Bob Palko coaches final game at West Allegheny, ‘invigorated’ for next challenge
Bob Palko’s short-term plans were clear.
One final time he’d take his football team back to the high school, unpack the equipment bags, talk to his players about life and send them on their way, he said. After that, “I’m going to grab a cigar, sit on my back deck and smoke a cigar,” he added with a smile.
What comes next for one of the greatest game-planners in WPIAL football history? He’s not sure.
“It’s a little weird for me because I know my next move all the time,” said Palko, 58, who coached his final game with West Allegheny on Friday night, a 28-18 loss to second-seeded Penn Hills in the WPIAL Class 5A championship at Norwin Knights Stadium.
“It’s a little different — might be a little scary — but that’s OK,” Palko said of his uncertainty. “I think it’s good that you challenge yourself and do other things. It’s invigorating.”
His fifth-seeded Indians (10-3) were disappointed they couldn’t pull off an improbable upset for the second week in a row, a win that would have extended their season and added a ninth WPIAL title to Palko’s record total.
Instead, with his family on the field, this became a night for group photos and heartfelt hugs with folks who appreciated what Palko accomplished in his 24 seasons at West A. Palko won eight WPIAL titles, the most by any coach in history, while turning the team into a consistent winner with a gritty, over-achiever reputation.
“He’s the only coach that I’ve ever played for in high school, college or the NFL that truly (was concerned) about the players and the staff,” said his son Tyler Palko, who won three WPIAL titles with his father in 1999-2001. “It wasn’t about trying to get the next job. It wasn’t about trying to stack championships up. He emptied his tank every day and gave everything he had to his staff and his players.”
After Friday’s loss, Palko’s coaching staff pulled him into a group photo. They did the same last year, after a first-round playoff loss, in case he decided to retire then.
This time, they knew he was done.
“That probably killed him,” defensive coordinator Bryan Cornell said of the post-game fuss his assistants made. “He says it’s not about him. It’s not about me. It’s not about anybody. But it’s about what he created.”
The district hired Palko in 1995. His teams won WPIAL titles in 1997, 1999-2001, ‘09, ‘15 and ‘16, along with a state title in 2001.
For awhile Friday, a ninth WPIAL title seemed within reach. West A built a 10-0 lead, fell behind in the third quarter and tried to rally in the fourth. They recovered another on-side kick, a knack for Palko’s teams, but couldn’t erase Penn Hills’ lead.
West A upset No. 1 seed Gateway in the semifinals.
“It’s truly amazing what these kids did to get to the finals,” Palko said. “It is truly amazing.”
Cornell coached with Palko for 21 seasons and described his impact on the school as widespread. The coaching staff organized a get-together after the regular-season finale at the SNPJ Lodge in Imperial and nearly 150 alumni showed up, Cornell said. There were around 30 alumni at the team’s Thanksgiving Day practice.
“What he brought to West Allegheny was that family-style (atmosphere),” Cornell said. “It was something he taught not only myself and his staff, but also the baseball coaches, the soccer coaches, the basketball coaches. I know for a fact that’s not how I would have coached. As a young guy, I thought you needed to be hard. But he makes connections with kids in special way that no one else could.”
Palko revealed last summer his plans to resign. The school already hired his replacement, Kim Niedbala, who coached alongside Palko this season. Palko retired as a teacher last year and thought the timing was right to also quit as coach.
“I don’t want to be that guy who gets stale,” he said.
Preferably, he’d like to coach somewhere in the college ranks. If not, maybe he’ll become a scout.
“I’m retiring from West A, I’m not retiring from life,” Palko said, “and I’m not retiring from football.”
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.