The making of a champion leader
Players sprint across the field and quick passes lead to the satisfying soar of a football through the uprights. Referee whistles and a trumpeting band meet in a crescendo as cleated feet crush the turf below. The chaos, carefully conducted by Blue Devils football coach Bob Palko, unfolds beneath harsh lights, resembling a symphony orchestra’s aggressive bow strokes and tentative plucks.
Now, if you were to ask Palko to describe himself, he’d claim he’s nothing more than a gym rat with a calling to physical education and coaching.
“If anything had to do with a ball, a stick, or a net [growing up], I was into it,” he said.
It’s easy to pigeonhole football coaches: intense, athletic, ambitious. Palko embodies those traits, but he is also driven by a larger motivation to teach students.
“I’ve always used athletics as just a way to teach life lessons,” Palko said. “That’s my niche. I’ve always been afraid to fail. So I just work really hard at it, as hard as I can, and that’s just been kind of a calling for me … I’m driven by relationships and helping people.”
After retiring from West Allegheny, Coach Palko took the head football coach position at Mt. Lebanon in 2019—he wasn’t done coaching athletes quite yet.
During his time here, he’s focused on crafting a sense of camaraderie and vulnerability within the team, since his strategy of authenticity breeds success.
“They’ve seen me cry before when I talk about my dad. I’m an emotional person. In order for me to want these guys to be vulnerable, [which is] the relationship I had for all those years as a teacher, I have to be vulnerable. I can’t push somebody unless they know I love them. When I first came here, people were looking at me like I was out of my mind.”
In response he told them, “Just coaching, it’s what we do.”
Unlike senior placekicker Noah Bhuta’s experience on the soccer team, where he felt isolated, he now feels like a valued member of the team.
“I think [Palko] really puts an emphasis on developing us as a team,” Bhuta said. “I know when he first came here, a bunch of the players used to do their own individual thing, and Coach Palko really wanted us to always be together.”
Palko values teamwork, recognizing the ways in which players strengthen one another. Like a perfect harmony, he places his players in a position where they can learn and grow.
“In order for a team to be a family, the success of a team is all rooted in how we feel about each other. Do we respect [this player]? And does he feel like he brings value every day? To be a part of something you have to bring value of some sort. It’s important to understand how much value you bring and to then take pride in that. I mean, that’s all part of being a family.”
While the football team has some shining stars, every member of the team knows that they bring value. Another main goal of Palko’s when it comes to his coaching technique is ensuring that his players know he cares.
“[I want them to know] that I didn’t just care about people because they’re good. I never lied to them, and was upfront and honest with them. I would give them the shirt off my back if they needed it. If they would say that about me, then that would be pretty cool.”
Fittingly, Bhuta experienced Palko’s sacrificial loyalty towards players during one of their first practices together.
“One day when he first came I was outside on the field kicking some field goals,” Bhuta said. “I had these crappy composite footballs and Coach Palko came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing with these balls,’ and he brought me inside and gave me a big bag of new ones. He told me I didn’t have to be on my own anymore and that I was part of a team now.”
In addition, Palko’s main priority isn’t the wins—it’s developing relationships. When asked about how Palko would respond if he missed a punt, Bhuta laughed and said it’s certainly happened before.
“He would come up to me, put his arm around me, and say, ‘You’ll get the next one,’” Bhuta said.
Football mirrors the arts, as one conductor—or coach—brings together different personalities, skill sets and backgrounds to achieve a common goal. Interestingly, Palko has always wished he was more artistically talented.
“I wish I was an artist,” Palko said. “I wish I was a pianist. That would be cool. I’m kind of musically challenged.”
Appreciating the way that football is orchestrated, however, a close observer realizes Palko isn’t as artistically challenged as he believes.
Similar to an artist mastering color theory, Palko looks beyond the Xs and Os and strives to recognize the grays in the lives of his players and the game and adjusts accordingly. One of the reasons the team has advanced so far this season, with a 7-0 record, is because Palko invests in his players and their lives.
“When you’re a leader of people, you always have to adapt and adjust and look at things in a lot of different ways,” Palko said. “I’m saying, there’s black in the world, there’s white in the world, but there’s a ton of gray. You gotta see the different shades of gray sometimes.”
Ranked third Pennsylvania, the Mt. Lebanon football team is a formidable force. Bhuta notes the extensive hard work that this monumental success has demanded.
“I personally thought we would win against Central Catholic, but going back a couple years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that. The work we put in throughout the whole summer, the winter, I mean, Palko definitely prepared us well.”
Hard work and perseverance paved the way for success this season, and Palko’s vision ensured that the football team would operate successfully.
“You can talk about all the Xs and Os, but if you don’t have that ability to build relationships with kids and get them to buy in, you can’t be successful,” Mt. Lebanon Athletic Director John Grogan said. “You just won’t be successful in football. To this day, in my mind, that’s [Palko’s] greatest strength. He has that ability to connect, to build relationships, to get kids to buy in. And you’re seeing the results of all this … It doesn’t mean we’re going to win every game, but we’re prepared for every game.”
This isn’t just semantics. Bhuta agrees that his camaraderie has prompted the team’s recent success.
“I think part of the reason we are doing so well is because while there might be other teams that have more talent than us, we have such a good connection with each other. Palko really puts a big emphasis on that,” Bhuta said.
So, ideally, no matter which team comes its way, the team hopes to withstand the pressure and use teamwork to carry them through.
“We’re finally embracing the team effort that it takes [to succeed],” Bhuta said.