The success of John Walker and the Nebraska women’s soccer program can be summed up with two words: principled evolution.
“The reality of today’s coaching is that it is a day-to-day process,” Walker told the Lincoln Executive Club at its noon luncheon meeting Dec. 18. “Times have changed. This player-driven culture has evolved over time. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have said that. We have a philosophy of create your own culture. The more ownership we give the players, the more ownership they take in their responsibilities.”
Walker arrived in Lincoln in April of 1994; the past fall season marked his 24th at the helm of the Huskers. After the 9-5-5 record compiled in 2017, the team’s win total under the tutelage of Walker is 318. He surpassed the 300-win milestone Aug. 22, 2016, when the Huskers qualified for their 12th NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.
Five key elements
Walker outlined five key elements that define Nebraska soccer: player development, the player-driven culture, competitive scheduling, communication, and an enjoyable experience.
“We want this to be an enjoyable experience,” said Walker, whose team won the 2013 Big Ten Conference regular-season title and the conference tournament tournament with a 19-4-1 record overall. “We want the players to have passion and we want to create a family-type atmosphere.”
The success of the player-driven culture implementation in the NU soccer program is evidenced by the absence of athletic transfers.
“We have not had any transfers in four years,” said Walker. “That’s just remarkable. The transfer rate in college athletics is 40 percent. We have a patent recruiting approach with more uniformity.”
Walker said the player development element is key to Nebraska because it is not as talent-rich as densely-populated areas with more alluring environments.
“We’d better have a development plan,” said Walker, who has seen five different athletic directors at Nebraska (Bill Byrne, Steve Pederson, Tom Osborne, Shawn Eichorst and now Bill Moos). “We have to recruit hard without the beaches to draw people. We are driven to succeed with individual player development helping each player reach their full potential.”
Part of that potential is realized through very competitive scheduling. Husker soccer had the third-toughest schedule in 2014 and the seventh most-difficult schedule in 2016.
“We’re going to be as competitive as we can,” said Walker, who gained his 300th win on the road against 16th-ranked BYU, ending the nation’s longest home winning streak at 18 in 2016. “People come to Nebraska to play in big games. Our competitiveness is massive.”
Communication inside the soccer program is critical.
“Giving feedback to the kids is most vital. We give feedback every week to the kids. We give tangible things for them to improve upon.”
Part of that feedback is the individual video on the players produced through the technological help of the Lincoln-based software company Hudl, a product and service of Agile Sports Technologies, Inc. Hudl provides tools for coaches and athletes to review game footage and improve team play.
“Hudl gives us individual video on the kids,” said Walker, who had just visited the software company at their new headquarters in the Haymarket prior to his luncheon visit with the Executive Club. “For example, I can get ten video clips on the goalie. The ease of breaking down ten video clips with the kids is just amazingly easy.”
New stadium key
What has also made Walker’s work easier is the new facilities at the Barbara Hibner Soccer Stadium, 2400 North Antelope Valley Parkway, just north of the UNL Campus on 14th Street. The Huskers have been playing there since mid-2015.
“The new stadium is a game-changer for us," said Walker.
"I’ve been here (at Nebraska) almost a quarter-century. It was difficult playing both games and practices at Ed Weir Stadium,” Walker said about the track stadium that doubled in the past for soccer. “And, we’ve also used Abbott Sports Complex. But, Hibner Stadium is a really, really nice facility. We’ve gone from bad to really good.”