In fact, Walker’s first All-American was a sprinter from Knoxville, and Robert Rovere quickly made a name for himself on campus in the mid-1960s.
A six-time All-American — all in the 100- and 220-yard dashes — Rovere helped Walker gain notoriety quickly and the runner still holds the school record in the 200 meters with his 1967 time of 20.53.
Rovere, who graduated from Fulton in 1963, only ran track in his senior season with the Falcons.
“I was kind of a late bloomer,” he said. “I was too small to play football or basketball and I wasn’t very good at baseball, so I went out for the track team with my friends.”
Back in those days, the state meet was one classification and difficult to reach. Qualifiers had to be one of the top two in each event from one of the three regions.
“I made it to the state meet in both the 100 and 220 my only year and finished fifth in both,” Rovere said.
Walker must have seen something in the young Rovere’s future.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to go to Tennessee and walk on,” Rovere said. “I knew some people at the Knoxville Track Club that got Coach Walker on the phone and gave me an opportunity to walk on. I knew that I wanted to go away for school and ETSU seemed like a good place.”
TRUSTING THE PROCESS
Walker was by no means a sprints coach, but Rovere slowly progressed under his tutelage and eventually made a splash at the 1966 NCAA Outdoor Track Championships in the college division.
“In those early days, Coach Walker was always trying to learn more and more from other coaches,” Rovere said. “He was not shy about picking other people’s brains and he knew how to find stuff out.
“One of the things we’d do for indoor training was when the weather was bad, we’d go into the upstairs hallway of old Gilbreath Hall and do sprint workouts on that wooden floor.”
Back in the day, the NCAA had two divisions — college and university — based on enrollment. ETSU was able to compete in both divisions because it was in the middle in terms of numbers.
The college division meet took place in Chicago in early June, followed by the university division event in Bloomington, Indiana, the next week.
Rovere earned All-America honors in both the 100 and 220 by placing third in each event at the college division.
The speedster’s better event was the 220 ,and he tied 1964 Olympic gold medalist Ollan Cassell’s school record with his time of 21.0.
“When we were training, the outdoor track was around the old football stadium and it was not a standard 440-yard track at the time,” Rovere said. “Coach Walker had a common finish line and we’d run a lot of either 220s or 330s. As time went on, his workouts started to become more quality instead of quantity. For us sprinters, doing a lot of those reps, we had to pace ourselves and once we got to do more quality workouts, we started to get better.”
Nursing a pulled muscle in his leg during the university division event, Rovere finished sixth in the 220 (21.2) and seventh in the 100 (9.6).
STANDOUT SENIOR CAMPAIGN
During his senior season, Rovere again qualified for both divisions of the NCAA Championships in the 100 and 220, and this time both meets were in Utah
“I won the college division in both the 100 and 220 in Ogden,” Rovere said. “I ran 9.2 in the 100, which was my best time, and I beat the school record. I think my time in the 220 was 20.4 or something, which was my best time and also beat the school record.”
Rovere competed against some pretty famous runners at the university level in 1967.
“I did run against (Southern California’s) O.J. Simpson, but I really didn’t know too much about him at the time,” Rovere said. “I knew who the top guys in the country were because I subscribed to Track and Field News. The best guys were Charlie Greene (Nebraska) and Lennox Miller (Southern Cal).”
Rovere beat out the future Heisman Trophy winner Simpson in the 100, finishing third (10.27) and placed fourth in the 220 (20.62).
The winner in the 220 was San Jose State’s Tommie Smith, who went go on to win the gold medal in the 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
“I can remember racing Tommie in the 220,” Rovere said. “I was on his inside, which I wanted to be, and about the time the race started was as close as I ever got to him. He ate up the turn and there wasn’t much of a race for first place, but I was in a dogfight for second.
“I was honestly just happy to be there.”
Rovere also got a little bit of a taste of the international stage when he served as an alternate on the U.S. Pan Am Games team in 1967. He was selected for the ETSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1977.
When the Mini-Dome was completed in the mid-1970s, one of Walker’s first ideas was to put on a world-class indoor track meet. The East Tennessee Invitational started in 1975.
Rovere signed on as one of the officials and he’s pretty much never left.
“I’ve been at every meet at ETSU every year except 2009,” he said. “When the meet first started, there were a lot of big meets in Boston and New York and all of the officials wore tuxedos.
“Well, Coach Walker had us all fitted for black and white tuxedos and he wore a navy blue one to stand out a little. I was the head timer for many years before Fully Automatic Timing (FAT) came along.”
Rovere remembers some of the best athletes that have ever run inside the Dome whether it was for ETSU or another school.
“When Ray Flynn was running there, we’d always have a great mile field and world-class runners would show up,” he said. “Herschel Walker came up one time. There was another time where they ran a 100-yard dash and the prize was a new Porsche. I can’t remember what the guy’s name was, but I think he ended up taking the cash value for the car instead.”
COACH WALKER’S IMPACT
“Before the ‘Irish Brigade’ came along, there were a bunch of local guys on the team and you could have called us the ‘Hillbilly Brigade,’ ” Rovere said, jokingly. “Coach Walker took a bunch of us and we competed in the top two or three of the OVC.”
Rovere said Walker made all of his athletes feel welcome, no matter where they were from or what event they competed in.
“He genuinely cared about not only us as athletes but as the adults that we were about to become,” Rovere said. “He was one of the finest coaches in the country and a great meet promoter, but everyone will tell you how great of a person he was. Many of the people that he coached looked at him like a second father.”