Walton leaves lasting legacy at Robert Morris
Joe Walton won't allow himself time to reflect on his 20 years as Robert Morris' only football coach.
With two games remaining and a seventh Northeast Conference championship within reach, there still is much to do.
“I've approached this season as business as usual,” said Walton, 77, who will retire from coaching and work as a special assistant to athletic director Craig Coleman. “I'm still doing the same things I do every week.”
When pressed on the subject, Walton is forthright and accommodating. Like when he described touring the campus in 1993 with Edward Nicholson, then the university's growth-minded president trying to sell the notion of starting a Division I-AA (now FBC) football program from scratch.
“We walked around, and I thought, ‘This place is a dump,' ” Walton recalled. “The dormitories were half-full and a little run down. There was so much that needed to be done.”
Walton accepted the challenge and did what needed to be done. In the first season in 1994, playing in a high school stadium with 64 freshmen, none on scholarship, Walton and the Colonials went 7-1-1.
Eventually the scholarships would come, along with charter membership in the NEC, a record six championships and a new football complex anchored by Joe Walton Stadium.
Walton had nurtured a program from birth to adulthood. Maintaining family ties, he even hand-picked longtime assistant coach John Banaszak to succeed him.
Walton, who will be inducted into the RMU Hall of Fame on Friday, said he still can't grasp his name adorning the stadium. Modesty has been his signature. Despite Walton's impressive background, Coleman said, “it was never the case with him” to act superior or condescending or to big-time anyone. “He's a humble guy.”
Several years ago, Walton congratulated college basketball coach Bob Knight on his 900th win. Walton began his letter by suggesting that Knight might not be familiar with him. Wrong.
“You are mistaken in my not knowing you,” Knight wrote, recounting Walton's playing career as an All-America end at Pitt and later with the Giants and Redskins and his many years as an NFL assistant and head coach.
“No one could know more about what it takes to win than you do,” Knight continued. He called Walton “one of the great competitors ever to play the game.”
After his last NFL job in 1991 as a Steelers assistant under Chuck Noll, Walton took a year off from coaching. He missed it and decided to take the plunge at RMU. He wanted to stay close to his home in Beaver Falls, where his wife, Ginger, battling cancer, was familiar with the doctors (she died in 2007). Walton took a huge pay cut from his Steelers job and turned down other NFL offers, but he always said it was worth it. Meanwhile, the place he called a dump has grown into a vibrant university.
“The school has come a long way since I started,” he said. “I'd like to think I helped.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.