While visiting his grandchildren in Kansas City, Bob Palko realized something was missing since he retired last November from his teaching and football coaching positions at West Allegheny High School.
“The kids,” he said.
Today, he is surrounded by kids of all ages.
Palko is one of four new area football coaches. He has assumed the reins at Mt. Lebanon while Mike Junko began his tenure at Upper St. Clair and Brian DeLallo and Mike Zmijanac have taken over at Bethel Park and Seton LaSalle, respectively.
With the move to the helm, comes pressure as the programs have not experienced a change in leadership in decades.
Mt. Lebanon, in particular, possesses a pride that spans generations. When Palko was introduced to the general public in February, former players turned out in droves to meet the West Allegheny legend, who guided the Indians to eight WPIAL titles and a 217-73 record in 24 seasons.
Over the past 11 seasons, Lebo has won seven WPIAL championships and has reached the playoffs 10 times.
“People place a high priority on excellence here,” said Palko, who noted the basketball and lacrosse teams won WPIAL titles this past school year.
Since taking his new position, the biggest thing he said he has learned has been the “importance of excellence,” and he vowed he and his staff are going to do everything they can “to make Mt. Lebanon proud.”
Palko said he will focus particularly on the way the Blue Devils “go about their business” on and off the field.
Football players at Mt. Lebanon excel academically just like many of their classmates. During the 2018-19 school year, the team managed a combined 3.16 GPA. Currently, the Blue Devils are represented on football teams at academic institutions such as Princeton (David Harvey), Michigan (Jack Young), West Point (Kyle Doody), Colgate (Coleman Cocco), Carnegie Mellon (Ryan Gaughn), Duquesne (Aiden Cain), William and Mary (Colby Sordsdal) and Virginia Military Institute (Seth Morgan).
“Mt. Lebanon is a high-academic school and the bar is raised for the kids here,” Palko said.
That impacts his coaching approach.
“We know the standards are extremely hard and there is a tremendous amount of work the students have to do so we don’t have all day to prepare and train our players for games,” Palko said. “We have to be efficient and we have got to teach life lessons. That is way more important. Sure, we have to have fun and win games, but more than anything, we need to teach as many life lessons as possible through the extracurricular activities.”
According to Palko, each day is an opportunity to gain knowledge because life emulates sports.
From the day he started his new job, Palko said he has learned how to work with a new coaching staff and the personalities of all of his players.
“As long as I try to learn every day, it’s a good day. It may not always be monumental but it all adds up,” Palko said. “If you do a whole lot of little things correctly, then you are in a better position to succeed. Winning to me is a byproduct of doing a whole lot of things right. One thing may not make a difference. One kid may not. But a whole bunch of kids rallying around the process, doing the little things, is key. It’s sometimes easier said than done because it takes discipline and that’s hard.
“In life,” he continued, “you are going to go through things, too. But, if you learn the important things, the little things, then it will take care of itself.”
Because of his personality and his passion, Palko is taking care of business in a positive manner. He said he is focused on the present and not the past.
Palko also said he brings “a true love for people, for kids and for learning” as well as a “try to be the best you can be” philosophy to the program that will have an impact this season and beyond.
Palko hopes Lebo becomes a family, but he also understands that dynamic.
“In the locker room, in that moment, a lot correlates with any family,” he said. “Sometimes you get tired of certain people, but you battle through that. Respect is what we all bring to the table. We want to be a team. So, coming together will be real important. We want to be one voice with one process and we have to trust the process, trust that we’ve got the right people in the right position. There are things we can’t control but we can control how hard we work and amount of effort we put into the teammate we can become.”
Palko said the word “excited” doesn’t adequately explain his enthusiasm in regard to switching his West A red and grey for Lebo gold and blue.
The Blue Devils’ first game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Aug. 23 at Gateway.
“I’m not sure what the right word is to put in there for what I’m feeling, but just seeing the gleam in the kids’ eyes, that’s special,” he said. “It doesn’t go away no matter where you are. Whether it’s midgets, high school, college or the pros, that look does not change. It is a passion. When you have that and you tell the truth, you don’t have to worry about anything else.”
thrilled at BP
At Bethel Park, fans are passionate about their football and that excites, yet concerns, Brian DeLallo who filled the vacancy created by Jeff Metheny’s resignation.
After 27 seasons, 18 playoff appearances and more than 200 victories, Metheny stepped down so he could watch his son, Levi, start and play his final two seasons at linebacker at the University of Albany.
“Jeff set a standard around here where expectations are always high. So absolutely, there is pressure,” DeLallo said.
DeLallo recalled how in the same breath a female fan congratulated him on his new position and also said, “we expect a lot of wins.”
“So, it’s a good kind of pressure,” he said.
Prior to receiving his first head coaching position, DeLallo served as an assistant coach at Bethel Park, Upper St. Clair and Montour.
He said he is ready for the change in pressure situations created by taking on the role of working as head coach.
“There are things you think you know as an assistant,” said DeLallo about being a head coach, “but you don’t until you get the job. There’s a lot of adjustments.”
While he now deals with uniforms, equipment, food and off-the-field issues, including an air-conditioning failure in the weight room during the hot summer months, DeLallo has reached the point where he can focus on Woodland Hills as the Black Hawks will open the season at 7 p.m. Aug. 30 at the Wolvarena in Turtle Creek.
DeLallo said he has taken and applied a little of what he has learned in his previous posts from his previous mentors.
In addition to Metheny, DeLallo served under Jim Render and Lou Cerro. Render retired with the most wins in WPIAL history with a record of 406-141-6, five district titles and two state championships. Cerro coached Seton LaSalle to several titles before bringing his winning ways to Montour.
Metheny influenced DeLallo’s career the most. He served as his assistant for 13 years. At the helm, DeLallo said he learned from Metheny’s discipline and attention to detail with the team.
“Jeff’s work ethic and organization,” he said. “With the way he organized and planned, things ran like a college program. Preparation was his strong suit.”
From Render, DeLallo adopted a flexible, easy approach.
“With Jim, I learned there are lots of different ways to do things. There is no one right way to get things done,” DeLallo said. “Jim also was creative as a playcaller and as a designer of offenses. He may have seemed very aggressive on the field but philosophically, he was very laid back and he let his coaches coach and he achieved a great deal of success because he knew there was more than one way to get results.”
DeLallo anticipates getting positive results by applying techniques he learned when he served as Cerro’s offensive coordinator. DeLallo said he is bestowing that type of “ownership” upon his own coaching staff.
Additionally, he promises playing football at Bethel Park is going to be a pleasurable experience for the players.
“We want to make sure the kids are having fun, said DeLallo. “We also can’t win the race if we can’t get the horses to the gate.”
Just as Cerro does at Montour, DeLallo hopes to utilize multi-sport players.
“If a kid plays baseball or basketball, we will work with him,” DeLallo said. “We believe we can get something out of him. We are working with players.”
In his full-time position, DeLallo works as the Dean of Students at Bethel Park High School. In charge of most discipline, DeLallo maintains a good rapport with the teachers, administration, staff and students.
“I’m not tied to a class schedule so I can deal with things and troubleshoot when problems arise, but Jeff (Metheny) was pretty good with that, too,” DeLallo said. “We don’t have many knucklehead kids on the football team. That’s not tolerated.
“I think we have a pretty good bunch this year,” he added, noting the senior class includes 25 seasoned veterans. “They are excited to be part of the program and I am happy to be in the position that I am because Bethel Park is a special community.”
place for Junko
Upper St. Clair has always been a special place for Mike Junko. He spent his youth on the football fields and baseball diamonds in the township.
A standout with eventual Major League Baseball players Sean Casey and Mike McHugh on USC’s only WPIAL championship baseball team in 1992, Junko also excelled at quarterback for the University of Akron before settling into the teaching profession.
After working as a social studies and assistant football coach at Mt. Lebanon for 11 seasons, Junko said he was influenced to return to Upper St. Clair and be groomed as Jim Render’s replacement.
Junko now teaches in the district, where his children are educated. His son, Ryan, is a member of the football and volleyball teams. A wide receiver, Ryan also assisted his father as a ball boy at Lebo.
Because he has been so busy since accepting his position with preparations for the 2019 campaign, Junko has had little time to dwell on the fact he is following in the footsteps of a legend, one inducted into several halls of fame and one that has amassed more victories than any other coach in the WPIAL.
Well before two-a-days in preparation for Week Zero action at South Fayette at 7 p.m. Aug. 23. Junko has attended booster meetings, organized weight-room workouts, summer conditioning drills and 7-on-7 passing camps, procured equipment and put together a coaching staff that collectively boasts more than 100 years of experience.
Junko said he really hasn’t had time to think about the pressure of filling Render’s shoes. He said he believes, however, his ability to bridge the past glory of USC’s football program with the present is what got him hired to replace Render.
“We want to keep the connection to the past. Honor it. Not run away from it. Embrace it,” he said.
That means opponents will remember they played the Panthers.
“One of the things we don’t want to lose is our reputation as a physical football team,” Junko said. “We cannot lose our physicality. That has been our identity. When people play us, they know USC will be physical. We don’t want to lose that element. It has been so good to the program.”
Junko brings a contagious enthusiasm that is tangible at practices and noticeable among the youthful players. USC returns only two true starters –David Pantelis and Brandon Shearer — from last year’s 8-3 team.
“Our style is make things happen. So, energy is a big part of what we do and an important part of our preparation. We want to bring energy to everything that we do,” Junko said. “We have a lot of young kids and they are eager to learn. They’re sponges, soaking everything up. They are embracing the changes we are making and it’s been fun to coach in that environment.”
Fun to play, too, said Ethan Dahlem. The junior looks to run the USC offense as quarterback.
“It’s definitely a new experience,” Dahlem said of playing for Junko. “The tempo is faster and there is so much energy. Everybody is enthusiastic and excited about the season.”