Liberty Hill business community hears from Coach Walker

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By KEITH SPARKS

Liberty Hill business owners, in addition to a number of Panther parents, met last Thursday to hear what the Panthers’ new Head Football Coach and Athletic Director Jeff Walker had to say regarding his arrival at Liberty Hill High School.

After about half an hour of networking with members of the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce, Walker was introduced by LHISD Superintendent Rob Hart.

“When you hire a football coach, you better get it right,” Hart said, “especially when you’re replacing a legend. When you’re replacing somebody with a ‘Bear Bryant’ legacy like Coach (Jerry) Vance, you better get it right.”

After a warm reception by those in attendance, Walker began his speech by making it very clear that parents of football players and the players themselves are welcome to contact him at any time. He wrote his cell phone number on the back of his business cards to give to parents, encouraging each of them to call him with any concerns.

“I’d rather have a parent in my office every day than a parent I don’t see,” he said. “That means that you love your kid and you want the best for him. My door’s always open for anything for any of y’all.”

Walker described his coaching background in detail, which included stints as a junior high coach in San Marcos, an assistant at San Marcos High School, an Offensive Coordinator at Liberty Hill High School, a Head Coach and Athletic Director at Rogers High School, and a junior high coach once again at Liberty Hill Junior High, where he was able to coach his twin daughters.

“I was very lucky to work for Coach Vance,” Walker said. “He let me do everything. I did everything, and I’m just one of those that if you need sweeping, I’ll do it. I did summer programs, I ran seven-on-seven, I ran the offense, I did everything but the defense and hiring and firing. I wanted to be an Athletic Director. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a part of all sports. I love coaching the girls as much as I love coaching the boys.”

After dealing with some health issues, as Walker put it, he stepped down from his position at Rogers. Shortly thereafter, he accepted a position at Liberty Hill Junior High to spend more time with his daughters.

“I was afraid one day I was going to be in a casket, and they were going to say ‘Who’s that man?’” he said. “I didn’t know my own kids. We spend so much time with others, you know. If I was going to get back into it, this was probably the only place I was going to get back into it, because I know these kids. I know what they’re about. I know this community.”

Walker also explained the reasoning behind his two most recent hirings — Offensive Line Coach Brandon Terry and Defensive Line Coach Jordan Johns — both of whom played football at Liberty Hill while Walker was on staff.

“Two of my coaches next year will be young men that played for me,” he said. “We won the State Championship in ’06 and ’07 here, and both of them played in each of those State Championship games, so I’m bringing some of that back. I think it’s important that we give back to those kids that put a lot into this program.”

During his time in front of the Chamber, Walker focused heavily on the topic of turning his players into productive members of society, as opposed to simply winning football games, although he made it clear that undefeated seasons and State Championships are the goal across the board for each and every sport.

“I think the sky’s the limit here,” he said. “Our new saying in the athletic program is ‘Let’s get on the board on Highway 29.’ We want to get on the board on Highway 29. That’s a State Championship. That’s our goal. We always talk about State Championships, because that’s our goal. That’s what we want to do, but there’s a lot of other things. It’s not the end all be all. We want to teach these young men and young ladies to go out and be productive in society. Good fathers and good mothers and good husbands. I take that to heart more than I do the State Championships.”

He also explained that his biggest fear in life is “letting kids down” by not reaching their goals as a team after all of the hard work they put in on the field.

“We push and push and push, and sometimes I push too much,” he said. “I’m aware of that, but I push because my biggest fear, as I told y’all, is letting kids down. That’s where I lose my sleep at night is letting the kids down who put in all the time and energy and do everything you ask them to do, then you don’t get it done.”

Liberty Hill’s athletic program, according to Walker, has set the bar higher than most other schools. He encouraged everybody in the room to hold onto those high expectations, promising that he’d do the same.

“The bar here is a little higher, which I love,” he said. “I love a high bar. I want y’all’s expectations to be that we win State in everything and we go undefeated in every sport. That’s our expectation, and we’re not going to lower it.”

After making clear his expectations for a State Championship, Walker acknowledged that their district is a tough one, naming teams like China Spring and Waco La Vega, both of which have gotten the best of Liberty Hill more often than not in recent years.

“We’ve got a challenge ahead of us, but that’s what’s great,” he said. “We want a challenge. I always tell people we want to play the best. When I was here the first time, we beat Carthage, we beat Gilmer, we beat Celina. We beat those kinds of folks, and we can do it again.”

Walker gave credit to the players, assistant coaches, parents, and the community, putting even the student managers above himself as he mimicked his positioning on a figurative totem pole.

“I’m just a little part of it,” he said.

Walker also acknowledged that he anticipates hearing from some upset parents as he goes through the process of picking his starters and moving players from one position to another. He used the starting quarterback position as an example, explaining that there is only one spot, and more than a handful of kids and their parents who think they’re the best option.

“There are 22 spots, and I have 62 that think they can play,” he said. “It’s a great problem to have, but with that part comes the hurt feelings. You can only have one quarterback.”

Although he understands there will be some “hurt feelings,” he assured everybody that the kids will always come first.

“I’m going to take care of your kids,” he said. “We’re going to love them. They’re going to know we love them. One of the things I talk about is kids first, and that’s it. Coaches will ask me a question and I’ll say, ‘Is that what’s best for kids?’ If yes, then let’s do it. That’s what I’ve always lived by is we’re going to do what’s best for kids. If I have to work 12 hours a day to be successful, I’m going to do it.”

Walker emphasized the importance of having a plan. He confirmed that the Panthers will continue to run the Slot-T offense that they ran under Vance’s leadership, albeit with some “more exciting” tweaks. He used Liberty Hill’s two State Championships and his own 131-25 record as a head coach as evidence that the Slot-T offense is what gives the Panthers the best chance to win.

“I’m going to try to make it a little more exciting for you on Friday nights,” he said. “I’ve had a few old-timers say, ‘We always know where the ball’s going.’ See if you see a change on Fridays in the fall. We’ll run it a little faster paced, but it gives our kids a great advantage. Teams don’t see it very often, and it fits our kids well.”

Walker harped on the “little things,” as well, using their meticulously planned and executed water breaks during practice as an example.

“Everything we do, we do it with a purpose and for a reason,” he said. “We don’t just do that to make them walk in a line. I’m not a drill sergeant. We do some of those things because all those little things make a big difference when times get tough on the football field.”

Another theme that was repeated throughout Walker’s speech was “leading the state in effort,” which is something that he said he’ll preach all season long, not only because it helps win football games, but because it helps prepare his players for life after football.

“I don’t ever really worry about the scoreboard,” he said. “I worry about effort. My biggest thing is I always talk to our kids about leading the state in effort. That’s big to me. I don’t care who wins or loses, I just want them to go out there and play the game the way it’s meant to be played. Leave it on the field. I’ll carry them off one by one. I want you to learn what it’s like to use every fiber of your body and lay it out there and play and just give everything you’ve got. Then when you don’t think you’ve got anymore, you can find more. We preach that kind of stuff, because it’s life. Things are going to come hard to them, and I want them to be able to hit everything hard, because I’ve prepared them for that stuff.”

Throughout his speech, Walker made sure to address the parents in the audience, repeatedly assuring them that he would take care of their children both on and off the field. As he began to wrap up, emotions started to show while he explained that the reason he got back into coaching was his love for the players.

“I want the moms to know I’ve got their backs,” he said. “We don’t take it lightly. We’re going to hug them, and we’re not going to be ashamed to tell them we love them and all that.”

Walker concluded by emphasizing the need to have fun. In order for the players to have fun on Friday nights, he said, they have to win.

“What it really comes down to is we have to have some fun,” he said. “They work too hard not to have fun. That’s another thing, Friday nights, I want them to be fun. The only way the kids I know have fun is by winning, so I try to train them to be winners in everything they do.”

After all was said and done, one of the Panther moms in attendance stood up and said, “Dr. Hart, I just want to let you know that you got it right,” which was met with applause from everybody in attendance.

Sports@LHIndependent.com

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