Whitley: Walton has UF softball at elite level

David Whitley
Gator Sports
Florida softball coach Tim Walton became the second fastest NCAA Division I head coach to earn 900 career wins last year. Earlier this month, Walton won his 800th game as the Gators' coach.

You might not know it by his shoes, but Tim Walton will be worried when he shows up at work today.

Florida's softball coach has something of a shoe fetish. He plans to break out a pair of sunflower yellow Nike Air Maxs for the Louisville game. The whimsical look won't match Walton's mood.

"I get more nervous and anxious playing teams we — quote, unquote — are supposed to beat, rather than teams that are ranked or defending national champions," he said.

Louisville is 3-4, so it'd be understandable if everybody at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium showed up with happy feet. As Walton enters his 16th season at Florida, it's easy to presume 2021 will be another installment in the dynasty.

The No. 6 Gators are 9-0, and Walton won his 800th game at Florida last week. On the outside, it might feel as if the years and wins have flown by.

On the inside, not so much.

"It feels like 16 years," Walton laughed.

He's made winning look a lot easier than it really is. If Florida softball had an official shoe, it should be a steel-toed boot.

Winning seven SEC titles, two national championships and more than 80 percent of your games comes down to hard work. And Walton loves to grind.

"I'm a hands-on coach," he said.

And those hands are into everything.

"I'm the defensive coordinator. I'm the offensive coordinator, sometimes the equipment manager," he said. "There are some things that are exhausting in certain ways, but it's been a lot of fun. It doesn't feel like work, but does feel like I've been here my entire life."

All sports can be grinding, but there's something unique about baseball and softball. There are so many games, and the work begins long before the first pitch.

If it's a night game, Walton's day begins about 10 a.m. There's film study, infield practice, batting practice, pre-game meal, more practice. Then comes the demanding part.

"The mind game," Walton said.

It's two-plus hours of thinking three batters ahead, pondering a dozen scenarios, chewing on the fact a player's batting .239 against righties and .482 against lefties.

And all that thinking happens between every pitch.

It's not a job for everybody. It takes a hands-on, hyper-focused guy whose idea of a good time used to be helping his future wife work on her jump shot.

That was back at Oral Roberts, where Walton was a lowly grad assistant on the baseball team. He met a basketball player named Samantha Rhoten. They'd go to the gym and Walton would rebound for her and drill her passes all night.

"Those were probably the most fun dates I've ever been on," he said.

It gave him an appreciation of women's sports and how to deal with female athletes. That came in handy when his alma mater, Oklahoma, offered Walton a job as assistant softball coach.

He didn't know much about the sport other than it was a lot like baseball. But he was a quick study, became Wichita State's coach after two years, turned that program around and was hired by Florida.

The Gators not only got an offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, equipment manager and psychologist. They got a fashion trendsetter.

Most teams wore soccer socks, but he brought back stirrups and they became the rage. Walton brought in orange, blue, white and gray tops and pants that could be mixed and matched.

The Gators had a kaleidoscope of caps, visors and shoes. Nothing gets Walton going like shoes.

Michael Jordan is supposedly worth $1.6 billion. He can thank Walton for a good chunk of that.

"My shoe game, maybe that's my midlife crisis," he said. "I don't have a motorcycle."

He doesn't know how many sneakers he has, but it's probably in the low triple figures. And he keeps them all in pristine condition.

"I can't wear dirty old ratty shoes," Walton said. "I have a certain standard to keep them at."

He also has a certain standard he holds himself to. It requires him to put on steel-toed boots and be a hands-on grinder.

It's produced 16 years of excellence. But be forewarned, Gator fans.

"I have a hard time believing I can coach another 16 years," Walton said. "Ten is a realistic number."

So enjoy days like today and circle your calendar for June 2031. After about 500 more wins, the perfect ending would be a national championship.

However and whenever the Walton dynasty goes out, one thing is certain. It will go out in style.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

Whitley

UF softball

Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium

Saturday: 1 p.m. vs. Louisville, 98.1-FM/AM-850, SEC Network+

Sunday: 10 a.m. vs. Louisville, 98.1-FM/AM-850, SEC Network+

1 p.m. vs. McNeese State