MOUNT CARMEL, Ill. -- To those that know Wabash Valley College men's basketball assistant coach Cornelius Walker, they know him by his nickname -- "Cornbread" -- a nickname earned at the age of three-years-old, given by his grandma due to his consumption of cornbread. "Cornbread" Walker has been blessed with one skill in particular that has defined much of his life, leadership.
Hailing from St. Louis, the 28-year-old Walker, played basketball at Vashon High School in St. Louis, a school that has won 11 state championships in basketball. During Walker's freshman year at Vashon, the Wolverines were riding a 60-game winning streak, ranked No. 1 in the country, national publicity and spotlight poured on and continued to pour on into their state championship game, a challenge against Poplar Bluff High School.
Walker and the Wolverines faced a Poplar Bluff team starring the Hansbrough brothers, Tyler and Ben. Tyler notably played at North Carolina and was the No. 13 pick in the 2009 NBA draft. The younger brother, Ben, played at Mississippi State and Notre Dame, while also briefly having a stint with the Indiana Pacers after being an undrafted free agent. The Wolverines fell 72-56, snapping their winning streak.
Despite the blemish in his freshman season, Walker went on to have a tremendous high school career, winning the state championship in his sophomore season and averaging 19 points per game, six assists per game and 5 rebounds per game during his senior season at Vashon.
Walker showcased his ability as a leader throughout his high school career, mentoring younger players and being a leader on the court, "So from that standpoint I felt like I was already coaching without coaching," coach Walker recollected. "Helping my teammates out, choosing to do the right things, being a role model." His talent as a leader prompted his coach to make a suggestion that would foreshadow a move in his career, telling Walker to consider coaching if his playing days ever ended.
At the time his playing days were set to continue, but he was seeking an opportunity to continue to play the game he loved at the next level. He had some Division I looks out of high school, but his grades prevented him from going that route and ultimately led to his arrival at WVC. Walker explained that Wabash Valley and one other junior college school were his only options out of high school.
"At that point when I made the decision to come here," Walker recalled. "I didn't really want to stay close to home, because I knew all the negative things I could get into, so I wanted to get away and start my own journey."
He starred at WVC for two seasons as a two-year starter and was the team captain his sophomore season. During his sophomore year, Walker led the Warriors to a 27-5 record and was named to the 2010-11 National Tournament Team. They finished the season ranked No. 7 in the nation.
After two successful years at Wabash Valley, Walker went on to attend Kentucky Wesleyan College, becoming a two-year starter and again, team captain. He graduated from KWC with his Bachelor's Degree in Exercise Science. Some from back home doubted that Walker would be successful in his academic ventures, making Walker relatable for some of the kids that attend Wabash Valley in a similar situation to what he was in.
"Back home, people didn't think I'd finish high school, a lot of people didn't think I'd finish college," coach Walker said. "Now, I'm sitting here with the support I have from my wife, my family, the small circle that I have. Now I'm a kid that made it out of inner city St. Louis that has his master's."
Upon receiving his degree, Walker immediately followed his high school coach's advice and got into coaching. Initially starting as a freshman basketball coach at Auburn High School and as a paraprofessional in Rockford, Ill. Walker and his family moved back into the area, which prompted well known Mt. Carmel native Bill Hackler to set up an introduction between the former WVC star and current head coach Mike Carpenter.
"Fortunately, when we came back here, Mr. Hackler knew I was back and introduced me to Coach Carp," coach Walker said. "I played against Coach Carp when he was at Danville, he kind of remembered me, I kind of remembered him and the rest took care of itself."
Now, Cornbread enters his fourth season as an assistant on staff, his sixth year as a Warrior total. Having been on both sides, first as a player, now as a coach, Walker says the community has truly embraced him and the basketball program. Walker mentioned that during his playing days at WVC some kids would come up to the team for autographs, showing the impact they can have on the youth in the community.
"I think the community loves us. Since the moment I got here in 2008, the community has always been supportive of the basketball team, coming to games, inviting guys over, host families and all of that stuff, they've always been supportive. For the most part as a coaching staff, if we're choosing to bring the right people in, they're always going to come out and watch us."
Still, for someone raised in St. Louis, a significantly larger city than Mt. Carmel, it would figure to be quite an adjustment for Walker. He says it wasn't as tough of an adjustment and move as you may think.
"Me and my wife joke about this all the time, I don't think so," coach Walker said. "I think I got used to it and a little comfortable. Like I said before, being home, home is always going to be home, but it was something that I was ok to get away from because I knew what I had to do to change. I didn't want to go back home because I knew what I could get involved in. Choosing to stay here or move wherever we wanted to do was a decision based off I never wanted to go back and start over what I created of doing negative things.
Though many on the staff affirmed that they don't serve any set role, it's clear Walker uses his leadership skills as his greatest tool. He explained that coach Carpenter and the other assistants welcome his style of voicing his opinion. "I'm not afraid to voice my opinion on and off the court. For our staff, our coaching staff likes that. Just overall, being that leader from playing, it carries over into coaching in my opinion."
He does juggle quite a bit of responsibility, though. Cornbread works in the campus fitness center along with his role as an assistant and has three kids, 11-year-old Kali, 10-year-old Kamori and 4-year-old Kameran -- meaning there can be some long nights and road trips for Walker, while also having young children -- fortunately for Cornbread, he has a very supportive wife, Jami and understanding colleagues.
"My wife has been one of my biggest supporters with getting into coaching," Walker explained. "Knowing the fact that times I'm not going to be home, I'm going to be home late, this and that. The fact that Coach lets me bring my kids to practice, my kids have been to multiple practices, games, even if we go on the road, when I have the balance and support with my wife and Coach willing to let my kids be around, I'm not missing anything. I think it would be a lot harder if I weren't able to have my kids around as much, like just now, my son's not here with me, but he's normally with me, he's normally tagged to my hip. He's always around practice, Coach and the players are very acceptable to my kids and my family so I can't do anything but appreciate that."
Cornbread did name one goal he has set for his career. He aspires to possibly one day be a Division I men's basketball head coach. For someone as young as Walker, who's already been coaching for four seasons at the collegiate level by the age of 28-years-old, it doesn't seem far fetched for someone who's quickly climbed up the ranks and maintained a leadership role at every level.
"There's going to be some milestones [needed] to get there," coach Walker said. "I'm willing to continue to learn and pick up everything I can from different coaches, different teams and anyone else that's willing to help and give advice."
For WVC fans, Walker encourages them to sign their kids up for the kids club at WVC. Every kid who signs up will be around the men's and women's basketball teams, allowing them to opportunity to interact with the players. For any interested, contact coach Walker or Wabash Valley College directly for more information on how to join.