Chomping on a cigar while overlooking the field at the stadium that bears his name, Joe Walton was thinking a few months in advance.
It will be in November -- or, hopefully for him, December -- when his work will be complete, something which the 77-year-old coach dwells on with a level of uncertainty.
Walton has spent the past 62 summers of his life involved in some kind of football camp, from a player at Beaver Falls High School all the way to an NFL head coach in the 1980s. For the past 20 years, it has been at Robert Morris, where he has built the school's football program from scratch.
The 2013 season will be Walton's last, as he will retire from the game to which he has dedicated so much of his life.
"I wonder how I'll feel at the end of the season and, of course, at the beginning of next year," Walton said. "I've been doing it so long."
That proverbial ride into the sunset, however, will not come without the passage of another season, one that his team hopes can be a proper sendoff to one of the university's athletic patriarchs.
Despite coming off an underwhelming 2012 campaign in which the Colonials finished 4-7, which was actually an improvement over their 2-9 mark in 2011, the team returns a wealth of talent that should allow it to be more competitive.
On the offensive side, Robert Morris' top two receivers are back. Oliver product Donte Jeter and Duane Mitchell, along with the team's leading rusher, Evan Taylor (915 yards, 4.6 yards per carry). Meanwhile, a defense that gave up 26.6 points per game last season will have the good fortune of bringing back four of its top seven tacklers, a group led by senior linebacker Mike Cook and his 88 total tackles (the most on the team by 12 tackles).
The starter at the quarterback position is unsettled, but the answer to that question is one that could potentially pay some major dividends. Penn State transfer Paul Jones understandably gets much of the attention and could very likely get the nod, but sophomore Derik Abbott has a year of experience in the Colonials offensive system.
Experience was something players routinely cited when explaining their outlook for the season and it's something they figure to rely upon if they hope to accomplish the same goals they always have -- a Northeast Conference championship and a spot in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.
"We have the talent to compete," Cook said. "We have a lot of depth, too, so a lot of good things can happen."
The team was picked to finish fourth in the NEC's preseason poll, up three spots from where it ended last season. Given the number of returning starters, the 2013 season could be a potential reprieve for a Colonials program that has posted just two winning seasons in the past eight years.
Regardless of how the season finishes, many of the storylines will settle around Walton and his impending exit from the sideline.
After an NFL coaching career that included stints as the Jets head coach and the offensive coordinator for the Steelers, Walton accepted a position for which a man with his resume would seem overqualified -- the daunting task of completely building a football program from infancy, which Robert Morris asked him to do when he was hired in 1993.
From that point, the Colonials became competitive relatively quickly, winning five consecutive NEC championships from 1996-2000 while going a combined 39-13 in the regular season during that span. In 1999 and 2000, the program captured the Division I-AA mid-major national championship.
There will be a level of familiarity even when Walton departs, as longtime assistant John Banaszak will take over as head coach. But things will still be different, which will make the 2013 season that much more meaningful.
As long as Robert Morris football has been there, so has Joe Walton, making him as synonymous as one could be with a program. It's that reality that Colonials players will have in their minds as they take to the field, hoping to make their coach's final season a memorable one.
"I think everybody kind of gets a sense of urgency to send coach Walton out on a high horse," Jeter said. "He gave this program 20 years and the least we can do, and want to do, is send him out with a championship."
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG First Published August 15, 2013 4:00 AM