When it comes to high school football coaches in Western Pa., there is a short list of names who come to mind when putting together a “Mount Rushmore” of the best to ever do it.
You can make arguments for several candidates on why they should or shouldn’t make the cut, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody who would leave Bob Palko off the list.
The name “Palko”has almost become a verb in itself in the WPIAL football lexicon — as in, when a superior team on paper loses to a well-coached but perhaps less-talented bunch, you can say they’ve been “Palko’d.”Not that Palko’s teams haven’t been stocked with talent over the years — including a pair of NFL players in Dorin Dickerson and Palko’s son, Tyler — but Palko is known for always getting the most out of his team and squeezing every ounce of effort, intensity and preparation out of his players.
The results certainly speak for themselves.
After making the WPIAL playoffs only one time in school history prior to Palko’s arrival in 1995, West Allegheny became a certified powerhouse under Palko’s watch, winning eight WPIAL titles in 24 seasons while compiling a record of 217-73. Palko resigned from West Allegheny in 2018 and took over at Mt. Lebanon the following season, and in his third year he led the Blue Devils to a 15-0 record along with WPIAL and PIAA Class 6A titles.
Palko went 31-14 in four years at Mt. Lebanon and holds a career record of 248-87, and his nine WPIAL titles are tied with Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak for most all time. He is also one of only three WPIAL coaches to win a PIAA championship at two different schools. But you won’t find him coaching on Friday nights this fall.
Citing health concerns and a desire to focus on his personal life while handling matters within his family after the death of his mother, the 63-year-old Palko decided to step away from coaching indefinitely following the 2022 season. He insists he hasn’t retired yet, but there’s no telling when or where he’ll next be seen roaming the sideline. For now, he wants to take a much-needed and well-deserved break — something he hasn’t had the chance to do in more than a few decades.
The Pittsburgh Union Progress recently caught up with Palko to discuss his reasons for stepping away, the hardship and tragedy he has endured in recent years, his fondest memories of his coaching journey, and more.
Q: How are you? Are you feeling any better now?
A: Yeah, it’s just time for me to take care of business. I don’t think people understand the amount of time that you spend with the kids and with the program and making sure everything is there. The hours are crazy. That’s the only way I know how to do it. You’re putting 10-, 12-hour days in now. … I want to feel better. I want to be healthier. I want to lose some weight. I want to work out more. Those are things that all of a sudden, after a while, you go, “Cool, you’re 63, and your body doesn’t work how it used to, so you’d better be smarter about things.”
But when constantly all you think about is that place and what can we do here and how can we make it better — it’s a constant. I just needed to step away to try to get organized and make better decisions health-wise. Just things like that.
Q: What the heck are you going to do with yourself on Friday nights this fall? Go sing karaoke or something?
A: No, I’m not a good singer. I don’t know. I’ll just take it as it comes. I don’t know that. Obviously I’ll be in contact with a lot of friends and guys who are still coaching. I don’t know, maybe I’ll do that. I truly don’t know. I’ve never been in that position. I don’t know what the normal folk do on Fridays, except watch a football game. I’m sure people do more than that, but I’ve never known anything else. I’m sure I’ll stay close to the game.
Hopefully one of the best things we as a staff teach the kids is to prioritize things in your life. For us, high school football is not the most important thing in your life. But it’s got to be hopefully No. 3 or No. 4. And if we can get kids to prioritize their life that way, we think we have a pretty good shot to help them. It’s the same thing I needed to do. I needed to prioritize and organize.
Q: So you had to take some of your own advice?
A: I guess I did. I’m always willing to learn. I’m sure I’ll continue to learn and we’ll continue to figure this out.
Q: When’s the last time you went through a football season without coaching in some capacity?
A: I don’t know. Never. Whenever I started playing at 7 or something. It’s going to be new. Like I said, I think you just kind of figure it out as you go. … I know I won’t stay away from the game. I just know that. It will be interesting. It will be an adventure, I’m sure. With a lot of adventures, you don’t know what’s happening.
Q: Some people think the Steelers could use a new offensive coordinator. Any interest in applying?
A: [Laughs] No, I think there’s a lot more qualified people out there than me. Sometimes, things take time, and I think people need to be a little patient with that situation. A new quarterback, and you’re trying to figure out what he does well. I’m sure they know exactly what they’re doing. People just need to be a little bit patient with that. I think it’s evolving.
Q: Looking back through the years, who were the three best players you ever coached?
A: Ben Herbert, Dorin Dickerson and Mike Caputo. I don’t have to mention my son [Tyler] because he’s my son. And again, who knows with some of the kids I’ve coached here at Lebo? Who knows? Off the top of my head, those guys there. I don’t know how you can do three.
Q: If your 2001 state championship team at West Allegheny faced your 2021 state championship team at Mt. Lebanon, how would the game go and who would win?
A: It would be two teams that are very well coached, and it would be two teams that have the same characteristics. They were really good teams. They did the things necessary. They took care of the little things. They worked hard. They loved each other. At the end of the day, I think it would end in a tie.
Q: You’ve endured a lot of loss and a lot of hardship lately, first with the loss of your best friend, Mark Davis, then the loss of your mother, Laverne. How hard has it been for you to manage that while keeping up with everything that you put into being a coach?
A: Let’s be honest — Mark, his best quality was, he was just the nicest man I’ve ever met. He never said a bad thing about anybody. He was that guy you aspire to be like, just because he was so kind and so positive and so knowledgeable. You can’t surround yourself with enough people like that. Those are the things you look for in coaches. That’s just how you do it, because you all think alike and you’re all in for the same common goal.
Losing my mom — I lost my dad around the time coach [Guy Ripple] died. It was hard, but your mom, it was different. I never anticipated that. But she had a long run, 96 years to teach and to continue to be a parent and a grandmother and a great-grandmother. Just watching her go about her daily life and her faith and how important that was. You’ve got to teach that stuff to kids. There are times when I’m sure I doubted that stuff. But you sit and you watch and you go, “If it’s working for her, maybe that’s the way to go.”
Q: You’ve said this is not the end for you, only a much-needed break. Does that mean there’s a chance you’ll be back roaming the sidelines somewhere in 2024?
A: I don’t know. No crystal ball here. I hope things go that way, but I don’t know. I don’t know where this is going to take me. It’s just something I think we’re just going to have to wait and see. I’m sure I’m going to have to do something with people and with kids. … I’ve just got to get this stuff organized, and once that happens, we’ll be able to make a better decision on what to do and where to go and what the next step is.
Q: What has been the most rewarding part of your coaching journey so far?
A: People will talk about the wins and all that stuff, but it’s not that. I think raising my family around athletics and watching my children grow and watching, like I tell you, the staff and the families, their children. To watch them come through the program — like I told you, it’s 12 months. So I’m around coaches year-round. You get to know their families and their wives and their children. And you cherish the relationships with the players and the families. You spend all this time with them, and you can’t help but to have relationships with them. And those are the things that you cherish. Just the people you meet on a daily basis and the parents and the families. It’s like a huge family.
The people here at Mt. Lebanon have been awesome. They’re like, “Coach, we’re going to miss you.” But I’m not going away. I’m only a call away.