GAINESVILLE — For once, Florida coach Tim Walton didn’t have a proven game plan, so he listened to his instincts and his heart.
Softball and family formed the basis of a friendship with Sal Enea and a bond with his two daughters – Christina in Oklahoma in the early 2000s and Francesca later in Gainesville.
With Enea’s mind and body failing her in the spring of 2017, Walton sent a package containing Francesca’s American exploits on DVD – her greatest hits – to perhaps jog her father’s memory.
“Holy shit, did that man try to make sure he was there for me to support me emotionally!” Francesca said of Walton. “Coach Walton sent every DVD – yes, a DVD – that he had of me playing. He was like, ‘Play this for your dad while you’re in the hospital with him. Maybe that will help.
“He knew my dad was and is obsessed with softball.”
Although nothing could save Sal Enea, who would die of dementia and heart failure, Walton kept making moves until the final batting.
To reach 1,000 college softball wins faster than anyone but Arizona legend Mike Candrea, Walton relied on his bulldog mentality, eye for detail and steady hand to produce a player’s best effort. . Beneath the sturdy frame of Oklahoma’s 1994 National Championship team-winning pitcher and gruff exterior — often accompanied by a shadow at 5 o’clock — lies a coach’s warm heart for his players.
Sal Enea’s story is one example, though those tuning in to this weekend’s NCAA Gainesville Regional might see more Jekylls than Walton’s Hyde depending on the Gators’ performance.
“That’s who he is,” Florida record holder Amanda Lorenz said of Walton. “He’s the kind of human, he’s the kind of coach, he’s the kind of family man he is. It flies super under the radar.
“He seems like a badass on ESPN, but he’s a lot closer to us than he seems.”
Lorenz, the Gators’ all-time leading hitter and second four-time All-American (2016-19), remains at Walton’s side.
After earning a master’s degree in sports management and a stint in professional softball, Lorenz joined the Gators as a volunteer assistant coach in August 2020.
“I love the game and I love learning from it and working for a program that made me who I am,” Lorenz said. “It’s really easy to show up to work every day for someone you respect and love.”
Walton was the perfect coach for Lorenz, who arrived from Southern California in 2015 looking to make her mark.
Francesca Enea, another Orange County native who now resides in Orlando, had lofty goals of her own when she became the Walton Gators’ first signing in 2006.
“He is driven by success; that’s the only answer he has,” Enea said. “He will never shoot for average. He shoots to win national championships.
“That’s the type of mentality he tries to recruit every time.”
Still, Walton prides himself on his ability to uniquely motivate each player on the roster.
“I really am a chameleon,” he says. “I’m so adaptable and adjustable. But my best players who I’ve had the best relationship with, it’s because I’m exactly what they want me to be.
Walton realizes he’s not for everyone, either.
The 49-year-old’s meticulous nature has a touch of OCD.
“Everything always has to be perfect,” said Enea, ESPN analyst for Florida and UCF games. “If there’s like a chalk line a centimeter away, he’ll know it, he’ll see it, he’ll have the guy fix it.”
Walton does not deny it.
“It’s a gift and a curse,” he joked. “I number my socks. This will give you a pretty good idea.
Walton, however, does not hide his idiosyncrasies or expectations.
“A kid once said to me,” he recalls, “Coach Walton, I really appreciate your honesty. I’m going to school B because I don’t want to work so hard. I like softball. I don’t know if I like softball that much.
Walton needed full membership during the early days in Gainesville.
Florida was coming off three straight 40-win seasons, but an SEC regular-season title in 1998 was the program’s only championship and led athletic director Jeremy Foley to revive the program. He hired Walton to replace Karen Johns in June 2005 after leading Wichita State to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 16 years.
Now 17, 2 national titles, 8 SEC titles and 883 wins since Walton’s arrival, Foley still remembers the application letter written by the then 32-year-old coach.
“It was pretty obvious he wanted the job,” Foley recalled. “I discovered early in my career that you had to find people who wanted to be here. He’s incredibly articulate, a big smile. He’s smart; he’s fun. He had a vision.
“Obviously he made us all look good.”
In Walton’s first season, the Gators shocked defending national champion Michigan and won the program’s first NCAA regional game against North Carolina.
Two years later, UF has won 70 games and an SEC title. In 2009, the Gators reached the final of the Women’s College World Series.
Of his 1,006 wins, including the Gators’ first regional victory 10-1 over Canisius on Friday and 123 at Wichita State, Walton’s most highly rated was a 2-0 victory over Virginia Tech to avoid a double elimination in WCWS 2008 .
“It’s the wall breaker,” Walton recalled. “’Very well, we are an elite. We won a match at the World Series. We didn’t just show up.
After victories over UCLA and Texas A&M, Walton suffered the bitterest loss of 20 seasons, a 1-0 loss to A&M in extra innings to cost Florida a championship berth. He wonders if the Gators would have been better prepared in the 2009 Finals against Washington.
“What does that do for your preparation, your confidence?” said Walton.
Walton’s mind will be working from every angle as his program aims for a ninth trip to the WCWS with a more than capable team when playing their best.
Whatever happens, once the season is over and the players move on, Walton aims to stay in their lives forever.
“There are so many people who need Tim Walton in their lives, and there are so many people who don’t need him, but I’m here,” he said. “I will always be available. Maybe they’re getting married, maybe they have kids, maybe a family member dies or whatever.
“I will never exceed my limits, but I will always be close enough for them to get what they need.”