When his football players are laughing around Joe Walton, he's not always sure how to perceive it.
"I don't know if they're laughing with me," he says, "or at me."
In truth, Joe Walton has found a way to relate to countless players through his long coaching career, some of whom today are nearly 60 years younger than him.
The coaching icon, 77, hasn't quite reached the golden years yet, even if that description would be perfect for his two decades of coaching at Robert Morris University in suburban Pittsburgh.
Walton is set to enter his 20th and final season as the only head football coach in Colonials history. The western Pennsylvania native, loving life back home in his native Beaver Falls, Pa., is still adding to the program that he has built from the ground up, beginning in 1993.
Having enjoyed a long career in the NFL, most notably as the New York Jets' head coach from 1983-89, Walton has found college coaching to be particularly rewarding. He's led RMU to 110 wins in 19 seasons as well as six Northeast Conference titles, including a 10-0 season in 2000 and with a 2010 squad that became the first to represent the conference in the FCS playoffs.
RMU even named its stadium after Walton in 2005.
He will become a special assistant to athletic director Dr. Craig Coleman after his final season, turning the head coaching reins over to assistant head coach John Banaszak.
Walton wants to end his career with a championship season. Regardless, it will be an emotional ride as the ol' coach takes his final lap with a program that he says "has been the love of my life."
In Five-a-Side - In the FCS Huddle's monthly feature of "five questions, five answers" with an influential person in the FCS - Walton discusses his upcoming final season.
Let's kick off:
TSN: What are some of the things you will try to savor in your final season at Robert Morris?
JW: Try to win every game if I can - that's the most important thing. Listen, it's been a great run. We were talking the other day, my wife (Patty) and I, and starting with my sophomore year in high school, this is my 63rd training camp, coming up. Can you imagine, 63 years I've been doing this.
I don't know how I'm going to be. I think the season itself will be kind of normal, but after the season's over, I'm not so sure how I'm going to be, not doing something I've been doing all my life. I don't know, I'll have to wait and see how I react.
TSN: Players are always complaining about two-a-days and working out in the heat. How does a coach perceive 63 training camps?
JW: I don't know where they came and where they've gone (he laughs). It seems unbelievable to me. It's just been a part of my life. Every year, as soon as training camp starts, you know you're gonna work seven days a week until the season's over and, hopefully, longer if you make the playoffs.
It's just been a way of life for me. My dad (Frank "Tiger" Walton) was a coach, so when I was young, I was involved with some of his teams. Football has always been very important to me. And serious.
TSN: What has surprised you about coaching at Robert Morris through the years?
JW: Oh, the kids. I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed it. I wasn't sure. I had never coached college kids, I'd always coached in pro football when I took this job. Plus, it was starting from scratch. We didn't have anything, we didn't have a football cleats or helmets, nothing. We had to buy all new equipment, we had to get a place to play, a place to practice and we had to get some offices. It was just a whirlwind those first two or three years.
And then I settled in. I had a chance to get back into pro ball a couple times. I was enjoying myself too much. A lot less pressure. The kids want to learn. When we started out, we were non-scholarship. We get some scholarships now. So I had a bunch of kids that just liked to play football. It was very refreshing and very rewarding to work with them. It's been a great run, it really has.
TSN: Is there a tough part to relating to today's players?
JW: Yeah, I think I've changed with them a little bit. Some of the things that have changed are kind of refreshing, some I'm a little dubious about. You have to adjust, and I think that's kept me young, too.
Being around the kids and the kind of music they like, the way they want to fold their shirts. There's all kinds of little things, like, 'What the heck are they doing that for?' If it makes them happy, most of the time I'm willing to go along with them.
TSN: With your returning talent, how do you think your squad stacks up with the Northeast Conference?
JW: I think we'll be competitive. We've got to get a little better, but at least we've got some guys with experience. The last couple years, we've been playing with a lot of sophomores and freshmen. To give you an example, a couple years ago, when we had the (2010) championship team, we graduated 16 seniors. Last year, we graduated five starters - three on defense and two on offense.
We have some guys that have played and know what it takes in our conference. I think that's going to be a plus from the very beginning.