If there were to be a WPIAL version of Mount Rushmore for high school coaches, one would certainly think Bob Palko’s bright smile would be a part of it.
Just a few months ago, he retired from coaching after 37 years, including the last 24 at West Allegheny High School, where he helped guide its football program to eight WPIAL titles, the most in WPIAL history. He also led the Indians to a state title in 2001.
Yesterday, he was introduced as the new head football coach at Mt. Lebanon High School. For Palko, retirement didn’t stand a chance.
“Nothing can prepare you for what you’re feeling when you’re retired,” says Palko. “For the last 37 years, you appreciate the vacations and time off, but you’re always attached to something or someone with football. With that being said, I didn’t realize when I was done that I wasn’t going to have that feeling.”
Palko becomes just the fifth Mt. Lebanon coach since 1967. Only the likes of Art Walker Sr., Paul Kmec, Chris Haering, and Mike Melnyk have walked the sidelines for the Blue Devils over that span. Melnyk resigned earlier this school year, citing lack of support from the school’s administration. The program earned playoff spots in six seasons under Melnyk’s tenure since 2012, but have not won a WPIAL title since 2000.
Mt. Lebanon’s Athletic Director, John Grogan, knows Palko well. In the late ’90s, Grogan was the AD at West Allegheny, where the two worked together.
“Our goal was to find a great football coach, but more importantly a great person that could build the kind of relationships with our kids, parents, and community that would provide a tremendous experience for our entire program,” says Grogan. “Obviously I feel Coach Palko brings the intangibles to make this happen. His resume speaks for itself, but more importantly I feel he is a tremendous person that will have a positive impact on our program.”
Palko feels that Mt. Lebanon is a special place—a feeling he’s had since he was a child.
“When I was little, my grandmother lived in the South Hills,” says Palko. “You know, I grew up in a house of women, so I can remember anytime we would get out to drive around here, I would ask to go past Mt. Lebanon High School. Then I’d say, go the other way past the tennis courts. Then over there was the baseball field. The football stadium had Astroturf back then. When you’re growing up you could see that it was a real special place.”
Now Palko is leading a program that is in the state’s largest football classification, with one of the largest student enrollments in Western Pennsylvania. He believes it will be great to be a part of it all.
“The school district has great academics, but also the arts and as you know athletics are so important,” says Palko. “I think that’s a neat feature. There’s a sense that some people think there’s just a bunch of entitled rich kids here, but I don’t think that. I just think that the bar is set high and there’s a tremendous sense of tradition and community here.”
You can have the best resume in WPIAL history and some would argue Palko does, but he now has to deal with powerhouse programs in his conference such as Pine-Richland, North Allegheny, and Central Catholic. Something he’s really looking forward to.
“We’ve played a lot of those guys in the past,” says Palko. “I know all of those guys. I’m a big believer in to be the best you have to beat the best. We’ve got a lot of work to do. In my eyes, winning will come when you win at doing all of the little things. That’s where we’re going to start.”
Today, Palko is back to having a job. One that he is extremely excited about and ready to dig into.
“It’s been 19 years since [Mt. Lebanon] last won the WPIAL,” says Palko. “I was looking around in the hall of honor at the high school and there’s quite a bit of success here. Look at the people that have come out of here. We’re going to use football here to teach as many life lessons as we can and from that the winning will come.”