Coach John Walker came to Lincoln in April 1994 and 18 seasons later, he has built a tradition rich program at Nebraska that includes 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, two trips to the Elite Eight, six trips to the Sweet 16 and eight conference championships.
Nebraska became the first Big Eight school to add women’s soccer as a varsity sport, and Walker was optimistic about the future of soccer in the Cornhusker state because of the University’s commitment to building a winning program. That commitment has remained strong throughout the program’s history, and in 2005 the Huskers moved into impressive facilities on the Nebraska campus.
Walker’s goal when he started at NU was to have the Huskers in their first NCAA Tournament by the 1998 season. Walker not only achieved that goal, he shattered his own timeline as NU reached the postseason in 1996, before earning seven straight top-15 national finishes.
In 18 years at the helm for the Huskers, Walker has produced the 20th-best career winning percentage among active NCAA Division I women’s soccer coaches at .691 (256-108-23). He also ranks 22nd all-time with his .691 winning percentage among coaches with a minimum of 10 years at the helm. Walker is the only head coach to produce more than 100 wins in fewer than eight seasons and notched his 200th career victory in the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
Under Walker, the Huskers have made NCAA Sweet 16 appearances in eight of the last 16 years, including two trips to the Elite Eight. They have compiled a remarkable 231-86-23 record over the last 16 seasons and won three Big 12 regular-season crowns and five Big 12 Tournament titles. NU swept both Big 12 Conference titles in 1996, 1999 and 2000.
In 1999, Nebraska enjoyed its best season in the program’s 18-year history, running to a 22-1-2 final record, a Big 12 regular-season title and a Big 12 Tournament crown. The Huskers missed their first trip to the NCAA Women’s College Cup (semifinals) by the narrowest of margins, as Notre Dame advanced on sudden death penalty kicks, 4-3, after one of the greatest matches in NCAA Tournament history.
Walker and the Huskers have also made Nebraska women’s soccer one of the hottest tickets in the nation. In 1999, the Huskers set a school single-season record and ranked among the top five teams in the nation, averaging 1,529 fans per game, including a then school-record attendance of 3,702 fans in the NCAA quarterfinals against Notre Dame. Over the past seven seasons, the Huskers have averaged nearly 900 fans per home contest. In 2002, NU rewrote the single-game attendance record, when 4,830 fans attended the Nebraska vs. North Carolina contest to open the season. In 2004, more than 10,000 fans saw the Huskers play in their final season at the Abbott Sports Complex, including 3,620 in the home opener against the Tar Heels. In 2005, Walker and the Huskers moved on campus for the first time in school history, allowing a more convenient location for players and fans. The Huskers again hosted the Tar Heels to open the 2011 season and a facility-record 2,319 fans came out for the season opener. Over the past three seasons, the Huskers have dropped just six games at the Nebraska Soccer Field and have posted an 22-6-3 record.
With a proven system, an innovative coaching philosophy, a well-respected program and an ability to recruit some of the nation’s most talented players, Walker has the Huskers focused on contending for conference and national championships on an annual basis.
In 1998, Nebraska overcame the loss of five senior starters, including All-Americans Kari Uppinghouse and Rebecca Hornbacher, to finish with a 17-4-1 record and claim a second Big 12 Conference Tournament title. The Huskers advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 and finished with a final No. 10 national ranking.
Nebraska’s 1998 success followed on the heels of an 18-4-0 season in which the Huskers advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament before losing at Notre Dame. The Huskers ended the 1997 season ranked No. 7 in the final NSCAA Poll.
Building from the Beginning
Walker and the Huskers built their success on a breakthrough season in 1996.
Not only did Nebraska earn its first trip to the NCAA Tournament, the Huskers placed themselves among the nation’s elite by winning two tournament games and advancing to the NCAA quarterfinals.
Along the way, Walker established himself as one of the finest coaches in America, earning NSCAA/Umbro National Coach-of-the-Year, NSCAA/Umbro Central Region Coach-of-the-Year and Big 12 Conference Coach-of-the-Year recognition.
Walker led the Huskers to a perfect regular season with a 19-0 record and the first regular-season Big 12 title. Nebraska extended its winning streak to 21 games with two more wins at the Big 12 Conference Soccer Championships in St. Louis to capture a second conference crown.
The Huskers entered the NCAA Tournament with the nation’s longest winning streak as the only unbeaten and untied team in the country.
But Nebraska’s perfect ride through the 1996 regular season did more than just put wins in the record books, it put fans in the stands, establishing a devoted following of Husker faithful.
Nebraska finished the season with the sixth-highest average attendance in the nation, and based on its unblemished record and outstanding fan support, earned a home bid in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
After a perfect regular season, Walker and the Huskers were not satisfied with just making it to the NCAA Tournament. They set their sights on a trip to soccer’s semifinals in Santa Clara, Calif.
Nebraska proved it was a contender with a 3-2 overtime win over Minnesota in the opening round in front of a then-school-record crowd of 1,544. The win over the Golden Gophers set up a second-round rematch with Duke at the Abbott Sports Complex.
The Huskers had come from behind to defeat the then-No. 6 Blue Devils, 3-1, in Durham, N.C., on Sept. 8, for Nebraska’s first-ever win over a ranked opponent. Although Duke came to Lincoln with a rich soccer tradition and plenty of NCAA Tournament experience, the Huskers dominated the Blue Devils from start to finish in a 3-0 win.
With the victory, the Huskers earned a trip to Oregon to challenge perennial power Portland. Although the Huskers battled until the end, they could not manage a goal, losing 1-0 to the Pilots. The Huskers finished the 1996 season with a 23-1-0 record and a final No. 6 national ranking.
Since posting its first top-25 win over Duke in 1996, Nebraska has made beating ranked opponents commonplace. During the past 12 seasons, Walker and the Huskers have posted 33 wins over top-25 teams, including a double-overtime win at No. 25 Virginia Tech in 2011.
Success Beyond Nebraska
Walker’s Nebraska program has also proven that it can produce All-America players. In just 18 years, 11 Huskers have earned a total of 17 NSCAA All-America certificates from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America and five Huskers have captured freshman All-America accolades under Walker.
Walker also has helped Husker players compete at the international level. Over the past several seasons, Nebraska has boasted 24 players with national team experience, including current Huskers Jordan Jackson (USA) and Ari Romero (Mexico).
Former NU athletes have seen success at the professional level as well. Seven Huskers were selected in the inaugural WUSA Draft in December of 2000. Nebraska’s total number of athletes selected was second behind North Carolina. Four of the first 24 players chosen in the draft were former Huskers. In 2002, Nebraska saw its highest pick ever when Breanna Boyd was drafted eighth in the first round by the defending champion Carolina Courage. Christine Latham also became an instant starter for the San Diego Spirit when she was picked up as a discovery player for the WUSA team, after bypassing the entire draft process. Walker boasted five former athletes on 2003 WUSA rosters, three of whom were named to All-Star rosters, which ranked seventh among all Division I programs. In January 2010, former Husker Carly Peetz was selected in the sixth round of the 2010 Women’s Professional Soccer Draft by the Boston Breakers.
As a member of the Big 12 Conference, Walker’s teams won five of the 15 Big 12 Tournament championships with titles in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2002. The Huskers also brought home Big 12 regular-season crowns in 1996, 1999 and 2000, and in the 15-year history of the conference, Nebraska posted a league-best 106-47-15 regular-season mark and a .631 winning percentage. Along with the team accomplishments, the Huskers were rewarded with 70 individual regular-season all-conference selections and 33 All-Big 12 Tournament awards. Former Husker Christine Latham was also the first league player to be named Big 12 Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons (2000, 2001), a feat repeated by Timko in 2004 and 2005. Timko went on to top that record the following season, earning co-Player of the Year honors with Oklahoma State’s Yolanda Odenyo, to become the first player selected as Player-of-the-Year three times. Morgan Marlborough claimed a spot in the record books in 2009, as she was named Big 12 Offensive Player and Rookie of the Year, just the third freshman to win a player-of-the-year award in conference history. The Lee’s Summit, Mo., native earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors again in 2010.
Nebraska’s fast track to national prominence in soccer was aided by NU’s decision to become the first school in the Big Eight Conference with a women’s soccer program in 1994. Although Nebraska was ahead of other Big Eight schools, Walker started the 1994 season behind the rest of the nation in recruiting because of his late hiring.
However, in his first season as the Huskers’ mentor, Walker managed to put together a collection of scholarship players and walk-ons who recorded a surprising 14-4 mark and earned credibility around the nation with a successful inaugural campaign.
Walker and his staff followed their initial on-field success by compiling an excellent incoming class that included transfers Kari Uppinghouse, who became Nebraska’s first first-team All-American in 1996, and third-team All-America goalkeeper Rebecca Hornbacher.
The Huskers also implemented a year-round approach to training and conditioning. This approach included a strong spring schedule, a tradition that has continued at Nebraska. In 2006, the Huskers traveled abroad to England and Scotland to face a multitude of international competition and then returned to Europe in the summer of 2011.
While Walker built the Huskers, he continued to expand his coaching experience as a staff coach for the Canadian National Team. During the summer of 1999, Walker was an assistant coach for Canada’s Women’s World Cup team. He currently works with both the Under-16 National Team and the Canadian World Cup Team.
Walker came to Nebraska from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, following achievements at the collegiate, national and international levels.
Walker was named national staff coach for the Canadian Soccer Association in 1992, and the following year he was appointed an assistant coach for the Canadian World University Games team. Walker holds a Canadian “A” coaching license (highest level), a Level V certification and a USSF “A” license. Walker was a national coaching instructor for the Canadian Soccer Association and served as director of high performance for Ontario, where he supervised coaches and players at Ontario’s National and Provincial Training Center.
Walker was a standout sweeper for Queen’s University from 1982 to 1985 and received bachelor’s degrees in physical education and physical therapy from Queen’s in 1987. He earned a master’s degree in coaching science from Miami of Ohio in 1988. He also is a graduate of the Canadian National Coaching Institute.
The Kingston, Ontario, native is married to Mary Holmes and the couple has one daughter, Ally, and four sons, Declan, Cameron, Keegan and Liam.