New Interim Athletic Director Dr. Stephan Walk calls Princeton, Illinois, a rural town with a population of 7,300, his hometown. He brings to Cal State Fullerton the mentality of coming from a small place and still trying to accomplish big things.
Walk said that he first gained an interest in kinesiology when he identified strongly with his high school basketball coach. He was a good, but not a great player and his coach would hold meetings at the end of each competitive season and ask what could be improved on or done better, he said.
“I went in to him with two-pages of notes and presented a bunch of things to him. At the end of that conversation he said ‘Steve, have you ever thought about being a coach?’,” Walk said.
He went on to Illinois State University as a first generation college student. Interested in youth sports, he received undergraduate degrees in physical education and recreation and parks administration.
From there he went on to Michigan State University to study at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and was there seven years to complete both his master’s and Ph.D. programs. As he was finishing up his master’s degree he realized that he was interested in the social aspects of sports, he said.
“I think everyone’s education is a combination of them trying to figure out their own biographies and develop interest that they have. Some of my own experiences in sport were not positive, and I was trying to figure out how it is that I retained my interest in the sport world even though I didn’t fully benefit from the sport experience. So that is how I got interested in sociology,” Walk said.
He came to Cal State Fullerton in 1994 as a professor of kinesiology. His love for the institution is the reason he hasn’t left for 18 years, he said.
“The thing I love about Cal State Fullerton is we’re a humble institution and we’re small, we have resource issues, but we don’t let that stand in our way of achievement. I love the kind of ‘giant killer’ mentality that we have,” Walk said.
Since Walk himself was a first generation college student and attended state universities he said he has an affinity toward them. He loves the challenges that state universities offer to a faculty member.
“Had I never had the opportunity to attend a state university, I never would have achieved and I would have been doing what I was doing in 1980 to 1981 which is washing cars for a living. And I know that story is retold thousands of times at state universities, it’s not retold thousands of times at Stanford….I’d rather be part of that story,” Walk said.
Walk has served as the chair of the Department of Kinesiology since 2007. Dr. Lee Brown, professor of kinesiology, said it’s great working with Walk.
“He’s a guy who places his students and his faculty first. So the Department of Kinesiology is clearly a priority for him and helping us to be the best program in the state of California,” Brown said.
He also served on Academic Senate since 2008 on the Senate Executive Committee where Walk served as Vice-Chair under Dr. Jack Bedell, Chair of the Academic Senate. Bedell said that Walk has immense integrity, a great sense of humor, great background, very pro-student, and has high standards for honesty, clarity, and that the program could be the best it could be despite difficult financial situations.
On July 9, President Mildred Garcia appointed Walk as the Interim Athletic Director to the University. Bedell said that he is sad that Walk had to leave the Academic Senate in order to take the position but he strongly supports the appointment.
“I think it’s a logical choice, somebody who knows all sides of athletics and has been a supporter of athletics and has been very involved in our conference… That’s a definite asset, somebody who is so plugged in. Plus he also brings a faculty perspective to the table, which is a little bit different so that’s a plus,” said Bedell.
Walk said that he is very excited and honored especially in a transitionary period in the department and the rest of the institution. Citing the National Championship won by the baseball team in 2004 when they were up against seven schools with larger budgets, he said that he loves the department’s “giant killer” mentality.
“This is what we do here. What I love is the fact that we can take our student-athletes, mostly from California, mostly from Orange County, and we can compete with anybody,” Walk said.
The position Walk was named to is an interim position so there will be a search to find a permanent replacement. When asked by colleagues on whether he would still be applying for the position, his reply is that he hopes to be significantly outpaced by others who are more qualified for the job.
“On the other hand, I am very interested in seeing this department and this program succeed and I want to do whatever is necessary to keep us moving forward and to achieve some successes that are still out there if possible. If I’m the right person to do that then I’m open to the possibility,” Walk said.
Walk’s appointment to the Interim Athletic Director position comes at a challenging time in the Athletics Department, as men’s basketball coach Bob Burton resigned in June and former Titans softball coach Michelle Gromacki filed a lawsuit against the institution.
“You put all those things together and it strikes people as turmoil and what I would say is that a lot of things happen independently of each other, they happen to happen at the same time. So the urge to tie them together and see them as a crisis or turmoil is tempting, but I don’t think that it is entirely warranted in this case,” Walk said.
Walk replaced Brian Quinn, who had been Athletics Director since 2002, and is transitioning to leading fundraising efforts for the athletic program. Walk said that Quinn is very respected nationally and that he always has had a great relationship with him.
Under Quinn, the athletic program saw much success including a 2004 baseball National Championship and multiple National Championships for the dance team. Walk recognizes that there will be pressure in trying to fill those shoes and said that he has every intention of living up to or exceeding that standard.
Walk also said that competition in the Big West Conference itself would be increasing with the addition of San Diego State this year and the University of Hawaii last year.
“They both have football budgets. Their competitive profiles are much higher, much more visible programs in terms of T.V., particularly San Diego State. They create challenges for us. Are we going to rise to that challenge? I think we can compete with those institutions in every sport, some are going to be more challenging than others but we can compete with them,” Walk said.
He said that these are exciting times in the conference, but Cal State Fullerton is going to have to keep pace with the other institutions in the conference despite having budget issues. Four programs have already been cut from the athletics department: wrestling, gymnastics, and both fencing programs equating to about 100 student-athletes.
“We in this department have taken our fair share of program hits and done our fair share of budget cutting. We’re operating at bare bones, that’s not a complaint, that’s a description of reality. That’s what it is and we’re not unlike other athletic programs across the state and other places cut sports as well,” Walk said.
Walk said that he has two goals in mind as he takes this position. The first is to find out if intercollegiate athletics is as central to the mission of the institution as he believes it is, and how to get members of the community to believe in it.
“We need people to agree and be driven by the same sets of ideas about athletics in terms of the overall university mission… We need that ‘buy-in’ from all the relevant folks; our alums, our students, our administration, our faculty, all of those groups need to come together and have the same ideas in mind when they’re thinking about intercollegiate athletics,” Walk said.
His second goal is to promote more department unity, pointing out that members of the Athletic Department are in five different buildings on campus.
“It’s really difficult to have a sense of common purpose and good communication networks when you have socio-geographic separation like that. And it’s a large department, so anytime you attempt to put the entire group in one place it’s just logistically challenging,” Walk said.
Walk said that his passion comes from his own biography of being a first generation college student. Being intimidated by the university environment, wondering if he could actually compete with other students with a different background than him, then realizing at one point that he could compete with and beat them.
“All those things that I had in my head that made them superior to me, those are all imaginary. And once you liberate yourself from those sorts of restrictions on your imagination and the way you dream about what your life could become then the possibilities are endless,” Walk said.
He said he’s passionate about this same thing for the university and loves being a part of those “giant killing” stories at the institution.
“Same thing with Cal State Fullerton, we can compete and we could beat them, and I love beating them,” Walk said.