Sitting across the desk from Joe Walton, inside the stadium that bears his name, I watch a smile grow across his face as he recalls his first year as head coach of the RMU Colonials.
“Our first field was the old softball field behind John Jay,” he says, chewing on an unlit cigar, “and it was only 80 yards. The grass would only last a couple days of training camp before it was a dust bowl; when it rained it was mud.
“We definitely had some things to overcome, but I knew that coming in.”
Overcome they did. That first season in 1994, Walton led a team of 64 freshmen to a 7-1-1 record. They won their first game just 21 days after the start of training camp and went on to win the next four in a row. Not bad for a school that had gone 73 years without a team.
This fall Walton will begin his 16th season as the head coach of a team he started from scratch. He has led the Colonials to two NCAA Division I-AA non-scholarship national championships, five Northeast Conference titles, and two Eastern College Athletic Conference Bowl victories. But this kind of success isn’t such a surprise when you have a man like Joe Walton at the helm. After all, football’s been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.
Joseph Frank Walton was born on December 15, 1935, in Beaver Falls, a bustling steel town where it seemed almost everyone worked in the local mill. “It was a fabulous place to grow up,” says Walton, “a great place for kids. In the summer we’d play baseball, in the fall we’d play football, and in winter we’d play basketball. That’s all we did.”
One of the kids he played against regularly was Tito Francona, who would later hit 125 home runs in the major leagues. To hear Francona tell it, Walton helped him with a career decision. “I liked football so much,” says Francona. “But playing against Joe… he turned me into a baseball player.”
Walton knew that he was destined for a life on the gridiron. “Football was always different. It was serious,” he says. His father Frank had played guard for the Washington Redskins and coached football at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. With the Beaver Falls Tigers, Joe Walton played end, fullback, and halfback. In his junior year in 1952, he led all Beaver County players in scoring with 120 points, and the next year he was named to the all-state team.
He got a football scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh and started at tight end for three seasons. He was twice an All-American with the Panthers, setting records of 14 touchdown catches in a career and eight in a single season. Walton also was an Academic All-American his senior year.
In 1957, he was drafted in the second round by the Redskins, his dad’s old team, and played tight end. He ended his impressive professional playing career with the New York Giants, finishing with 178 receptions for 2,623 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Walton spent some time in the moving business, but he was soon drawn back into football. In 1967, he landed a position as a special scout for the Giants before taking over as a coach of receivers. Then, in 1974, he returned to the Redskins, rising eventually to offensive coordinator. It was during this time that he groomed a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback named Joe Theismann.
The New York Jets gave Walton his first head coaching job in 1983. Over the next seven seasons, he led the Jets to an overall record of 54-59-1 with three playoff appearances. He was let go after a disappointing season in 1989. The following year, he served as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers under Chuck Noll. When Noll retired in 1991, a new staff came aboard, and Walton was once again out of football.
When RMU decided to start a football program, one of their first tasks was finding the right man for the head coaching job. University trustee Charles L. “Corky” Cost had played with Walton at Pitt and felt he’d be a good fit for the position. It was the perfect challenge for a man who felt he was too young to quit coaching. Walton’s wife, Ginger, put it best during the team’s inaugural season in 1994: “He missed it,” she said. “Something was wrong, and I could tell it was tough on him. Then along came Robert Morris, and everyone was so enthusiastic about this. There are going to be a lot of excited young men wanting to play for Joe Walton.”
First Walton had to build a program from the ground up, hiring coaches, purchasing equipment, and recruiting student-athletes. Walton’s first appointee was Dan Radakovich, offensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their 1974 and ’75 Super Bowl seasons and a former member of Walton’s New York Jets staff. Radakovich had coached at Penn State and other universities and knew a lot about college football. “One of the best things we did was bring in Rad,” says Walton.
During that first year, they had only budgeted for 60 football players. They got 150. “We had to readjust to get more uniforms, and it was a big adjustment for the cafeteria for training camp. So I would always just go to Ed (former RMU president Ed Nicholson) and he would say, ‘Bring’em in. We’ll feed them somehow. We’ll get it done.’”
Radakovich retired last year, and John Banaszak, a former member of Pittsburgh’s legendary “Steel Curtain” defense, stepped up to take his place as assistant coach. After his pro career ended, Banaszak had a successful stint coaching at Washington & Jefferson College before Walton invited him to RMU. “When I think of Joe Walton, I think of the relationship that he has with our student athletes,” Banaszak says. “The respect that those kids have for Joe and the program is tremendous.”
For ten years the Colonials played their home games on the Moon Area High School field, about a mile from campus. That changed in 2005, when the university unveiled its $10 million stadium and sports complex. An anonymous donor offered to contribute $1.5 million under one condition: It had to be named Joe Walton Stadium. The team played their first true “home” game on September 17, 2005, when they defeated Butler 49-13.
Walton has led the Colonials to an impressive 96-61-1 record in 15 seasons. His 2000 team finished a perfect 10-0, the first undefeated season for any program at RMU. He has seen three former Colonials move up to the NFL: running back Tim Hall (Oakland Raiders), offensive lineman Hank Fraley (Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns), and defensive back Robb Butler (San Diego Chargers).
With all his success on the field, Walton says fostering strong students gives him the greatest reward. “I really enjoy the kids, their enthusiasm, their desire to learn,” he says. His wife Ginger, who passed away in 2007, told him she could see he was happiest at RMU. “I remember she used to say to me, ‘You should have been coaching college all the time, your whole career,’ because she knew I enjoyed the atmosphere, the people,” says Walton.
“The best thing I ever did was come here.”