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November 24, 2013

Column: Despite loss, Walton exits a champ

LORETTO, PENN. -- Joe Walton was coaching right until the end.

The swirling emotions of a pending retirement and the final game on the sideline would have been enough for many of us to take a few moments to be selfish, to look around and soak in a few lasting memories at the expense of staying focused on the game in front of us.

Not Walton. The veteran Robert Morris coach wouldn't have it any other way. His disappointment Saturday afternoon at Saint Francis had everything to do with his team's performance in a 23-3 loss to the Red Flash and little to do with his exit from the program he constructed out of nothing.

"I was more concerned about seeing if we could get the ball in the end zone," Walton said.

Robert Morris entered the day with a chance to send Walton out on a high note, complete with a share of his seventh Northeast Conference title. Instead, an inconsistent season ended with no piece of the crown, a 5-6 record and a tie for third place.

"I think generally speaking we were an up-and-down team," Walton said. "We couldn't concentrate two weeks in a row. When that happens, you're going to get beat."

Walton would have preferred the focus the past two weeks to have stayed on his football team rather than on him. He enjoyed the lower profile at Robert Morris after years in the NFL, enjoyed the close relationships he had with his coaching staff and the players every season. It kept the focus on football, rather than on the extraneous pomp and circumstance that often surrounds the sport now.

"I haven't liked it at all," Walton admitted. "Football takes a lot of focus by everybody. The coaching staff, the players, and as I've said, last week was senior day and retirement and all that...it's not the time to do it. I think everything was done a little too early."

This was a labor of love for Walton, a chance to simply coach football and make an impact. The chance to coach college football, something he'd never done before, was part of what drew him to Robert Morris in the first place. And what began as an experiment expected to last a few years became a 20-year love affair, one that will continue when Walton steps into a new role as a special assistant to the athletic director.

"Robert Morris has become my second home," Walton said. "Certainly being able to stay there and still be around people that I like is quite nice."

Head coach-in-waiting John Banaszak has Walton's trust and support to take the wheel, to guide the program into the next phase of its existence. And with Walton in the opposite end of the building, the football staff won't have to change the locks on their offices.

"I think John will let me watch if I have a chance," Walton said with a laugh.

In many respects, it would have been nice for Robert Morris to send him out as a champion, even if it was just for a piece of that NEC crown, even if it didn't include the bid to the FCS playoffs. The Disney version of the Joe Walton Story ends with him being hoisted in the air after an NEC title and perhaps even a national championship, a Cinderella run to claim the FCS crown.

But forget the accolades for a moment, from his All-American status at Pitt to the six NEC titles at RMU. Forget about handing out another trophy and listen. Listen to the hundreds of players who walked into the Robert Morris program under Walton's guidance and found a path. Listen to the dozens of players who earned a second chance from him and ran with it. Listen to the late Tim Hall, who went from an afterthought to a star in just two years and became Robert Morris' first NFL draft pick.

Listen to Hall's family, who still hold Walton in the highest regard for spearheading a scholarship in his name after Hall was murdered in Kansas City in 1998. Most of all, listen to Hank Fraley, one of the other Colonials to make it to the NFL.

"The best thing about Coach Walton is not his on the field stuff, but off the field," Fraley said. "You're a part of his family."

That, not a piece of hardware with the league stamp on it, is the trophy of a true champion.

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



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