The Bethel Royals football team takes on the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Falcons on Saturday, and Robert Pannier features Head Football Coach Matt Walker in his eighth season as the head of the program. A coach who brought a clear vision for the success to the Falcons, both on and off the field.
Introducing Head Coach Matt Walker
In Wisconsin, there is a long standing tradition for excellence when it comes to football. Prior to the AFL-NFL merger, the Green Bay Packers won 11 NFL titles. Since the merger, the team has added four Super Bowl championships, most recently in 2010.
However, winning is not exclusive to the professional level. The Wisconsin Badgers have added 14 conference titles and will top the 700 victory mark as a football program this season. Even at the Division-III level, there is a huge amount of success, as the UW-Whitewater Warhawks have won six national championships, most recently in 2014. Add two national titles for UW-La Crosse (1992, 1994) and it is easy to see why success on the gridiron is so important in the Badger State.
One program is looking to add their name to the pantheon of successful Wisconsin-based football programs. A program that sits in the shadow of the two Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) teams who have won titles as they look to create their own winning tradition that will boost them into the discussion when talking about great Wisconsin programs. A team that looks like it is on the cusp of becoming a real powerhouse in the conference, thanks to the vision of their head coach, Matt Walker.
A Program with Shortcomings
Eight years ago, Matt Walker took over the University of Wisconsin-River Falls football program looking to transform a team that had become an also ran in the WIAC. The Falcons were coming off a 1-9 season, which had broken a string of six straight years where the team finished 3-7.
The program had struggled for a decade. The last season that the Falcons had a winning campaign was in 2000, when they went 6-4. Over the next 10 years, UWRF won 28 total games and won no more than two games in the conference in eight of those 10 seasons.
UW-River Falls was not a very good program, and they were looking for something to get out of mediocrity. They were looking for a head coach with vision. They were looking for Matt Walker.
Have Resume Will Travel
Matt Walker had established himself as one of the brightest young coaches in the country. Walker graduated from DePauw University in 1999, where he had starred both on the gridiron and on the baseball diamond, earning three letters in the baseball program.
After earning a degree in sports science, he continued with his education, earning a Master’s degree in physical education from Indiana State in 2001. The ending of his collegiate career meant that it was also the end of his playing career, but the Coach was not ready to step away from something that had played such a huge role in his life.
“I’ve always been involved in athletics. It was a big part of who I was growing up. I was a two sport athlete in college, played both baseball and football in college. As I became a college athlete, it just always intrigued me with the preparation that the coaches were doing. It kind of got to the point in my career academically where I really struggled seeing myself in a profession that did not involve athletics. It would’ve left such a big hole in my life that I knew it (coaching) was something that I wanted to do.”
Walker spent eight seasons playing and managing a semiprofessional baseball team, but wanted to be more involved in coaching. In 2001, he took over the job as head baseball coach at his alma mater, helping the Tigers to earn five conference championships and an NCAA regional berth in 2001. That same year he was named as the Coach of the Year in the conference.
If being the head baseball coach of the University was not a challenge enough in itself, the Coach also was on the football coaching staff at DePauw beginning in 2000. He served as the running backs and wide receivers coach, but would take over the head coaching duties in 2006. The team went 22-8, finishing in second in the conference in 2007 and 2008.
In 2010, Coach Walker was looking for a bigger challenge, and opted to become an offensive assistant coach with Butler University. He spent a season there before deciding that he wanted to return to the level that most felt like home.
“I was at a crossroads in my career. I had spent a year at Butler and was still ahead of schedule in my profession in terms of my age and I really enjoyed my time at Butler, but it cleared some things up that I really had a passion for Division III. It’s really where I had comfort. I missed being a head coach more than I thought I would. I was still dabbling in the baseball world but I kind of made a decision that I wanted to be a head football coach.”
Looking to Send the Falcons Soaring
Looking for a position that not only offered him the opportunity to become a head coach but also to have an ideal location for his family, the UW-River Falls job became available. Matt Walker jumped at the chance, knowing that this was everything that him and his family were looking for, but he came into the job with no delusion about the challenges that lay ahead.
“I was excited for a new challenge. This was a complete rebuild from scratch. I was excited about that. It was a place where it was a great community and a great place to live for my family. They were talking about building a new facility that was the worst in our league to arguably the best in the country. I also wanted to go to a place where I could eventually win a national title. I wanted to be head football coach and if I was going to do that I wanted to do it at a place where I knew that I had the opportunity to be the best in the nation. All the boxes were checked when this became available.”
The Falcons needed to rebuild their program, and it took a few years and a lot of growing pains to start to turn the corner. UWRF won a total of three games in the first three seasons with Coach Walker at the helm, but things started to turn around in 2014. The team went 3-7, including winning two games within the conference.
The last three seasons, the Falcons have gone 4-6, but that record is a bit misleading. Two years ago, UW-River Falls had UW-Whitewater on the ropes before falling late, and last year were minutes away from defeating one of the top five teams in the country, UW-Oshkosh, before a late rally helped the Titans prevail.
The program is clearly on the rise, generating a great deal of buzz around the campus. A lot of pieces have come together, however, to the Coach, there is one primary factor that has helped to make this team a real competitor in the conference.
“It’s taken a lot of commitment. It’s been a slower process than anybody envisioned. You see so many programs across the country spinning the tires trying to rebuild the program and I think it’s because during the tough times you lose key people whether it be players, staff, or support staff. I’ve just been blessed with good people around me, starting with the players to my staff to the higher ups at the University. We’ve all stayed committed and dedicated to the vision I had when I came in and we’ve stayed the course. The marching forward is probably a little bit slower than what we wanted at this point, but that comes from being a part of the hardest conference in the country.”
The Challenge of High Expectations
After two seasons at 4-6, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls was looking to take a leap forward last year, but wound up with an identical record. It was a disappointing season to Matt Walker, primarily because the team and the coaching staff believed that this was going to be the year that they moved into the upper echelon of the conference.
“Last year was probably the most frustrating year that we had because of the expectations that we had. Not that we didn’t have high expectations before, not that we didn’t think that we could win games, but you could feel something different about last year. We knew on paper that it was the best team that we had ever put together. We had two senior quarterbacks, we had some great big guys up front, weapons on the outside. We had all the stuff going for us, then to come out and have the same win loss record as we did the year before, even though we were still climbing a little bit, was super disappointing because the expectations have changed.”
A lot of coaches would’ve spent the off-season sulking about what should have been, but not Coach Walker. This was an opportunity for him to learn a lesson of his own.
“It’s easy to be a coach when things are going well. I was pretty lucky to win a bunch of games in both of my sports before I got here. That really tests you as a human and brings out what kind of character you have when things are tough. There’s a lot tougher things out there than coaching football but, in our little world, this has been as tough as it gets. The first couple years we were barely winning a game and we had to fight through every battle. All these kids fight so hard for you and to still not be able to have success in the win-loss column has been very difficult, but I think it just made me a better overall person. As a person, it tested my character, it’s become tougher, it’s made me become more appreciative of the commitment that these people around me have made. In tough times, it makes you a better person in the long run.”
He is expecting his seniors to play a more prominent role this season a well. The Falcons opened the season with a 41-0 victory over the University of Minnesota-Morris, and he is expecting this is going to be the year that those lofty expectations are achieved.
“I think that my expectations for the seniors now are high because I’m relying on them to finally meet those expectations. We are getting tired of talking about making that next step and now it’s time to start doing it, and that puts a lot of expectation on our seniors.”
It’s not just the seniors that are helping to buoy his confidence. Coach Walker made sure he hired a coaching staff that was as interested in developing young men as they are in winning football games, and that has been a key factor in why the program has arisen from the ashes.
“I learned quickly here that the most important thing in hiring a staff in that they wanted to reach the vision of what we are trying to accomplish here. The school is kind of unique. We’re the smallest school in our league, there are some challenges that come with that, some budget fights. Knowing that when we took the job we started at the bottom of this thing.
“I found a group of people who love River Falls, and love our program and love the vision and the idea that we want to do things right. That’s been more important than anything related to Xs and Os. It’s those things off the field that become much more powerful in my decision-making process. I’ve hired guys that believe in those traits and they became great football coaches.”
Building Men of Character
One of the things that a lot of coaches like about the Division-III level is that it gives them a greater opportunity to directly affect the lives of the players they coach. At the Division-I level, a coach is likely to have as many as 300 total players within the program, and that can make it difficult for him to even know his starting 22 on any kind of personal level.
This is not the case in Division-III. Here, coaches can have a dramatic impact on their players, helping to direct them in a positive way, which was one of the primary reasons why Matt Walker wanted to return to this level. He had proven his ability to coach at the highest levels of the sport, but wanted to be at a spot where he knew that he could make a real difference in the lives of each player.
Making an impact does matter to him, and he is hoping when it is all said and done that his players recognize that he has had their best interests at heart from the moment that he first talked to them about coming to UWRF.
“I would hope that my players love me because I was a good person to them and cared about them. I hope that even those kids that I was hard on and yelled at, that I wasn’t always best friends with them that, down deep, they’re mature enough to reflect back on the experience and can understand why I was the way I was.”
This is not a one-way street by any stretch of the imagination. The players are having even more of an impact on their coach, and is why he has a message for those who are concerned about the future of this country.
“The interaction with the kids is so incredible. Getting to know these guys. With the generation of kids right now, they kind of have a bad rap and a bad image in our society. To get to know them as people, they’re great kids and they got good hearts. Even our kids who are knuckleheads sometimes are great kids. I am a believer a lot in these kids. For all of these people that say that there is no hope for us, my experience with my hundred some guys is a lot different. I think there’s a lot of hope out there.”
Winning on and Off the Field
The days of being excited that the Falcons played well against the top teams in the country, even if they did lose, are over. Coach Matt Walker is understanding that moral victories are no longer a positive for his team.
“There have been a lot of moral victories over six, seven years and the moral victories are becoming so frustrating, that they become even more negative. It’s an indication that we can play with anybody, but we’re not there yet. We’re still not winning games that we probably should. It tells me that there’s work still left to be done.”
Off to a 1-0 start, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Falcons are looking to make this the most successful season the team has had in 18 years. There is a lot of work to do if that goal is to be achieved, but there is no doubt that this is a team that could easily win seven games this season, and quite possibly a national title not too far in the future. While that would be quite an achievement, there is even greater hope that the young man under the Coach’s tutelage will help to redirect a country that seems to be losing its bearings. Fortunately, Matt Walker has instilled that kind of vision in his players as well.
Featured Image Courtesy of New Richmond News
By Robert Pannier