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January 24, 2012

RMU goes for stability with Banaszak

It may have been the worst kept secret around the football program. When Joe Walton finally decided to hang up the whistle, assistant head coach John Banaszak was the most likely option to take over.

Robert Morris made it official Tuesday, formally announcing Banaszak as the coach-in-waiting. The 61-year-old will be the second head coach in Robert Morris history after Walton steps down at the end of the 2013 season.

"We are blessed to have right here on our coaching staff the exact individual with the background, the stature, the intangibles to become to the second head coach in Robert Morris University football history," athletic director Dr. Craig Coleman said.

Coleman and university president Dr. Gregory Dell'Omo introduced Banaszak, while Walton joined the press conference via video feed from his annual vacation spot in Puerto Rico.

With palm trees looming in the background, Walton welcomed Banaszak to the fraternity of Division I head coaches.

"I want to welcome you to paradise," Walton said. "It's been a labor of love. I love the university and I love everybody that I've been associated with there. It's been a great ride. I certainly think that all of the help that I received was part of the success we've had and helped build the program."

A three-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers and a former head coach at Division III Washington and Jefferson College, Banaszak spoke of his growing friendship with Walton over the years and referred to how closely the two have worked together since Banaszak joined the staff ten years ago. Because of that relationship, Banaszak said the goals over the next two years during the transition are very simple: Two Northeast Conference titles.

"Our goal over the next two years as a football program is to win two more championships for Coach Walton, to send Coach Walton out on top as a champion," he said. "That would be the greatest tribute that we can give the man who built this program the last 18 years."

Walton and Banaszak said recruiting had a major impact on making the announcement now, as the program and the university wanted to establish some stability during the transition.

"It became evident to me after I announced that I would retire in two years that it might be a problem with recruiting, and this seemed like the best solution for us to make sure that all recruits know that everything's stable and will be in good hands," Walton said.

Senior defensive end Nolan Nearhoof, one of several current players in attendance, said that continuity - in all forms - is a huge lift for the program.

"You always want some success as you go on, you always want to build a program like a dynasty," he said. "You never want to see the program go downhill after you leave, and knowing that Coach Banaszak's going to be here as the head coach you know we're not going to take a huge dive on either the offensive side or defensive side of the ball."

Nearhoof added that Banaszak was already a major part of the recruiting process and that the stability will help sell the team.

"I know when we bring recruits in, we always bring them in to see Coach Banaszak to see the Super Bowl rings and everything," Nearhoof said. "It's huge. As a recruit coming in, you know he's been through everything. If you have any questions for your football career, he can answer them. Academically or athletically, he can answer all of them."

Walton also recalled how different things are from when he first stepped onto campus in 1993 and began building the program from scratch.

"I remember thinking around the third day after I got the job, 'What in the world did I get myself into?" he said. "As things unfolded, and certainly with the help of Coach (Dan) Radakovich who is my dear friend as well as a good coach, we got the thing moving. It became more and more part of me, part of my life."

Establishing Banaszak as the successor enabled Robert Morris to lay the groundwork for the next stage in the football program's development. Walton will not be a figurehead during these two years, and Banaszak will wield the same amount of influence as he - and the rest of the staff - always has.

"John has been very active now as my assistant head coach for the past few years," Walton said. "I don't see any changes on the field, per se, but certainly he will be involved a little more in the decisions we make that will affect him when he takes over. We work so well together now, and I used him as a sounding board for decisions in the past, and I can't see that changing."

Banaszak wanted to make it clear that there won't be a power struggle, as has been the case at other universities with a similar arrangement.

"I certainly understand very clearly Coach Walton is still my boss," he said with a smile. "But our relationship goes much deeper than that, much deeper than boss and employee."

Banaszak also said that he wants to establish himself as even more than a coach with the program by being very visible on campus and in the community. He spoke often of tradition and helping to build the program so that it resembles the quality tradition of other older programs in the nation.

"I believe that I am much more than a football coach to these young men. As a matter of fact, I believe I have to be more than a football coach," he said. "If that's all I am to them during their years here at Robert Morris University, then I have failed in my responsibilities."

Banaszak said that he's looking forward to preparing for the 2012 season, as well as preparing for the transition process.

"We certainly have an awful lot of work to do the next two years," he said. "For the juniors and seniors who will be here the next two years, we will continue to strive to change what happened a year ago. To the freshmen, well, good luck to you guys because you're going to have me in my first year."

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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