Walton roams RMU home sideline as coach for final time
Hundreds of fans left Robert Morris University on Saturday afternoon with miniature, bronze-colored Joe Walton statues in their possession.
The flesh-and-blood Joe Walton, coach of the football program for 20 seasons, will remain on the Moon campus, but his days as the face of the Colonials are almost done.
Walton coached at the stadium that bears his name for the final time Saturday as Robert Morris lost to Sacred Heart, 42-25, in the Colonials' last regular-season home game.
Following through with plans announced during the offseason, Walton will step down after next week's season finale at St. Francis and serve as a special assistant to Robert Morris athletic director Craig Coleman.
“I've approached this season as one game at a time and business as usual,” said Walton, the program's coach since its inception in 1993. “When the game is over next week, maybe I'll feel different.
“I'm looking forward to working with the athletic department and Dr. Coleman. It's a new adventure in my life. Next phase, move on. It doesn't do any good to look back.”
The loss knocked Robert Morris out of the Northeast Conference title race, while Sacred Heart's win clinched the Pioneers at least a share of the championship as well as the conference's automatic qualifying spot in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Sophomore quarterback R.J. Noel completed 10 of 17 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns for the Pioneers, who scored at least one touchdown in each quarter. He also rushed six times for 74 yards and one score.
Senior running back Deontae Howard gained 80 yards and scored once on 12 carries, and quarterback Paul Jones completed 13 of 32 passes for 175 yards to lead Robert Morris, which struggled with turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble) and pass protection (six sacks allowed).
“I feel bad a little bit that this was his last home game,” said Sacred Heart coach Mark Nofri, a second-year coach who has been involved with the Pioneers for 20 seasons. “But again, someone has to lose, and I didn't want it to be me. But he's a great guy and a legend.”
Colonials senior offensive tackle A.J. Dalton, a four-year starter, failed to notice any difference in Walton before, during or after the game.
“It was 100 percent business right up to the triple zeros,” Dalton said. “It was the same Joe Walton. Nothing changed.”
John Banaszak, a Steelers defensive lineman from 1975 through 1981, will succeed Walton. Banaszak joined Walton's staff as an assistant in 2003 after four years as coach at Division III Washington & Jefferson.
Walton, hired in July 1993, leaves behind a legacy that goes beyond spearheading the foundation of Robert Morris' football program. Under his watch, the Colonials set a high standard early and maintained it for almost a decade, as they claimed or shared six NEC regular-season championships (1996, '97, '98, '99, 2000 and '10).
Walton enters his final game with a career record of 115-91-1.
On Friday, the university honored Walton by inducting him as a one-man class into its athletic hall of fame.
“If it'd been up to me, I wouldn't have had it the night before the game,” Walton said. “There's a lot more at stake this afternoon than me having a banquet. You've got to have your priorities.”
After more than 30 years of work in the NFL, including seven years as the New York Jets' coach, Walton, a Beaver Falls native, welcomed the unfamiliar world of Western Pennsylvania collegiate football.
Robert Morris fielded a team for the first time in 1994, and the Colonials finished 7-1-1.
Walton's career includes many enviable achievements: Before his coaching career started, he twice was named an All-American at Pitt, and former New York Giants teammate and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle called him “the best third-down receiver in the game,” according to a 1983 New York Times story. But Robert Morris' inaugural win, a 24-19 victory at Waynesburg in the 1994 season opener, holds a special place in his memory.
“Becoming a head coach of the Jets was a big time in my life — there aren't too many that make the pros as a head coach — but nothing was more exciting in my career than beating Waynesburg in that first game, with all these young kids that were so excited and anxious to play,” Walton said. “I've fallen in love with the college. It's my second home. I'm glad I'm going to be able to stay around and still be involved.”