Joe Walton At The Center Of The Robert Morris Renaissance
Robert Morris steams to a 42-24 victory over Central Connecticut State for NEC title share and NCAA automatic bid
By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — As the Robert Morris University football team celebrated a share of the Northeast Conference championship and the clinching of the NEC's first-ever automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Football Championship, a light snow began to fall on the field Saturday afternoon at Joe Walton Stadium.
It was as if nature was throwing an extra tier of folly on the Colonials' party, as they enjoyed a 42-24 victory over Central Connecticut State to win their first title since 2000.
In this battle of two teams that came into the game undefeated in the NEC, Robert Morris found a way to dethrone the defending champion.
"Mind your manners," said Walton, the former New York Jets coach and the only coach in the 17-year history of Robert Morris football, as his squad got into position for the NEC trophy presentation and team pictures.
Even in the most impromptu of moments, Walton was going to make sure his team got things right.
Walton will turn 75 years old in about a month, but at an age when most of his contemporaries are mere figureheads, or have retired years ago, this cagey coach is still breaking new ground with his Xs and Os and is still actively involved with his program.
"We see him everyday and have meetings with him," said sophomore quarterback Jeff Sinclair, who completed 10-of-18 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns and rushed eight times for 42 yards. "He is the reason we are where are."
A year ago, Walton made a crucial decision after his team got off to an uncharateristic 0-5 start. He installed Sinclair in the starting lineup as freshman.
After one more loss, Sinclair led the team to a five-game winning streak to end the season and the seeds were planted for a spectacular 2010 campaign.
"We worked really hard in the off-season and through the summer," said Sinclair. "We saw this coming from week one and we all had one goal — to get that (NEC) ring."
Leadership that started at the top has been one of the Colonials' keys.
"We didn't want to have a waste of a season," said RMU senior running back Myles Russ, who powered his way for 177 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries and passed the 4,000-yard mark in career rushing. "Coach Walton has been on our side since we've been here and we wanted to win this championship for him."
Saturday was the culmination of Walton's well-thought-out plan.
"We've been down for a long time," said Walton, who had watched his team win seven games just once since its last of five straight NEC titles from 1996-2000. "That makes this win a lot more meaningful."
Walton brought back 26 seniors this year and that group has provided the leadership that has been critical the team's success as the Colonials have gone 8-1 overall and 7-0 in the NEC.
"That's one of the things that makes this so special, having a senior class like this," Walton explained.
Earlier this year, Walton called a 30-23 victory over then-15th-ranked Liberty the greatest win in program history.
"That was what we needed to get us over the hump," said Walton, of a victory that came just two weeks after a season-opening 28-14 loss at Dayton. "We've been playing with a lot of confidence since then."
On Saturday, however, Walton was ready to move the Liberty win into second place on the all-time Robert Morris victory, the 104th in school history.
The Central Connecticut State triumph "is the biggest in Robert Morris history," stated Walton. "I've been here the whole time and it means an awfully lot to me."
The Colonials got this one by dominating the Blue Devils (6-3, 5-1) with a balanced offense.
"We did just enough passing to keep them honest," said Walton.
And on ground, Robert Morris ran the ball 57 times for a school-record 335 yards.
"I knew it was going to be a shootout," said CCSU coach Jeff McInerney. "When they were able to hold us to only a field goal on our first drive and then when we fumbled the ball at our own two, that was really the difference."
Unable to stop the Colonial offense with any consistency, CCSU fell behind 28-17 at haltime and two quick touchdowns in the third period by Robert Morris sealed the Blue Devils' fate.
"You've got to give (Robert Morris) all the credit in the world," said McInerney. "If you had total me we would be here, playing for a championship, at the beginning of the year, with all we lost, I would have been happy."
McInerney was also quick to credit the Robert Morris coach for his place in league history.
"Joe Walton has been a great ambassador for the game," said McInerney. "When he came to the NEC, he made the NEC."
Robert Morris will tune up for the playoffs and try to win the NEC title outright next week when it travels to FCS up-start Bryant. With a senior-ladden squad, it would be surprising to see the Colonials overlook this game, but the team is already looking forward to the playoffs.
"I think they will do well," said McInerney, who has a national championship ring from his days as a Georgia Southern assistant with Tim Stowers.
The Colonials have already captured one playoff-caliber win against Liberty.
"You saw what we did against Liberty," Sinclair told one RMU beat writer.
But even with that win, the Colonials will come into the postseason as "huge underdogs," in the eyes of Sinclair.
"Nobody knows who Robert Morris is," Sinclair explained. "We know there is nothing to lose."
Sinclair wasn't the only with such feelings.
"I don't want to sound cocky, but the sky is really the limit for us," added Russ.
Walton knows a little bit about playoff football, having taken two of his Jets clubs to the postseason.
"We're going into a stage that's unfamiliar, but the kids are playing with a lot of confidence," Walton said. It will be a big challenge, but we're going to have some fun."
As Walton nears the end of a great coaching career, there have been rumors that he might decide to go out on top, having led his program to its first-ever playoff berth.
But Sinclair has other ideas.
"I'm hoping he stays the next two years."