Mt. Lebanon hires 8-time WPIAL champion Bob Palko as football coach

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019 | 9:03 AM


Bob Palko bid farewell to West Allegheny football last fall after 24 seasons, but the coach with the most WPIAL titles insisted then that he wasn’t ready for retirement.

Three months later, he’s back to work.

“Nothing prepares you for that feeling of ‘I shouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t have retired,’” said Palko, who was hired Tuesday as Mt. Lebanon’s football coach, a career move that takes him to one of the largest schools in the WPIAL. “You’re used to getting up in the morning and going to work at 5:30 or 6, and getting home at 8 or 10 at night for the last 37 years.”

Palko won eight WPIAL titles at West Allegheny, where he was hired in 1995. His teams won WPIAL titles in 1997, 1999-2001, ’09, ’12, ’13 and ’16, along with a state title in 2001 with son Tyler at quarterback.

His career record is 217-73.

After retiring as a teacher last summer, Palko announced that the 2018 season would be his last as West A’s football coach.

“When I decided on the plan to leave and retire, I thought it was going to be a whole lot easier to get a college job,” said Palko, who’d talked with both Saint Vincent and Penn State. “After interviewing a couple of places, it didn’t work out, which is fine. But patience is not one of my virtues.”

At Mt. Lebanon, Palko replaces Mike Melnyk, who resigned after seven seasons. Mt. Lebanon went 44-31 and reached the playoffs six times under Melnyk, but he stepped down in December citing a lack of support from the school’s administration.

Palko becomes Mt. Lebanon’s fifth coach in the past 50 years following Melnyk (2012-18), Chris Haering (1995-2011), Paul Kmec (1988-94) and Art Walker Sr. (1967-87).

“I’m thrilled to be honest,” Mt. Lebanon athletic director John Grogan said. “I think this is certainly a big-time hire for us. I’m really excited for our kids and for our football community. I think it’s going to be a terrific match.”

Palko met with Mt. Lebanon’s superintendent Tuesday to finalize his hire. Unlike many districts, a school board vote is not required at Mt. Lebanon to hire a football coach.

Grogan said Palko was his No. 1 target throughout the search.

“He contacted me before I left for Kansas City to visit my grandkids,” Palko said. “I told him, just let me go clear my head, and he granted my wishes. I got back, we met and talked.”

Palko already had a connection with Grogan. The two worked together for three years when Grogan was West Allegheny’s athletic director from 1997-2000.

“The goal was certainly to find a great football coach, but in my opinion, an even better person,” Grogan said. “I think we certainly achieved that goal. The football and the resume stuff speaks for itself, but I’ve known him for a long time and know the type of person he is. I’m really excited for him to bring that to Mt. Lebanon.”

Mt. Lebanon is the fifth-largest school in the WPIAL behind North Allegheny, Seneca Valley, Butler and Hempfield. PIAA enrollment statistics list 651 boys in grades 9-11 at Class 6A Mt. Lebanon compared to 395 at West Allegheny, which was one of the smallest Class 5A football schools in the state.

But recently, that size advantage hasn’t led to football titles at Mt. Lebanon. The team last won a WPIAL title in 2000, which was its first title since a dominant stretch in the early 1980s. Overall, the Blue Devils own seven WPIAL titles from 1966, ’70, ’80, ’81, ’83, ’84 and 2000.

Palko coached his final season at West Allegheny alongside coach-in-waiting Kim Niedbala, who the school board tabbed to replace Palko. However, Niedbala resigned from West A on Sunday, causing that school to also start searching for a new coach.

Palko said it was too soon to say whether any West Allegheny assistant coaches would be joining him at Mt. Lebanon.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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