When West Allegheny head football coach Bob Palko took over for his alma mater in 1995, the Indians had won just one playoff game in their first 45 years of existence.
West Allegheny went 9-11 in Palko’s first two seasons, but everything changed in 1997. The Indians erupted for a school-record 12 wins that season, capturing the WPIAL Class 3A championship, the first in program history.
19 playoff appearances and a record-setting seven WPIAL championships have followed since then.
“I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by really good kids and unbelievable assistant coaches,” Palko said. “That’s the key to be honest. You surround yourself with great support—I don’t think anyone can do this alone.”
“You can’t do this without kids buying into what you’re selling.”
No coach has won more Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association titles than Palko. He shared the honor with legendary New Castle coach Phil Bridenbaugh before West Allegheny edged McKeesport, 38-37, in overtime last year in the Class 5A championship game to move into sole possession of first place with eight titles.
“This is we thing, not an I thing,” Palko said. “Bob Palko is not the sole reason for West Allegheny winning eight WPIAL championships. I just happen to be the head guy.”
The Indians moved up in classification a year ago, joining a conference with 4A powers Woodland Hills, Upper St. Clair and North Hills, but the results didn’t change. West Allegheny’s only loss came in the PIAA semifinals, a 42-10 defeat to Harrisburg.
Palko played quarterback and safety at West Allegheny from 1975-77 before venturing out west to attend college at Montana Tech. He started at quarterback all four seasons for the Orediggers and earned NAIA All-American honors. Upon graduating, Palko finished up his teaching degree at IUP and started coaching.
“Ever since I was little, playing football or whatever sport was in season, it’s all I wanted to do,” Palko said of coaching. “After finishing playing, I realized the best thing to do was get my teaching degree.”
He served as the offensive coordinator at Jeannette from 1985-90 and was an assistant coach under Greg Gattuso at Seton-La Salle for one season. After Gattuso was named the head coach at Duquesne in 1992, Palko coached the Rebels for two years before West Allegheny came calling.
He unwillingly recalls his first two seasons with the Indians because “you’re quicker to remember the years we didn’t make the playoffs.” Since then, West Allegheny has missed the postseason only once.
Palko’s best season came in 2001 when West Allegheny won the school’s first PIAA state championship. The Indians had lost in the title game the previous two seasons, but with his oldest son, Tyler, playing quarterback, Palko guided West Allegheny to an upset, knocking off undefeated Strath Haven, 28-13.
Tyler went on to star at Pitt and finished tied for second all-time in school history with 66 touchdown passes. He spent parts of five seasons in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. His other son, Luke, graduated from West Allegheny in 2003 and played wide receiver at St. Francis (Pa.). He currently works as a scout for the Arizona Cardinals.
“The experience was unbelievable,” Palko reflected. “It was nice we won and had the success we did and to be a part of their lives for that. I really think that success was a springboard for their professional careers.”
A four-year starter at quarterback, Tyler led West Allegheny to three straight WPIAL championships in 1999, 2000 and 2001. The Indians would go another eight years before winning Palko’s fifth title but have won three more since 2012. In all, West Allegheny is 8-1 in WPIAL championship game appearances under Palko, the only loss coming in 2014 to Central Valley in the game’s closing seconds.
Palko said the success has been great, but he rarely reflects on the magnitude of it all.
“You’re aware of it, and I’m very humbled by it,” Palko admitted. “But you’re too busy, and this year’s group doesn’t care about last year so I have to come ready each day.”