Banaszak instills toughness in Robert Morris football team
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About one week into his first training camp as coach of Robert Morris' football team, John Banaszak sat his players down for their nightly meeting and started showing grainy film footage on a projector screen.
The film displayed Banaszak as he went through one-on-one drills during his rookie season with the Steelers in 1975.
What mattered were not the particular techniques used by Banaszak and his teammates, though. The first-year coach just wanted his Colonials to understand the fierceness and intensity that existed among the Steelers during their era of dominance.
Banaszak encouraged the Colonials to adopt such attitudes if they hoped to see the field this fall.
The second head coach in the history of Robert Morris football, Banaszak, 64, draws inspiration from two relatively short but profoundly influential parts of his life: The decade he spent as a defensive lineman in the NFL and later the USFL, and the two years he was in the U.S. Marine Corps after high school.
Both experiences convinced Banaszak that a great deal of toughness abounds in many people. His job as coach is to pull that potential out of his players.
“There's a lot of Marine left in me and in my approach,” said Banaszak, who served as a Robert Morris assistant from 2003 to 2013 before succeeding Joe Walton as coach in December. “Once a Marine, always a Marine. Once a Steeler, always a Steeler. And once a Colonial, always a Colonial. That's all very important to me and my approach to these kids.”
Banaszak, a Steeler from 1975 to 1981, cites Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll and Walton, the founding father of Robert Morris football, as two of his greatest mentors. But he believes he must handle his practices differently; he wants to stray from the predictable, “NFL-style” schedule that Walton, a former coach of the New York Jets, maintained while in charge of the Colonials.
“Today, kids get used to that routine, and once they're in a routine, it becomes a little bit easier to make it through practice,” Banaszak said. “So we've changed some things up: We condition them early in practice to see how they practice when they're a little bit tired. We condition them twice during practice to see how they react to a change in the routine.
“That's the old Marine in me: You make practice harder than the real thing, harder than a real game.”
In anticipation of their new coach's conditioning program, the Colonials embraced tougher offseason workouts, redshirt senior offensive lineman Jon Hill said.
“Coach B, with his history with the Marine Corps and all, he likes to push people and see their limitations,” Hill said. “He likes to see who will step up when everyone is tired.”
Most Robert Morris fans will never see the way Banaszak altered the Colonials' practice habits. But plenty will recognize the new offensive philosophy, as the team traded in a methodical, run-heavy scheme for a no-huddle one. Darrin Hicks arrived as the new offensive coordinator in December and supervised the playing style shift.
Ultimately, no matter how the Colonials line up or move the ball, they must showcase the combination of toughness and discipline that Banaszak considers essential for success. He brought out old footage of himself as a Steeler to remind his players that the traits he used to start 59 games in the NFL still gets the job done today.
“He was showing us the ruthlessness and relentlessness of the people going at it and competing,” Hill said of the footage. “He said he wanted to see us doing more of that.”
Sixteen starters return for the Dukes, who went 7-4 and finished tied with Sacred Heart for the best record in the Northeast Conference at 4-2. Second-team All-NEC selections Zach Zidian and Rich Pierkarski, a junior tackle and a senior safety, respectively, are key playmakers for a defense that might need to adjust to the absence of junior linebacker Christian Kuntz, an All-NEC first-teamer in 2013 who suffered a knee injury in the spring and could miss the season. Nine starters are back for the defense, which ranked second in the conference in yards allowed per game (325.5). Former WPIAL standouts Wayne Capers Jr. (Chartiers Valley) and Armstead Williams (Gateway), both juniors, return to Western Pennsylvania after transferring from Arizona and Purdue, respectively. Capers adds depth to the receiving corps, and Williams is a candidate to replace Kuntz at linebacker. The Dukes placed second in the conference's preseason coaches poll.
Experience on the offensive line, provided by multiyear starters Jon Hill (redshirt senior right tackle), Nick Faraci (senior center) and Max Robertson (junior left guard), will help the Colonials' new QB settle into his role. Junior Derik Abbott and sophomore Luke Brumbaugh emerged as the top two candidates to replace Paul Jones, who was ruled academically ineligible. Defensively, three starters return — senior defensive end Forrest Mason, senior outside linebacker Mike Stojkovic and senior defensive back Antwan Eddie. The Colonials, who went 5-6 overall and 3-3 in the NEC last season, took third in the conference's preseason coaches poll.
The graduation of workhorse running back Kyle Harbridge leaves a sizable hole in the Red Flash offense, which watched Harbridge finish his career as the school's all-time rushing leader with 4,126 yards. Junior Khairi Dickson will see more carries after gaining 242 yards on 71 attempts. Senior linebacker Bishop Neal, a Clairton product, will anchor the defense after earning second-team All-NEC honors and making a team-high 79 tackles last season.
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