Coaching Management, 12.4, April 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1204/qawalton.htm
With 35 years of National Football League experience as a player, scout, and coach, Joe Walton thought he was done with football when he retired in 1991. After losing his job as Offensive Coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers when Head Coach Chuck Noll retired, Walton remained in the Pittsburgh area and decided not to pursue any offers to remain in coaching. Then, in 1993 Robert Morris University approached Walton about coaching the school’s football team. There was only one problem: The school didn’t have a football team. Nor did it have a stadium, locker rooms, uniforms, or a training facility—they would be starting a Division I-AA non-scholarship program from scratch.
Walton’s collegiate coaching history matched the school’s track record: The former New York Jets Head Coach had never coached a down of college football. Despite this, university officials were convinced he was the perfect candidate to lead the fledgling program, and Walton accepted the offer.
Now entering his 11th season, the 68-year-old Walton has added two national non-scholarship championships, five Northeast Conference titles, and a 67-32-1 record to his storied resume. During his tenure, two players have made it to the NFL from Robert Morris.
Walton talks here about what he describes as the final phase of his career. He discusses a variety of subjects including why he returned to coaching, what it takes to build a program from the ground up, and the differences between the NFL and college football.
Why did you take the job at Robert Morris?
What did you miss about the profession?
I have been in football all my life, and I had coached professionally for a number of years, but it was intriguing for me to see if I could coach college kids. Also, it was very close to home. It just seemed like it all fit.
What was the toughest part of returning to coaching after being away for a couple of years, especially to a level at which you didn’t have any experience?
The most difficult thing was learning to deal with the younger kids. I had only coached in professional football, and I found these kids are eager to learn and fun to teach. Coaching football is virtually the same at any level—it’s teaching. The biggest thing is that these kids are really enthusiastic about learning.
Did the time away from coaching change your perspective on the game?
I think I was ready for a change, and I think coming to this level has taken a lot of the pressure off—especially the long hours and all the things you have to go through in pro football. I have more time to spend with my family.
Did you have to drastically change your approach?
I concentrate more on teaching good fundamentals now. We can still teach them a lot of the plays and things that I used in pro football, but I think you have to spend more time on drills and fundamentals of how to actually play each position.
What have you learned from coaching this age group that you wish you’d learned earlier in your career?
The only thing would be having more communication with the players. Since I’ve been at Robert Morris I’ve had more one-on-one opportunities with my players and I know a little more about them and what’s going on in their lives and what their families are like.
What do you look for in your assistant coaches?
It’s a difficult situation at Robert Morris because we only have three full-time coaches: my defensive coordinator, my recruiting coordinator, and myself. Dan Radakovich, who has been my defensive coordinator since I took the job, serves as an assistant head coach. We have four graduate assistants who also coach and we lose them every two years. We have five part-time coaches who are usually high school coaches trying to get into college football so we have quite a bit of turnover as far as assistants go. We have a joke around the office that we spend more time coaching the coaches than we do coaching the players.
Does their lack of experience make you hesitant about delegating authority?
We feel like we get them prepared well enough to handle their position and handle their players. We have a lot of coaches’ meetings and discuss what we want to do. It’s like hiring any other person—if you’re not a good delegator, it gets to be overwhelming.
How did you attack building a program from the ground up?
I think the key thing we did was to go to other small colleges and visit with the coaches and look at their facilities. We must have gone to four or five small colleges and talked to the coaches. I was educating myself on how everything had to look and how it would all take place. We tried to get a feel for the kind of athletes we were going to be able to recruit. And then, I think everything just kind of fell into place.
What is the hardest part of starting a program?
In the beginning, it was tough to raise money, but we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been able to generate enough to help with the budget that we have. For instance, I have a celebrity golf tournament that I run every spring. I get a lot of my old friends—ex-Steelers coaches and players—and we raise pretty good money with that.
After funding, the toughest part was getting the facilities designed and finished. Looking at the facilities at other small colleges, one of the things we came away with was that everything seemed kind of small. So we made up our minds that we wanted to have a nice big locker room and bigger office space than a lot of those schools had. Of course we had to talk the college into giving us the good office space we have now, and we made some improvements by doing a lot of the work ourselves.
When you start, you don’t have anything—not even a chinstrap. So you have to order all of the equipment. You have to get your facilities set up—where you’re going to play your home games if you don’t have a field on campus. Those were the toughest things. Then, the last thing was getting as many players as we could.
How many players did you start with during that first season?
We had 159 players that first year. It was quite a shock to the school president because they were budgeting for about 60 players. We had a few junior college kids that came in, but basically they were all freshmen.
How did you attract recruits initially—with no program history, what were you able to sell them?
There’s no doubt that my having been a pro coach attracted some of the kids. But, in the same light, that might have scared some kids off. We feel that Robert Morris is a good school, and we felt like the price was right as far as tuition. We sold the fact, and we continue to sell the fact, that they are going to learn all phases of football. Coach Radakovich and I have been around for a long time—between the two of us we’ve got over 80 years of coaching experience. So we sell the fact that we are going to give them a good football education in addition to what they learn at Robert Morris.
What do you think the program has contributed to campus life?
I think we provide some marketing value. A lot of people had never heard of Robert Morris University until we started to win some football games. I think that contributed to some of the success we’ve had.
When I first came here, the dormitories were only 50 percent occupied. Now, you can’t get a room in the dormitories. They’ve built one new dormitory and they are contemplating building another one.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions a high school or college coach might have about coaching in the NFL?
That NFL coaches are smarter than anybody else is. They may think that when a coach gets to pro ball, it’s because he’s smarter than everybody else, and it’s not necessarily true. I’ve experienced that by coaching in the Northeast Conference—there are some pretty darn good coaches here. If you don’t pay attention to what you are doing, you’ll get your butt kicked. I think there’s a misconception that they are so much better in pro football, and I don’t believe that’s true.
What kind of advice do you have for high school and college coaches looking to climb the career ladder?
The best thing is to go to as many clinics as they can. Study and read as much as they can. There are a lot of college and pro coaches who will sit down and talk to guys. I think they’ve got to gather as much information and knowledge as they can as they go along.
What’s next for your program?
One of the things we were working toward was getting our own field on campus, which will happen in 2005. What’s next is that I would like to win another national championship.