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August 28, 2013

Coaches, players discuss Walton's legacy

Football is ingrained into the culture of Western Pennsylvania. It has been a part of the region's weekends for roughly a century now. Stories of families watching sons play on Friday night, traveling to the local college on Saturday and then sitting down to watch the NFL on Sunday are abound.

But for the first few decades of Robert Morris' existence as a Division I college, football was not part of the school's culture. That all changed in the early '90s, when then-president Edward Nicholson announced that the school would launch a football program. A month later, he hired a Western Pennsylvania native to be the school's first coach: Joe Walton.

Twenty years later, Walton is embarking on his final season in charge at RMU. At the end of the 2013 season, he will step aside, hand the reins to John Banaszak, and take on an emeritus role in the RMU athletic department. Over the last 19 seasons, Walton's been at the center of many stories involving Robert Morris football. More are likely to come in this 20th year. The man's identity is irrevocably linked to his profession. He will always be thought of as a football coach.

But as the players, colleagues and administrators who know him best will argue, Joe Walton is more than a football coach. He is a friend, confidant and father-figure. He is intimidating yet caring, demanding yet fair. It's why ColonialsCorner decided to let those who know Joe Walton best explain in their own words what made the man so unique.

Since Robert Morris' inception as a Division I school in the mid-1970s, the highest profile sport at the school was basketball. The program had gone to several NCAA Tournaments and had a modicum of success. But the growing school wanted something more, and in 1993 Robert Morris announced the decision to launch a Division I football program.

Dr. Craig Coleman (softball coach 1991-present, athletic director 2005-present): I remember thinking, 'Wow, we don't have a lot of resources in this athletic department. Football's going to be awfully tough.' But then when they announced that Coach Walton was going to run the program, it was like, 'Wow, this is for real. We're not intending to mess around here.'

Marty Galosi (sports information director 1990-2001, senior associate athletic director 2001-present): The buzz around him was enormous, thanks to the fact that he had just been with the Steelers and just been with the Jets. And here comes RMU making this enormous splash, which we've been known to do since then. This was the first big splash that I saw the University able to make.

He was always willing. I remember the very first night he was named head coach, a talk show host in LA wanted him on at ten o'clock. It was seven o'clock their time and I remember calling back and forth. It was fun. He took it all in stride. For me as a young person, I could tell this guy knew what he was doing. Let's face it, he had to deal with New York. We were getting media requests from every which way and he handled them all.

Coleman:: They did a meet the coaches session outdoors and I remember a kid asking Coach Walton if he planned to use the same offense that he ran with the Steelers when he started the team here. And he said yes. And the kid said, "Well, you know Bubby Brister had trouble running your offense with the Steelers." And he said, "Well hopefully our quarterback at a school like this will be smarter than Bubby Brister was." It was just so surreal to have an NFL icon on this campus getting ready to run the football team.

One of Walton's first tasks was finding a coaching staff, including someone who would be his right-hand man. He found one in former colleague Dan Radakovich, a longtime college and pro coach who is considered the founder of Linebacker U. at Penn State.

Radakovich (assistant head coach/defensive coordinator 1994, 1996-2007): He hired me at least five times in my career. So I can say he's been my main employer. I turned him down at first. My wife said to call him back. I said, "He's starting a small college program. I don't want to coach small college. Plus the money stinks." She said, 'I don't care. I married you for better or worse, but not to hang around the house for two years. Call him back.'

So I came down to talk to him and I walked in the Sewall Center, found his office, and there's no windows. They built that building all goofy. I said, 'Is this your office?' He said it was and I said I'm out of here. I'm not living underground. I started walking across the gym floor. He ran up and caught me and said, 'No, no, no. that's not going to be our office. The president said we can search the whole campus for offices."

Walton and Radakovich spent the first fall recruiting, so that by the time the first training camp launched in 1994, they had more prospective players than they knew what to do with.

Radakovich: We recruited 157 kids the first year. We were non-scholarship. But the reason they wanted football was to increase enrollment. The president even introduced us his enrollment managers at the Christmas dinner.

Brian Cleary (offensive lineman 1994-1997, assistant coach 1999-2000, 2002): The first thing that jumped out to me was the sea of bodies that was there. The coaches knew about a handful of guys that they recruited, but that was it. Because of the amount of players we had, you'd move through the drills and you had maybe one opportunity in front of Rad or Walton to showcase your skill set. You had to learn very quickly that Coach Walton and Coach Rad moved around quite a bit in that first year, so you had to develop a relationship with your position coaches at the time.

It was almost to the point where it became comical. If you could put your hand on the ground and run, you were on the field. They'll figure out the Xs and Os with us. One of the jokes Walton always used to say to Rad was that if someone could play football, the defense got him. The defense snagged the athletes and Walton was left over with whatever.

Radakovich: At the beginning, in our first game against Waynesburg, I took a blackboard on the bus with me and went over all of the defenses on the way down because we were still learning. We didn't know what was going to happen. We ended up winning our first game.

Robert Morris ended up winning more than that, running out to a 5-0 start before finishing the season 7-1-1. That included a showdown between 5-0 Robert Morris and 5-0 Duquesne at Moon Stadium, and the birth of a football rivalry.

Galosi: I think the Duquesne game was clearly the most vivid memory that year, to see 8,000 people crammed into Moon Stadium. People were standing in the end zones.

Radakovich: When I came, I told him originally, "We won't win a game with this setup.' And he says, 'Nah. Rad, you'll put some goofy blitzes in that the other team can't pick up. We'll win a couple games.' We won more games than we thought. The biggest one was when we beat Duquesne and we beat them bad. That's when we pulled the coup. The smartest thing we did that year was the first team we scheduled to play was Duquesne. And since we had all open dates, we didn't schedule another game the week before we played Duquesne. We wanted an open date so we could put in new stuff they hadn't seen before and at least look good at it. We didn't expect to beat them but we wanted to at least look good. We had two weeks to prepare for them and we were both 5-0 at the time. It had the largest crowd ever at Moon Stadium, and they sold more Robert Morris shirts and caps and stuff than in the history of the school.

Walton brought his well-tested playbook from his time with the Jets and Steelers to Robert Morris. Over the years, it's been criticized for its complexity and rigidness, but he had early success with it at Robert Morris. RMU captured five straight Northeast Conference titles from 1996 to 2000, including a perfect 10-0 season in 2000.

Cleary: At first, you tried to play little mind games like memorization. Then as the game slows down, you pick up the terminology and start understanding it and Coach Walton feels that the offense is out there and understands it, he can really start opening it up. When he starts opening up the offense, it's lights out. You can't stop it.

He'll call plays and it might not work, but he knows 12 plays from now he'll call something similar and it's going to work because he set it up. He doesn't go for the home run a lot. Sometimes as players, we became impatient. We knew we had these thoroughbred athletes and we're like, 'Why aren't we throwing bombs every play? Why aren't we spreading guys out?' He has a mindset and a philosophy of how to call plays and with his offense you have to be patient.

Jeff Sinclair (quarterback 2009-2012, assistant coach 2013-present): His system does work. We've won multiple championships here with the same offense. We've won in the past and we've won recent. You just have to buy into the offense. You just have to trust in him.

Hank Fraley (offensive lineman 1996-2000, 10 year NFL veteran): He almost runs a pro-style training camp. Training camp is hard no matter where you're at, but he ran it more like an NFL style camp. He treated us like NFL players, it almost seems like. He treated us well, but he demanded a lot from us.

Walton also had a few motivational tools up his sleeve.

Kevin Wachhaus (offensive lineman 2000-2003, assistant coach 2003-2004): In high school, we won eight games in three years. So I wasn't used to winning games or being on a winning football team. I had no idea what that culture was like. So I come in my freshman year as an 18-year old kid and I don't know my ass from a hole in the ground. I had a wonderful camp. I remember just killing people. I might hold that as my best year. I was a 6-foot-3, 255-pound pulling guard. I was by far the smallest guy on that team.

I win the starting job and we line up for the first day of walkthroughs for Buffalo State in week one. Walton's going through the game plan with us and going over everything, and he goes, 'Now Dennis, here's what you do.' I'm sitting there thinking, 'Dennis?' Here I am, an 18-year old kid getting a game plan from a former pro coach, and he says my name is Dennis! I'm kind of looking around, and all of the guys are laughing under their breath. This went on for the entire season! And I never had the stones to go, 'Coach, my name's Kevin.'

I don't know how it came up, but late in the season someone alerted Walton to the fact that my name was in fact Kevin. Now keep in mind that I've got blonde hair and freckles. He looks at me and goes, 'Huh? Yeah, I just thought you looked like Dennis the Menace.' He knew my name was Kevin, but just to bust me once and a while he'd call me Dennis for the rest of my career. It was Walton being Walton.

Along with the success came a series of firsts. None was bigger for a fledgling program than to have its first NFL Draft pick. That came in the form of running back Tim Hall, who dominated opponents as a powerful but shifty back for two seasons before graduating in 1996. The Oakland Raiders took Hall in the sixth round of the 1996 draft. Though Hall remains the only draft pick in RMU history, Walton's always tried to prepare his players for the future.

Galosi: I remember sending out video to Bay Area TV stations. Here's our man! Here's who you got. It's like any other time. You're not sure if he's going to be drafted. If an NFL team picks you, it's not out of charity. He did well.

Fraley: One of the things he said to me after getting to see me play was, 'Hey, you're talented. I think if you work hard and you really want it, you have an opportunity for yourself to maybe play at the next level. It depends on how hard you work for it.' That's not what he sells to college kids or anyone he's recruiting. We all want to play at that next level, but that's not what he sells. It's you're going to get a great education and hopefully after you leave here in four or five years, you're going to be a great young man. That's what he prides himself more on than winning championships.

Their ties to the NFL and being up there all those years definitely helped to get guys look at me, not necessarily if they were interested in me. Coach Radakovich and him were both instrumental in getting me to the next level. I remember going with Radakovich in the gym after my senior year. I played tackle my whole career there and I just worked center and guard drills day in and day out.

Hall, Fraley and defensive back Robb Butler all played regular season games in the NFL. Many others made it to training camps. But with those highs came one of the lowest moments for the program and for Walton. On September 30, 1998, Tim Hall was murdered in a drive-by shooting in his native Kansas City, Missouri.

Galosi: That was a bad day. Our secretary, Margo Turner, told me about it. It's like anything. It's shock. Disbelief. How'd this happen? I think Joe felt like he lost a son that day. It was a dark day. Real life, unfortunately, creeps in.

I remember having a memorial service for him. That was 1998 and most of his class was out, too. I do vividly remember going to Wagner the Saturday after it happened and saying, 'This is surreal. Are we supposed to be here?' We went out and beat Wagner. It wasn't our best team. We went 4-6 with a freshman quarterback, Tim Levcik. But I remember that team pulling together.

With the program stable a decade into existence, Robert Morris began a new push. After ten years at nearby Moon High School stadium, Robert Morris opened a new campus stadium for the start of the 2005 season.

Coleman: The stadium was a huge move. Moon High School has a great facility and it's right down the road, but it's not the same as having your own place on campus. Football is a sport, but from the larger university perspective, football is a culture. It's an event. It's a rallying point for student and campus excitement, and for school spirit. That's what football is. It's hard to do that when you're not right on campus.

In the midst of the construction process, an anonymous donor stepped forward to help complete the stadium. The donor had one condition: The stadium must be named after Walton.

Galosi: It couldn't have been more natural. Everyone was like, 'Yeah, of course!' Even before the stadium was built, you'd look over from the side of Sewall and never think you could put a football stadium here. Now it's an unbelievable atmosphere and it's great in the fall.

Coleman: Putting his name on it - I'm sure he was embarrassed by it. Having gotten to know him, he's a very humble guy. The fanfare around his last season, he could probably do without it. He doesn't think we should be making a big deal about it. We obviously disagree and are making a big deal out of it. But there are so many guys who you could imagine coming from an NFL environment to an environment like this who would be impossible to deal with. They'd be so egotistical and difficult, and Coach Walton isn't like that at all.

After the 2007 season, Walton lost his longtime assistant with Radakovich decided to retire. The two coaches are the same age, separated by just a few weeks. Naturally, questions began to emerge as to how long Walton wanted to stick around.

Radakovich: He figured we'd retire together. I said, 'No, Joe, I've had it. Enough's enough.' I had three stents put in me in 2002. It was the end of the 2007 season, and I figured that was enough.

Coleman: My feeling was is his mind is still sharp as a tack. He's had ailments, as anyone does at that age, but he's physically okay to coach. And he started this program from nothing and developed it into quite something. He deserved the opportunity to retire on his own terms. We would talk about it maybe once a year.

After the perfect season in 2000, Robert Morris spent the next decade trying to capture another league title, only to fall short. That changed in 2010. With scholarships now part of the program, Walton and his staff built a veteran team infused with youth at certain spots. One of those spots was quarterback, where freshman Jeff Sinclair stepped in midway through 2009 and helped guide a turnaround that led to an NEC title and the program's first playoff berth in 2010.

Alex DiMichele (linebacker 2008-2010, assistant coach 2012-present): Once Jeff got in there, everything started to click. Coach was happy and we won those last five games and that put us up high in the offseason. Everything aligned, and everything worked in our favor.

Sinclair: First he told me I was going to be redshirted, so I was kind of chill. I didn't know all of the plays, I wasn't polished, so I couldn't come in and start. I thought I could take my time and each week learn a little bit more of the playbook. After we went 0-4 in our first four games, I had worked my way up from third string to the back-up.

Coach (Jarrod) Highberger calls me up and says, 'Hey, you've got to meet with Walton. You're the guy. You're starting this week.' I just about crapped my pants. I didn't really know anything. I knew a good chunk of it, where I was going with the ball, but I didn't know all the routes right away. That was the most nervous I had ever been in my entire life.

Walton wanted me to be the 4-year starter. We had two senior quarterbacks and he wanted to let them finish out the year. They wanted to work with me for the next year, spend another year of spring ball to learn the offense over again. After we went 0-4, he just wanted to get me game experience. I think that helped me out for the next year, and it ended up being good. We won the conference and I had a pretty good year, too. I respected his call. I trusted him and what he wanted to do with my career, and it turned out awesome.

Myles Russ (running back 2007-2010, assistant coach 2012-present): I think a lot about the Wagner game (in 2010) where he got on us and we just came back. We didn't want to let him down. He expected so much out of us.

DiMichele:: They were beating us 9-0 at halftime. Usually coach comes in and snaps at us. But the only thing he said was, "Let's go. Let's go out there and beat them." We scored 30 points in the second half. He was very positive. It was a little bit of a change, but I think he knew he had a special group.

Russ: (Before the playoff game at North Dakota State): It was just to take advantage of the opportunity. That's the main message he gave. It's like yesterday. I still watch the tape. It hurts. We hung in there for four quarters until it died down at the end. I think if we would have done something my junior year, we would have been better and we wouldn't have been so shell-shocked going into that stadium.

Sinclair: I'm starting to learn even more. I'm looking at myself now and going, "What they heck was I doing?" I'm starting to get in his mindset from being with him all the time and how he's talking strategy. Now I'm starting to be more on the same page. The more and more I'm with him, the more I understand how he's thinking.

A few weeks into the 2011 season, Robert Morris came forward with two announcements. First, Walton would stay on until 2013 with a new extension. And the second? That would be his final season as coach. It would wrap 20 years at Robert Morris, his longest tenure anywhere in football.

Coleman: I think the 20 year mark was a nice round number. I think once he knew he was going to be here a while, he set it as a nice benchmark goal for himself. Once we got close to that, I think he felt that would be a good time to end. He's not going to leave the university when he's done coaching. We're going to put him to work and we're going to find some things for him. There are a lot of ways he can help us.

Sinclair: He's very intimidating, even now after five years. I'm nervous to say anything to him just because he has so much respect around here.

Fraley: He's always been that even-keel guy. He holds the same demeanor. And I think that's what made him a great coach for us. For me, personally, he was like a second father or grandfather to me

DiMichele: This is his 20th year, six NEC championships and hopefully a seventh this year. All of the guys come back and you can tell he has an impact on him. Mentally and emotionally, they develop a bond with Coach Walton. It's something we can take into life with us. After this season, we'll have a new head guy but he'll always be a part of Robert Morris, and that's a good thing.

Cleary: He's always been a father figure to all of us. I can't believe it's been 20 years and it's over with already.

Fraley: I just finished my degree last year while I was coaching because I was only there for four years and messed up my first year. I did it for my mom, but I definitely also finished up my degree because of Coach Walton. He was always on me about finishing up my degree. That's why he means a lot to me. There's a lot of stuff that people don't know. It was just growing up and being a teenager. The best thing about Coach Walton is not his on the field stuff, but off the field. You're a part of his family.

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

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