Bernie Walter always considered himself a teacher first and a coach second. Truth be told, in Walter’s viewpoint the two titles are synonymous.
Walter served as guest speaker for the sixth annual Capital Gazette High School Athletes of the Year Showcase and told the audience that success in coaching starts with knowing how to teach youngsters.
“Wondering why the Orioles are so bad this season? It’s because they have a bunch of coaches that don’t know how to teach at every level of the organization,” Walter said. “They hired former ballplayers that know the game of baseball, but don’t know how to teach it.”
It would be hard to argue with the philosophy espoused by Walter, the all-time winningest public school baseball coach in Maryland history. The longtime Linthicum resident compiled a phenomenal 609-185 career record during 37 seasons as head coach at Arundel High.
Capital Gazette Newspapers honored 24 individuals for being named Player or Athlete of the Year in a respective sport over the course of the 2017-2018 school year during Wednesday night’s banquet at Michael’s 8th Avenue. Walter called those youngsters the “Best of the Best” of Anne Arundel County athletics and applauded them for achieving excellence.
Walter spent nearly four decades as a teacher in the Anne Arundel County public school system and lamented how standards were steadily reduced toward the end of his tenure. Students that failed tests were given a second chance to pass – a “do-over” in Walter’s words. Grades were inflated in order to make sure as many students as possible were promoted, he said.
Walter pointed out that sports standards cannot be changed in order to make things easier – the football field must be 100 yards long, the basketball hoop stays at 10 feet high and home plate in baseball will always be 17 inches wide.
“Those standards remain the same regardless of the level. They don’t change for middle school, high school, college or professional,” Walter said. “Sport does not change the rules to accommodate the ones who fail.”
Discipline and accountability are also becoming more and more difficult to administer in the classroom, Walter said. That is not the case in the athletic arena where misbehavior results in the perpetrator being required to run wind sprints while repeated rules violations often lead to benching or ultimately dismissal from the team.
“There has to be some sort of consequence for failing to follow the rules,” said Walter, who led Arundel baseball to a record 10 state championships and was inducted into the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.
Walter’s ultimate message to those being recognized at the Capital Gazette Athletes of the Year Showcase was that participation in prep sports can teach many valuable lessons. Respect for authority and the opponent are important in athletics. Composure is a necessity for an athlete competing in a high-pressure situation with fans screaming. Dependability is a critical component of being part of a team.
“Those are some of the important concepts players learn and represent the true value of sports,” he said. “All are of significant worth with the goal not only to develop better student-athletes, but to make them better citizens through teaching life lessons.”
Walter continued that athletics allow youngsters to develop meaningful relationships with others and a spirit of competition. Discipline, hard work and a positive attitude are required to achieve success.
Ultimately, all athletics are results oriented and therefore participants must learn how to deal with winning and losing.
“Learn how to win without bragging and lose without whining. Learn humility and overcoming adversity,” Walter said.
Along the way, athletes learn that honesty and integrity are paramount on the field of play. Cheaters are invariably caught and punished.
“Truth matters so you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules,” Walter said. “Therefore, success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square.”
Walter did not hesitate when asked what he preached to his players.
“First and foremost was to have fun. That always has to be the No. 1 thing. You can’t be playing for college scholarships or to make the All-County team or whatever,” he said. “Playing high school sports should be a fun and rewarding experience.”
Walter cited research that shows only five percent of high school athletes go on to play at the collegiate level and just two percent receive scholarships. That is why having fun and learning life lessons should be valued over the end-goal of getting recruited to the next level, he said.
Those that do get an opportunity to participate in college athletics gain an increased chance of earning good grades and ultimately graduating, statistics show. Graduation rates for student-athletes are 86 percent at the Division I level, 87 percent in Division III as compared to just 56 percent for most college enrollees.
“Playing sports helps you graduate because you are required to stay eligible in order to compete,” Walter said. “Athletics is a significant part of the educational process. You learned lessons that are far more valuable than some of what you learned in the classroom. Those intangible skills of character, discipline, responsibility and sportsmanship are why employers want to hire student-athletes like you.”
Walter is the only high school coach in Maryland history to direct teams to state championships in four different decades. Arundel baseball posted winning records in 37 straight seasons under Walter, who also led the Gambrills school to 14 regional championships and 16 county championships.
Along the way, Walter developed what became known as the “Arundel Way” – a philosophy, culture and set of rules that were catalogued in a handbook that became known as the “bible” and was distributed to players prior to each season.
“I cannot tell you how many former players have reached out to say: ‘I operate my business exactly how you ran the baseball program.’ That makes me feel pretty good,” Walter said. “It means they learned the key to any good organization involves working and striving to achieve a common goal.”