Second-year Athletic Director Billy Walker works to promote athletics for AU ‘wonks’
AU ranks No. 71 in the nation for its academic programs, and its wonkish reputation outmatches the school’s standing as an athletic powerhouse. Promoting sports at a school that lacks a strong athletic image is a challenge that faces Athletic Director Dr. Billy Walker every day.
“It’s a difficult thing,” he said. “We don’t have a culture of that here.”
Walker, who recently began his second year at AU, said he hopes to increase student support for the 16 varsity sports at AU and provide the athletes with the resources that they need to be successful.
“We are well-funded,” he said, “but there is always more that you want to do. Facilities, travel… there are always things that we could do to try to give our student-athletes that extra margin of excellence.”
Two of Walker’s primary goals include expanding facilities and adding scholarships for student-athletes, but budget concerns and limited resources prevent him from making immediate progress towards those objectives.
New construction projects, including the development of East Campus in the current Nebraska Avenue parking lot, consumed $72,300 of the budget in 2014, according to University President Neil Kerwin’s annual budget report, and these additional costs prevented AU from shifting money to the athletic department. Every two years, AU approves a new budget plan, and Walker said that he continues to advocate for more funds towards athletics. The University has no current plans to add additional varsity sports, Walker said, until all of the current teams are fully funded with scholarships.
AU junior Michael Kell, a captain for the varsity swim team, said he praises Walker’s work so far. He trusts that Walker can continue to provide for AU athletics in a way that is beneficial to swimming, all student-athletes, and the school as a whole.
“With good facilities and an excellent coaching staff, the only factor that AU’s swim team needs in order to be competitive is scholarship funding,” he said. “It is a large step to take, but scholarships make recruiting faster swimmers substantially easier.”
Swimming and diving remains the one of the only varsity sports without scholarships at AU, and Kell said that the lack of athletic award money prevents AU from being as competitive as possible within the Patriot League. Despite the current absence of funding, Kell remains positive about the potential future of swimming and diving scholarships.
Walker has supported the team through attendance at meets and interactions with the coaching staff, and Kell said he would not be surprised if Walker managed to allocated funds towards swimming in the next five years.
Finances remain a top concern for Walker, but he said he also understands the importance of interacting with coaches, students and athletes at the University.
“I always think that you want to be efficient with resources but effective with people,” he said.
Walker keeps up-to-date with each of the athletic teams at AU through periodic visits to coaches’ offices, visits to practice and attendance at games. He said he likes to “keep his finger on the pulse of what’s going on,” and the Athletic Department has taken notice of his dedication to the University.
“Dr. Walker's biggest strengths are his passion for our institution and his genuine care for people--both within the administration and, in particular, the student athletes,” head field hockey coach Steve Jennings said. “He is generous with his time and spirit and has an infectious optimism.”
In Walker’s first season with AU, he played a large role in hiring the head men’s and women’s basketball coaches, Mike Brennan and Megan Gebbia, and the Eagles experienced success athletically as well under his leadership, capturing three Patriot League Championships. AU also earned NCAA bids in field hockey, volleyball and men’s basketball.
“I love to see the Blue Crew stands when they are packed." -Billy Walker, athletic director
Gebbia, who came to the University after seven years as the associate head coach at Marist University, led the women's basketball team to a 22-10 season in 2014, and she helped the Eagles secure a first-round game in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT). She also earned national votes for the Spalding Maggie Dixion Division I Rookie Coach of the Year, an award honoring the top rookie coach in the NCAA.
Gebbia said that support from Walker has been crucial to her team’s success, and he does everything he can to provide for the team throughout the season.
“He’s awesome,” she said. “He’s shown me that he’s a huge supporter of our team. He’s here to help. He rarely says ‘no’ to any of our requests.”
Strong athletic performances have led to an increase in enthusiasm for sports at AU, and students even traveled to away games to support the Eagles. Last year, a bus full of students endured a 13-hour bus trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to cheer on AU in the first round of the Men’s NCAA Basketball tournament.
March Madness helped build interest for sports at AU, and Walker hopes that the support for athletics will continue through the 2014-2015 athletic season.
“I love to see the Blue Crew stands when they are packed,” he said, referring to the AU Athletics student section. “I just want fans.”
Building a bigger sports culture at an academically-focused school and providing for over 250 student-athletes amid budget concerns present daily challenges for Walker, but he remains committed to his goals and holds great pride in AU.
“I know who we are, and I know what we’ve got,” he said. “[It’s] my job to try…to make things better. We always have to keep moving forward.”
Shannon Scovel is a member of the AU Swim team.