different than being an associate head coach and I always tell young head coaches or even young coaches that being a head coach is being a professional decision maker," Walker explained. “You have to learn how to make decisions. You may not do a lot of the grunt work, but you have to learn how to say I want to do this, I don’t want to do that, and realize that when you win you get all the credit and when you lose you get all of the blame, and so there’s a heavy crown on your head when you’re the boss. Obviously we have a young head coach who’s getting his first opportunity at a high level and hopefully we can do a lot to help him. Propel him, whether it’s decision making, whether it’s coaching, whether it’s recruiting, he being the top of the food chain, we want to make sure we give him every opportunity to be successful.”
When looking at the coaching staff as a whole, the biggest strength that Walker sees is the fact that everyone played at the collegiate level. Walker feels that this enables them to relate to players at a much more personal level and make better decisions.
“I think we’re all going to do a lot of the same things,” Walker said of their roles. “We’re all going to recruit; we’re all going to coach. I’m huge into relationships. I’m a relationship guy. I love being around the players. I always share the players’ perspective, being a former player and we all played. Theo and Tim and Wy, everybody played. Which is why I think it’s great about this staff. That everyone played, so we can always have a player’s perspective.”
With a new coaching staff in place and Wyking Jones at the helm, Chris Walker is confident that Cal can consistently compete in the Pac-12 and land elite recruits year in and year out.
“It’s just that taking Cal to a level where, not necessarily heights unknown, but where it’s possible to have a Top-20, Top-10 recruiting class year after year with the perceived academic restrictions,” Walker said. “There are a lot of kids out there I believe that want to be educated and that want to play at a high level, and to be able to come to the Bay Area and what we have to offer here, I think there are kids out there that we just haven’t turned those rocks over enough and we’re just going to get out there and grind and really present a different view of recruiting of what we have to sell.
Let’s take a fresh approach to this and why can’t, not necessarily be Kentucky, but why can’t we be a team in the Pac-12 consistently year after year have a top-three recruiting class? We can do it. We have the number one academic school in the world, right? State school in the world, so now we’re in the Pac-12, so you’re telling me we can’t do that? Of course we can do that. So we have enough guys here with the background, the skill, the acumen, with the connections, to do that, and now we just have to put it in play.”
Landing the commitments of Jacobi Gordon and Matt Bradley for 2018 certainly backs up Walker’s words. With the way things are going in this recruiting cycle, there is an upward trajectory that the Bears will have to keep on to get to Walker's goal.
As far as this upcoming season is concerned, due to all of the turnover, it projects to be a tough one. Walker however remains confident that Cal will be much more competitive than people expect and certainly doesn’t mind the thought of opponents taking them too lightly.
“I mean again, it’s glass half full for me,” Walker said. “Tell’em to keep looking that way. I hope our opponents are thinking like that as well. I can’t say what this year is going to be like, but I’m certainly not going to sit here and be gloom and doom and says ‘Oh well, because this guy left or this guy decided to get out of his letter or this guy is this, that means we’re going to be gloom and doom,’ that does not mean that and I don’t think that bodes well for us to say that for our alums, for our fans and I hope our opponents think that, because maybe we can catch them slipping, but we’re going to work our tails off to put a product on the floor that our alums and everyone in Berkeley and the student body can be proud of.”
Walker has some lofty goals for the Bears going forward, and that optimism is starting to bleed into the start of recruiting success, with two Top 100 commits already on board for 2018. There's still a ways to go to complete Walker's goals, but it's been a solid start