Oct. 10, 2008
The Nova Notebook, by Villanova director of media relations Mike Sheridan, appears weekly during the fall and into the basketball season and periodically from May through August. In this entry we take a look back at Joe Walters, an icon of Villanova basketball, who died last Tuesday of an apparent heart attack at the age of 83.
Outside the St. Thomas of Villanova Chapel it was a sunny Friday morning that reflected a vibrant campus. If the observer sensed an extra bounce in the step of most students who passed in front of the chapel, their eyes probably did not deceive them. Fall break was only hours away.
Inside, the chapel was filled with mourners on hand to honor the life of Joe Walters, once a Villanova student himself. The Villanova that welcomed him at age 18 as part of a Navy program at the height of World War II has undergone its share of changes in the years since. But the connection that Walters made in the mid-1940s to his university and its values remained a constant in his life until its conclusion.
Surpassed only by his love for his late wife Ruth - who preceded him in death by a mere seven days - and a family that includes 10 children, 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren was Walters' affinity for, and service to, his alma mater.
In his words of remembrance at the start of the mass, Walters' son Ted, described his father as a "guardian angel" of Villanova basketball.
"That was a great quote," stated Villanova head coach Jay Wright. "Joe really was the guardian angel of Villanova Basketball. He looked over all of us - not just the head coach, the players, the assistant coaches, but everyone. You just had to look around the chapel today to see how many lives he impacted."
Those in the audience included every Wildcat head coach since 1961: Jack Kraft, Rollie Massimino, Steve Lappas and Wright. A number of current and former assistant coaches were present too, including Dan Dougherty, Steve Pinone and current Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt, who made the trip from Atlanta with his wife Dawnette. Ex-players including Kerry Kittles, Joe Ryan, Harold Jensen, Marty Caron, Joe Rogers, Whitey Rigsby, and Jim McMonagle were present too.
"Joe was a great friend to Dawnette and I," stated Hewitt, who served as an assistant to Lappas from 1992 until he was named head coach at Siena in 1997. "I can't imagine somebody welcoming us and looking out for us the way he did. And, of course, his love of Villanova basketball is legendary."
Walters was an exceptional player in his own right as evidenced by his inclusion on Severance's "All-Era" team. In making the choice, Severance described Walters the player like this: "Joe was not only a smart and sharp player, but he was one of the greatest defensive players I coached."
There were career achievements in business as well. Walters joined his father's mechanical contracting company after an illness (infectious hepatitis) forced him to withdraw from the Long Island University Medical School. When his father died in 1953, he and his brother Robert became co-owners of William H. Walters and Sons. The company installed plumbing, heating and air conditioning in major buildings in Philadelphia.
But even as he built and sustained a successful business, Walters never lost touch with his alma mater and its basketball program. Officially, he was an assistant coach in Severance's final season of 1960-61. But in an age when there wasn't often more than one assistant coach on staff, head coaches typically relied on an informal network of alumni and friends to aid with the scouting of opponents and identification of potential recruits.
Few were more valuable to their programs than Walters was the Wildcats.
Walters' influence was significant. In his homily, Rev. George F. Riley, O.S.A., mentioned the date of Feb. 10, 1967 as one of Walters' more disappointing days at Villanova. On that date the university rejected a plan to build a new 15,000-seat arena across from what is now known as Jake Nevin Field House.
By 1973, he had been named to the University's Board of Trustees and would rise to the level of vice-chairman by the time his term ended in 1982. He helped spearhead development drives in that period and became a respected voice for athletics within the university. In 1996, he was inducted into the Villanova Varsity Club Hall of Fame.
Yet what is perhaps not very well understood outside the university is just how much of a counselor Walters was to the men charged with the guiding the basketball team through the decades. Until the last few years, he was a regular observer of practice and typically spent the mornings after his 1991 retirement in the basketball office, chatting with and offering his thoughts to coaches, young and old alike.
"My initial connection to Joe was George Raveling," explains Hewitt of the former Wildcat player and assistant coach who later went on to become the head coach at Washington State, Iowa and USC before moving into a leadership post at Nike. "He basically taught George the business and George basically taught me. That was one of the reasons we hit if off so well.
"Joe was just a good, good, human being. The only thing that surpassed his love for Villanova was his love for his wife Ruth."
After he became a head coach, Hewitt continued to maintain an open line of communication to Walters for the same reason the Villanova staff did. Walters was by no means trapped in another age. Although he had known all the 'Cat greats, his gaze was firmly forward. He understood college athletics in ways few did and was candid enough to give it to the caretakers of the program with a kind of direct approach that befit his Germantown roots.
"Joe looked at this program as if it was his family to take care of," noted Wright. "He took care of all us. His was a heart of gold and he was very protective of us.
"One of the things I most appreciated about Joe was that he was a realist. I always used his judgment as kind of the center point between optimism and pessimism. He knew the game and was an honest, straight-forward guy. So when he gave you his predictions on the season, you listened. If your thoughts were more optimistic or more pessimistic, you had to adjust them because he was usually right. He'd seen it all and knew what it took to have a good team."
Until recent years when his wife's health deteriorated and he devoted his energies to helping care for her, Walters seldom missed a home gane. When the Wildcats were away from home, the head coach could be confident that one of the first calls he would receive, either when he arrived home or, in later years when cell phones came into use, on the team bus, would be from Walters with a critique of that night's effort. He watched on television from his Villanova home and even from that point spied intangibles much of the public did not.
"Joe truly was one of our legends," says Wright. "I think the turnout here today shows you just what he meant to so many people connected to our university and our program."
University Vice-President and close family friend Dr. Helen K. Lafferty, who offered the final reflections, noted how appropriate the recessional hymn on this day was. As the pall-bearers helped wheel the casket towards the front door, the cantor sang the Villanova alma mater.