Dr. Leroy Walker, the first African American president of the United States Olympic Committee and first Black man to coach the Olympic track team, died Monday, April 23 in Durham, N.C. Walker, 93, was a real pioneer in track and field and attended a number of Penn Relays. He was the legendary track coach at North Carolina Central University. He was also the chancellor at NCCU.
Dave Johnson, director of the Penn Relays, remembers Walker as a person who was recognized not only as a great coach in track and field, but also in education. Walker was a special person.
“He was a real gentleman of the sport,” Johnson said. “Obviously, after being a track coach, he was so respected he became the chancellor at North Carolina Central. I don’t know many coaches who would be afforded not just that honor, but respected so much that they become a chancellor of a university. It just shows the level to which he was regarded.
“He became our college referee back in 1967. He was either college or the carnival referee from 1967 through this year. So, that’s an enormous loss. He had a position of authority at the Relays for the better part of 45 years, which is an amazing long run.”
Walker had an impressive coaching career at North Carolina Central. He started coaching at North Carolina Central College for Negroes in 1945. He sent athletes to the Olympics from 1956 to 1980. He brought the Eagles regularly to the Penn Relays. NCCU put on quite a show at Franklin Field. In 1972, he had a tremendous sprint medley team, which featured Jeff Horsley, Julius Sang, Larry Black and Robert Ouko. The Eagles also had a great 880 relay team that included Horsley, Black, Sang and Mel Bassett. Lee Calhoun was one of his best athletes. Calhoun won consecutive gold medals in the 110 hurdles in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games.
Walker had two relay teams and four athletes, Norm Tate, Edwin Roberts, Black and Calhoun who were inducted into the Penn Relays Wall of Fame. He coached eight Olympians, 30 national champions and 80 All-Americans. He provided his expertise as a coach and consultant for several foreign Olympic teams from 1960 through 1972. In 1976, his trailblazing efforts led him to become the first Black U.S. Olympic head track and field coach.
Walker held several key positions in track and field. He was the chairman of the AAU men’s track and field committee from 1973-76. He was the coordinator of coaching assignments for the AAU and TAC from 1973-80. He was named TAC president from 1984-88 and was chosen as the senior vice president for sport of the Atlanta Committee for Olympic Games. He was also the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1992-96.
Herb Douglas, 90, the oldest African American Olympic medalist, really admired Walker’s accomplishments. Douglas, who grew up in Pittsburgh, but now resides in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia, was an honorary Penn Relays official in 2007. In 1942, he ran on Xavier (La.) University’s 4x100-meter relay team, which won the Championship of America. It was the first time a Black college won a major event at the Penn Relays. Douglas finished his college career at the University of Pittsburgh. He won the bronze medal in the long jump in the 1948 London Olympics. Douglas, like Walker, is one of real groundbreakers in track and field.
“Well, needless to say I thought Dr. Walker was one of the real innovators of track and field,” Douglas said. “He coached at North Carolina Central. They were one of the best colleges to ever participate in the Penn Relays. He was the coach and later the chancellor (1983-86) of an African American school. He exhibited what an African American schools and universities could produce. He produced the best track and field guys in the country.
“There are very few coaches in Division I schools who have eight Olympians to win gold medals. I know he was one of the best and very much a leader not only on the field, but off the field as well. Academically, he was prepared. He guided his guys to be academically prepared when they left North Carolina Central.
“He was the one who helped me start the Jesse Owens Awards. He never left my side for 20 odd years. He was always there on the board and assisted me.”
In addition to being a great track coach and educator, he was a good athlete at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. Like NCCU, Benedict College is one of the oldest Black colleges in the country. Walker lettered in football, basketball and track and field as a collegiate standout.
Walker was a member of 17 Hall of Fames, including NCCU’s Alex Rivera Hall of Fame. The Leroy T. Walker Physical Education and Recreation Complex on the campus of NCCU is named in his honor.