Robert Morris' Walton prepares for final season on sideline
Joe Walton really means it this time.
There will be no second-guessing or rethinking his position to step down as the only football coach Robert Morris has known following the 2013 season.
For Walton, 77, some things are meant to be.
“I know that it's time. Twenty years at one place is enough for anybody,” said Walton, who opens his 19th season at Robert Morris on Aug. 29 at Eastern Kentucky.
“That's a lot of years,” athletic director Craig Coleman said. “When you look around college football, with very few exceptions, you don't see one coach in one place for 20 years. Especially after they retired. Remember, he was in retirement when he came out of retirement to coach this program.”
Walton spent the 1993 season — a year before coaching his first game at Robert Morris — recruiting players and hiring a coaching staff.
“I thought I'd be here two or three years and then go back (to the NFL),” said Walton, who coached the New York Jets from 1983-89 and served as Steelers offensive coordinator in 1990-91. “But once I was here, and once I got to know all the people and be around the program, I didn't want to leave.”
After more than three decades in the NFL, Walton, a two-time All-American at Pitt who once before had contemplated retirement only to change his mind, sat out the 1992 season before resurfacing at Robert Morris.
Little did Walton realize that leaving the familiar surroundings of the NFL — he spent more than three decades in the league — for the uncertainty of small-college football at a school without a team would complete him as a coach.
All Walton has done is compile a 109-86-1 record, including a 70-44 mark in the Northeast Conference and six NEC regular-season titles, most in league history. In 2010, the Colonials became the first NEC team to advance to the FCS playoffs.
“When I got here, we didn't have a locker room. We didn't have any offices. We had no equipment. We had nothing,” Walton said. “Above all, we had no players. It was a learning experience for me. It was a little scary at first. But things kept falling in place.”
Exactly how much has Walton meant to Robert Morris — the university as well as the football program? Enough to ensure that his contributions will be lasting, his name never forgotten.
Since 2005, the Colonials have played home games at Joe Walton Stadium on their Moon campus.
When soliciting financial contributions for construction of the $10 million facility, school officials were required to honor a request from an anonymous donor who gave a record $1.5 million gift.
The stadium had to be named not after the donor but Walton, the architect of the football program.
“How many coaches get to coach in a stadium with their name on it?” asked Coleman, Robert Morris' AD since 2005. “Football has been tremendous, as this university has evolved from what used to be a commuter campus to now a full-fledged living residential campus.
“When you talk about somebody having an impact on the program, it means they came in and changed things somehow. In this case, there was no program.
“Joe Walton created the program. He developed the program. He took it from nothing — literally — to where it is now.”
Walton's hand-picked successor is assistant head coach John Banaszak, who won three Super Bowls with the Steelers under coach Chuck Noll from 1975-82. Walton was an assistant under Noll from 1990-91.
Walton will remain on campus as special assistant to the athletic director, where he will focus on fundraising.
“It's time to let coach Banaszak take over,” Walton said. “I'll still be around. I just won't be on the field every day anymore.”
On the field is where Walton puts in his best work.
His first team at Robert Morris, cobbled together with 64 freshmen at a school that had never had football in 73 previous years, spoke to the measure of the coach.
“We had a great year,” said Walton, who credits longtime assistant Dan Radakovich with easing his transition into college football. “We were 7-1-1, which was unbelievable.”
Coming from Walton, that's saying a mouthful.
Walton's best season was 2000, when the Colonials finished 10-0 and won the Division I-AA mid-major national championship. It's the only Robert Morris football team to finish undefeated.
“He's a very humble coach,” Coleman said. “He doesn't put the spotlight on himself. He puts the spotlight on his kids.”
Offensive lineman Hank Fraley is arguably Walton's best player at Robert Morris. Fraley (Class of 1999) won or shared league titles in each of his four seasons.
Listed as the second athlete to have his number retired at RMU, Fraley started 123 games with the Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams.
“I truly owe him a lot,” Fraley, a first-year assistant at San Jose State, said of Walton. “His greatest accomplishment was seeing young men grow and how they passed on what they learned from him.
“That's how he leaves his legacy as Robert Morris' football coach.”