Darrell Walker brings NBA experience and new attitude to Clark Atlanta University
He’s recruiting top talent, focusing on defense and having fun coaching men’s basketball
There’s a wind of change coming to Clark Atlanta University, a historically black university in the heart of Atlanta — change coming by way of the school’s Division II men’s basketball program and its new head basketball coach, Darrell Walker.
“Just because you’re in Division II doesn’t mean you have to act like it,” said Walker during a recent interview. The former NBA assistant and head coach (Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, New Orleans Hornets, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks), Continental Basketball Association head coach (Rockford Lightning) and WNBA head coach (Washington Mystics) took what many might have thought was an easy opportunity for him — to coach the college game — as a direct challenge.
“I’ve been trying to get into college coaching for a while,” said Walker as he prepared for the inaugural Darrell Walker Art and Basketball Fundraiser at the Thomas W. Cole Research Center for Science and Technology on the Clark Atlanta campus on Nov. 3. “When this opportunity came open, I applied, and here I am.”
Walker was officially hired in April after having applied and failed to get a number of college jobs since leaving the NBA coaching ranks in 2014 after three years as an assistant coach with the Knicks.
“They tell you that your resume is great, but you didn’t coach in college, that you know a lot about basketball, but you don’t know anything about recruiting,” Walker said. “I am having a great time down here at Clark Atlanta. It’s been fun.” The money collected at the fundraiser will help pay for next year’s summer school fees for the men’s basketball team. “We’re raising money for my guys to go to summer school so they can keep working towards their degrees,” Walker said. “I tell them that it’s all about being a student-athlete with me, not an athlete-student.”
The winds of change are blowing hard in Georgia’s capital city, and the college basketball program at Clark Atlanta — don’t call them “Clark” — will never be the same.
The resume says it all
A former All-American at the University of Arkansas and a 10-year NBA veteran, Walker brings something most basketball programs at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) don’t have access to: a professional basketball acumen. “You can tell there’s a higher energy level on campus,” said Clark Atlanta sports information director James Vallone. “Everyone is eagerly looking forward to the basketball season. There’s an anticipation on campus you can feel.”
The Panthers lost the final two games of the 2015-16 season to Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foes Tuskegee and Claflin universities, and started the 2016-17 campaign at neighboring Morehouse College in the NCAA South Regional Tipoff Challenge on Nov. 11. They split their two games, and are now 1-1. They have three freshmen, along with a couple of junior college players, who will put Walker’s new system to work. “Our identity is going to be hard-hitting, and defensively trying to get after opponents in order to get out in transition,” Walker said.
Alfred Jordan, Walker’s sole assistant coach, played his college basketball at Clark Atlanta and has already witnessed the change within the program. “Since coach Walker has arrived to the program, he has completely changed the culture. With his strong professional background, he has quickly grasped the team’s attention and everyone is buying into the new style of basketball that we will put on display this season,” Jordan said.
Part of the change Walker brings to the Panthers is the same thing that was supposed to be his perceived weakness. The recruiting at Clark Atlanta has always been focused on the Atlanta area and surrounding counties, but Walker has brought on a number of players from outside of the Peach State.
Freshman guard Micquel Robinson comes to the program from Evanston, Illinois. Fellow newcomers Anthony Yarborough and Mark Burton Jr. are from Memphis, Tennessee, and Layton, Utah, respectively. “Coach’s down-to-earth personality has also helped him gain a great individual relationship with each of the players on the team,” Jordan said. “There’s something special about HBCU basketball, and we want to build something special here at Clark Atlanta,” Walker said. “I’ve got some New York, Memphis and Atlanta flavor on the team, and they are a good group of guys that work.”
Seniors Derek Harper (11.0 points a game last season), Lawrance Triplett (9.3 points and 5.6 rebounds a game) and Tim Sanders (14.0 points a game), the team’s leading scorer last season, are all back, and Walker believes this year’s squad will be better because of them. “The players that are still around are good kids and deserve to be around,” Walker said.
The Nov. 10 morning practice at L.S. Epps Gymnasium on Atlanta Student Movement Boulevard, where the university’s men’s and women’s basketball teams and women’s volleyball team play their home games on the city’s south side, began at 6 a.m., which was a change from what the Panthers were used to. “Guys are going hard, and we’ve come in to review all of the things we’ve been going over the past few weeks,” Walker said.
Walker has also announced NBA legend forward Alex English, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, is scheduled to be at a future practice. The culture of Clark Atlanta University men’s basketball had already changed for the better before the team took the floor for an actual game. “As far as coaching is concerned, the X’s and O’s, it’s basically the same,” Walker said. “I wanted to get into college coaching and it has been a blessing.” Jordan added. “Coach Walker definitely came ready with his sleeves rolled up, and I’m looking forward to learning from him every day.”
One in the books
Walker won his first game as a college coach on Nov. 12, as Clark Atlanta defeated Florida Institute of Technology, 87-78, during the second day of play at the NCAA South Regional Tipoff Challenge at Morehouse. The Panthers lost their season-opening game and Walker’s debut to Rollins College, 69-60, the previous night, despite holding the Tars from Winter Park, Florida, to 27 first-half points. Walker got the defensive effort he has been preaching since practice started in October, but not the offensive output. That would come in his second game as Clark Atlanta’s coach, as the team finished the win over Florida Tech with five double-digit scorers.
The new-look Panthers and their head coach are scheduled to make their home debut Wednesday against Carver College. The shift in the culture of Clark Atlanta University men’s basketball is happening now, and it starts with Walker. Where it ends will have to ultimately show up on the scoreboard.