West Allegheny's Palko deflects credit for latest title
West Allegheny's Bob Palko becomes uncomfortable talking about WPIAL championships when the focus shifts to him.
“Very uncomfortable,” the coach said with a laugh, “because it's not about me. If I was the only guy, OK, but I'm not. It's not me. It's the kids, and it's the staff, and it's us. It's about us. Not one guy. So, yeah, I'm a lot uncomfortable.”
Regardless, Palko's record is remarkable.
West Allegheny won its sixth WPIAL title in six chances under the veteran coach, with a dominant 34-8 victory Friday over West Mifflin in the Class AAA championship. Since Palko was hired in 1995, no program has won more WPIAL titles. He won't credit himself, but others will.
“He's the guy who brings the community together,” said West Allegheny principal Dan Smith, “but he'll tell you he's surrounded by a lot of good people. Bob will never take the credit; that's the way he is. It's about the kids and about his coaches. When things are bad, Bob stands out front. When things are good, Bob kind of stands in the back.”
Palko, 52, works as assistant athletic director and teaches physical conditioning classes at the high school. His teams won WPIAL titles in 1997, 1999-2001 and 2009, along with a PIAA title in 2001 when son Tyler was quarterback.
“The entire population of kids respects him,” Smith said. “He influences more than just football players. You'd be amazed at the number of kids who want to take his class just to be around him. He's positive all the time.”
West Allegheny assistant Andrew Johnson, who was a star tailback for WPIAL legend Jack McCurry at North Hills, sees similar traits in Palko.
“He's like a younger McCurry,” Johnson said. “He's intense, and he always stands out front for his team. I love him. He's a great guy.”
McCurry, Woodland Hills' George Novak, Upper St. Clair's Jim Render and Blackhawk's Joe Hamilton are considered the icons among active WPIAL coaches. All in their 60s or 70s, the four have won 19 WPIAL titles.
“They're the ones that taught you how to be gracious in defeat,” Palko said, “and they taught you that if you don't freakin' get your team ready, we're going to kick your (butt) again. Those are the guys that made you work so hard so you can have them respect what you do.”
However, Palko is part of a similar foursome for a younger generation — coaches in their 40s and early 50s that include North Allegheny's Art Walker, Thomas Jefferson's Bill Cherpak and Montour's Lou Cerro. Combined, those four have won 18 WPIAL titles, including two Friday.
Rochester's Gene Matsook, 49, won four Class A titles, but none since 2004.
Walker, 42, earned his fifth WPIAL title when North Allegheny won the Class AAAA championship, 21-14, over Woodland Hills. He's the youngest of that next foursome, but Walker became a head coach at 28 and will complete his 15th season this year.
Cherpak, 45, has won four WPIAL titles since becoming Thomas Jefferson's head coach in 1995, the same year Palko was hired at West Allegheny. Cerro, 47, has three WPIAL titles in 20 seasons, including two at Seton-La Salle and another at Montour last season.
Three have career ties: Palko and Cerro were assistants together for Greg Gattuso at Seton-La Salle. Walker was Palko's offensive coordinator for three seasons, including with the Indians' first WPIAL title in 1997.
Another common trait could be their personable approach.
“The kids like those coaches,” Palko said, “and they like playing for them. They understand the kids. That seems to be the theme there.”
As the final seconds ticked away Friday, West Allegheny's Billy Steele and Oleg Chubko chased Palko with the team's water cooler and doused him near midfield. Palko tried to avoid the drenching on a cold night, but the two seniors were persistent.
“He's the guy who will give you a shoulder to lean on,” Steele said, “and he'll also be the guy to kick you in the butt. He wants young men to be polite and nice, and insists life is more than just football. It's about what we do off the field and what we do after we graduate.”
With six WPIAL titles, only former New Castle coach Phil Bridenbaugh (seven between 1922-55) has more than Palko, who makes no promise he'll be coaching three decades or more.
“I hope he never leaves,” said sophomore Armand Dellovade, who scored twice Friday, “because whenever I get older and have kids, I definitely want them to play for him.”
Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.