When Loyalty Goes Unrewarded: Chan Walker reflects on not getting head coaching job

After years of service in FAU’s softball team, FAU’s Athletics did not choose Chan Walker as head coach after Joan Joyce’s death.


Cameron Priester

Chan Walker pictured in front of FAU Softball Stadium, where spent more than 20 years as a player and coach.

Cameron Priester, Sports Editor

Chan Walker was a shoo-in. 

She spent 23 years through multiple championships with Florida Atlantic University’s softball program, two as a player and 21 as an assistant coach. She led the team through an unthinkable tragedy less than a year ago, and was the protege, daughter in a sense, of the program’s architect. 

When the job of head coach became available following last season, many around the program thought there wasn’t any question who would lead the program moving forward.

However, the university didn’t offer Walker the job. In fact, she wasn’t offered to return to the program in any role and she has now been reduced to her current position as assistant director of student affairs.

“I felt like I earned that opportunity,” Walker said through tears. 

Walker began her career in 1993 playing softball at Spartanburg Methodist College in Saxon, S.C. Donning the number 18, in honor of former New York Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry, she played center field for two seasons at Spartanburg, while also playing volleyball.

During her second season at Spartanburg, 10 hours south of Saxon in Boca Raton, Fla., FAU was in the process of building their own softball program. To do so, they recruited the help of one of the sport’s most recognizable names. 

Before even arriving in Boca Raton, Joan Joyce was a softball pioneer. A multi-sport success, Joyce began a 19-season career in the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) in 1954, during which she also played two seasons of basketball for the United States women’s national team. With the help of tennis-star Billie Jean King, Joyce helped found the Women’s Professional Softball League, in which she co-owned, and played for, a team herself.

Joyce also had a very notable professional volleyball career, and at age 35, while still playing softball, she took up golfing—and went on to play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour for 19 years.

Her professional golf career ended, however, in 1995 Joyce signed on to become FAU’s first head softball coach, and essentially, build the program from scratch. 

Nine months before the Owls took the field for the first time Joyce began laying the groundwork for the program. Part of that process was recruiting Walker.

With Joyce at the helm and Walker in the outfield, FAU almost immediately found success. They finished with an overall record of 33-18 in their inaugural season in 1995, qualifying them for the Atlantic Sun Conference (A-Sun) Tournament—which they did again the following year.

It was during Walker’s second year at FAU in 1996, when her mother and grandmother passed away; and in the wake of that, Joyce took her in under her own roof for more than 25 years, until her death.

“She wasn’t a mother figure, she became my mother,” said Walker.

After Walker ended a successful, two-season playing career in 1997, Joyce added her to the coaching staff as a student-assistant while she was simultaneously finishing her degree in criminal justice.

Joyce promoted Walker into a paid assistant in 2000, and the two built FAU Softball into one of the university’s most successful programs. 

Together, they won 12 conference championships and appeared in the NCAA Tournament nine times, eight of which came consecutively. 

Mickey Bell is one of the few people that had the opportunity to view Walker and Joyce, both as a player and colleague. Bell, now an assistant coach at Northern Illinois University, played catcher at FAU under Joyce and Walker from 2014-2016, before joining them on the coaching staff as a volunteer assistant in 2018.

“Their close connection and bond, other programs don’t have that,” said Bell. “Of course they’d pick at each other because they were both competitive but at the same time, you could see that mom-daughter connection and how unbreakable that was. When I was able to come on staff and see the other side of it, it was even more eye-opening.”

One of the numerous high-points in Joyce and Walker’s time coaching together came in 2015, when the Owls advanced to the Regional Round of the NCAA tournament for just the second time in program history. During that season is when Joyce tallied her 800th career win in a 18-0 blowout over Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, known as FAMU. 

In similar fashion to the rest of her professional career, Joyce soon bested that achievement with an even more impressive one. 

Last season, her 28th as head coach, FAU defeated the University of North Texas Mean Green 1-0, entering her into a club of 44 college softball coaches in history who’ve tallied 1,000 wins.

Eight days later, however, tragedy struck as Joyce died on March 26, 2022, at the age of 81. 

Joyce died a trailblazer and an icon, and her passing left a noticeable void in the sports world as tributes and remembrances flooded in following the announcement of her death—even from the likes of the New York Times, Washington Post, and ESPN

None of them were as qualified as Walker to speak of Joyce’s character. 

“Humble and competitive. Usually you don’t find those two things in an athlete. You got some that are competitive, but they got the cockiness. Her humility was unmatched,” said Walker. “I always tell people, if you got to know her for five minutes, she was your friend for life. That’s just how she built relationships.”

The softball community felt the impact of Joyce’s death, but the season had to go on. About 13 hours after witnessing Joyce’s last moments at 10 p.m. on March 26, Walker, still raw with emotion, led the Owls onto the field for their 1 p.m. matchup with Western Kentucky University the next day.

“The thought never came to my mind, canceling that game. I think she would’ve haunted me for the rest of my life had I canceled that softball game,” remembered Walker. “She missed two of her niece’s weddings because they were in softball season, and she only has two nieces.”

FAU defeated the Hilltoppers in an emotional 3-2 victory, and three days later, Director of Athletics Brian White named Walker interim head coach.

With Walker as interim head coach, FAU went on to end the season with a winning record of 29-26, qualifying them for the Conference USA Championship Tournament for the first time since 2018. 

The Owls finished fifth in the conference under Walker’s guidance, falling to Western Kentucky in the C-USA Tournament, after experts projected them to finish last in the preseason poll

Many, herself included, expected Walker to fill Joyce’s shoes and take over as full-time head coach; which she did receive an interview for.

The university disagreed, and on June 24, they announced the hiring of former Ohio State University assistant coach Jordan Clark as their second head softball coach in program history.

Left to right: Graduate infielder Maya Amm, senior infielder Sommer Baker, Walker and junior outfielder Kaitlyn Cunningham in front of the FAU Softball Stadium. (Cameron Priester)

“Alumni and people that have been around the program, we all definitely thought it was going to be coach Chan. So it was definitely a shock,” said Bell. “We’re all on the same page that we want to see the program do well, but we were for sure a little heartbroken about it.”

The university informed Walker, via phone call, of the decision the day before attending Joyce’s celebration of life in her hometown of Waterbury, Conn. 

“The celebration was that Saturday, and I had just done the interview on Tuesday and they knew I was going to be out of town,” said Walker. “Friday, they called me and let me know I didn’t have the job. The next day at the celebration of life, all of her friends would go, ‘Oh, I hope her assistant gets the job.’ And I’m there like, ‘Uh, I didn’t get it.’ So it was just hard.”

The university found themselves in a rare, hard position having to hire amidst these equally unexpected and unfortunate circumstances. 

Matt Brown is a journalist and publisher of Extra Points, a newsletter that covers the business and administrative side of college athletics. 

“It isn’t a meritocracy. It isn’t just a cold, dispassionate, did you win or did you not,” Brown said of the search processes that go into finding a coach. “Broadly speaking, it’s an asset to have been at a school for a long time. Now, if you’ve been there for a long time, and the culture needs a dramatic change, maybe it wouldn’t be.”

Promoting a head coach from within is a rare case, actually. Oftentimes, when an institution feels a coaching change is necessary, they feel an entire culture change is also warranted, meaning bringing in an entirely new regime; which Walker herself acknowledged.

“I think they wanted change, and I was just the formality of getting an interview,” said Walker. 

That choice can come with heavy scrutiny if that institution’s support base has their heart set on another candidate, which it appears FAU’s support base had theirs set on Walker. 

In 2020, Utah State University found themselves in a similar situation when searching for a head football coach. When the Aggies hired current head coach, Arkansas-native Blake Anderson, they broke a long-standing tradition of hiring only Mormon head coaches. In-doing-so, they also passed over Frank Maile, the Mormon, Utah-native who served as interim head coach and was seen as the house-favorite to take over. 

As expected, Utah State’s decision to hire Anderson was met with fierce opposition from their fan base; Even players, a majority of whom boycotted their regular season finale on the grounds of concern about “religious discrimination during the search for a new football coach.”

However, Anderson’s first-season was a consensus success as he led the Aggies to a record of 11-3. In addition, a September 2022 report by KSL, a little more than a year removed from the controversy surrounding his arrival, described him as “a man who is adored by his players.”

In similar fashion to Anderson, Clark boasted an impressive resume before FAU hired her.

In four seasons as an assistant at Ohio State, Clark helped coach the Buckeyes to the Regional Round of the NCAA Tournament twice. She spent much of her time there primarily responsible for offense, which ranked fourth in the Big Ten in batting average in 2022. 

However, Walker’s own resume that featured eight conference championships over 21 years as an assistant—and her performance as an interim—left many wondering if a top-to-bottom culture change was necessary.

“Generally, if an interim comes in and is successful, they have a leg up,” said Brown. “Even if they’re not successful on the field, but they’re doing a lot to overcome or repair a challenging off-the-field situation; they often have a leg up.” 

A spokesperson for the FAU Athletics Department declined comment for this story, citing a policy against discussing personnel matters.

After the university made Clark’s hiring official, that left Walker’s future with the program in the hands of the new regime, who chose not to retain her.

Even with her ouster at FAU, multiple programs offered to bring Walker aboard, one of which she said would’ve kept her in Florida. Though she turned all of those down, Walker hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to coaching in the future.

“The past year has just been hard, and I think I needed a break,” Walker said.

Not wanting to leave the school she’s called home for more than 20 years, Walker assumed her current position as assistant director of student affairs. However, her love for the sport wouldn’t allow her to completely step away from the game, and has since been coaching youth softball to stay involved. 

When asked what she misses most about her time coaching at FAU, without hesitation, Walker snapped back, “the girls.”

“It’s different,” she said of her new role. “It’s different, but it’s not my love. Softball is my love.”

Editor’s note: This story is in the UP’s latest issue that can be found physically on the distribution boxes around campus or digitally through our Issuu page.

Cameron Priester is the Sports Editor for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @PriesterCameron