Andy Talley has three children: a son, a daughter and a football program. He wasn't the first football coach on the Main Line, but going into his 27th year and 26th season, he has held the longest tenure. More importantly, Talley has been the only head coach of Wildcat football since the program re-booted in 1985 after being cancelled on April 14, 1981.
Coach Talley will tell you that it really means something to stand up and say, "I’m the head football coach at Villanova."
When Villanova's Trustees voted football back into existence, they wanted a coach with not only a plan to re-start the program, but also one who understood the delicate balance between a winning athletics program and an academically-oriented, Catholic administration.
Talley was 41 years old when he was hired out of St. Lawrence College, a Division III school without much football culture. He was always optimistic about what Villanova football could become.
"I wasn’t a rookie; I knew what I was doing and I knew the power of Villanova and what it could be if managed correctly and if someone stayed long enough to build it," he said of his start at Villanova.
Navigating the labyrinth of Villanova's academic expectations is no easy task, but the man who grew up attending Villanova football games was no stranger to the challenge.
"I’ve always worked at high academic schools- Middlebury College, Brown University, St. Lawrence University," Talley noted. "I always wanted to be at a school that was selective academically, where the players come to get an education first and play football second."
All of that meant he would have to win without some of the crutches that other coaches in the Championship Subdivision rely on. This included transfer players, who have been the perpetual lifeblood of programs in the CAA and it's predecessor conferences. Villanova's admissions requirements wouldn't allow Talley to load up on cast-offs from the Penn States of the world — not that he would want to anyway. In his words: "When we recruit a player to come to Villanova, it's his responsibility and our responsibility to get him to a point where he’s playable."
When a transfer comes in, the staff can oftentimes miss that goal. The coach expressed that sentiment. "I don’t like to mess with our chemistry with a transfer, because the culture of Villanova academically is very strong and it’s hard to get somebody who can come in and be a part of that culture immediately."
Transfer players are recruited "very sparingly and very carefully," and normally only to fill immediate needs where no internal option is feasible. When a player comes in as a freshman, Talley feels he has the opportunity to "teach them the Villanova way," which will allow them to be more successful both athletically and academically on the Main Line.
It is an example of the dedication the program has to the kids who sign on. It's also a part of the recruiting pitch: "If you come to Villanova, you’re probably going to get playing time sooner than if you go to Penn State."
Talley doesn't like to redshirt his players. "Look at any given year," he boasts. "We hardly ever have more than three or four fifth-year players, because we play all of our players from their freshman year on."
Players like Ben Ijalana, a second-round draft pick, and Brian Westbrook, a former all-pro tailback, were given an opportunity to shine at Villanova. Since the program was reborn in 1985, none of Villanova’s professional football players were big-time recruits, but they became stars on the Main Line and made it to the professional ranks.
Talley tells players considering his program that they will get repetition and exposure. A little more than half of his team's games were on television last season; while that is less than his BCS counterparts, it is a lot for an FCS school. His advice to recruits: "It’s really up to you [how hard you want to work] and really end up with the best of both worlds – a college degree from an outstanding selective academic school with a lot of [athletic] repetitions and exposure."
Talley will tell you that his Pro Days are usually well attended in the spring. "Every NFL team comes to Villanova every year. They know that we have guys that can play."
As proud as he is of the players who went on to professional careers, Villanova football has grown to have many facets of success.
"We’re not just about winning football games," he explained. "We’re about making an impact in the community and saving lives and developing players that come out of here with a Villanova degree and go out in the world and contribute."
"National championships are good stuff, but the people we’ve graduated and their input in other parts of the world, in business and so on, is also part of what we are."
Talley takes the idea of contributing seriously. Annually, he organizes his team to run a bone marrow recruitment drive that has become one of his most successful efforts.* The program, which now spans 34 college campuses, tested and added 8,600 potential marrow donors to the national registry this year.
The idea sprouted from a very simple beginning, twenty years ago:
I’m shaving and listening to a radio show and an oncologist comes on and says, "we have people dying that could be saved if they could only get a transplant, and the problem is we don’t have any donors." I thought, "wow, I’ve got 85 or 90 healthy football players on my team, what if I got those guys to test and get on the donor list, and each new class of freshmen to test and get on the donor list and then have a drive and go into the campus community and pull people from the campus community?" I can do that, because I have a power-base to do that, I have 85 players to act as recruiters for me, and hey, you know, we can do this nationally; spread the word.
Today, the coach organizes the program both at Villanova and elsewhere. Every donor they sign up costs the Be the Match registry $100, and according to Talley, that is the only thing holding them back. Every year they give him a budget and every year they exceed the budget. "If they let me go, we'd test 20-, 30-, 40-, 50,000 people every year and save many more lives and I'd have many more college football teams involved."
Getting other programs involved isn't difficult. "All I have to do is pick up the phone and call people and they jump right in," Talley said. "I’ve never had a coach say no."
Though Matt Szczur wasn't the first Villanova football player to donate through the program — both Michael Holland (LB) and Joe Marcoux (K) donated prior — he was easily the most noteworthy.
"[Be the Match] had over a million articles throughout the world, on the internet and in print media, about that donation," according to Talley. The timing of the donation, which coincided with Villanova's 2009 National Championship run, was largely the cause of distinction from the relatively anonymous donations of seven football players at participating schools this year.
If his star player had to miss the national championship game because of the donation, it wouldn't have bothered Talley. "This little girl that Matt Szczur saved, she had a 1 in 60,000 chance of living and Matt was her chance," he said, describing it as "the ultimate unselfish act."
Villanova University has been tremendously supportive of Talley and his marrow program. It is part of the Catholic mission of the school to foster such programs.
That mission also fits well with the "family" concept that Talley's program has worked hard to foster. It isn't a concept that is unique to Jay Wright and Villanova basketball. Despite having a roster many times larger than Wright's, Andy Talley makes an effort to keep his football family connected. Former players that went on to careers in business, industry, education and other fields are still a part of Talley's life.
He noted one way that his program keeps alumni involved: "We just had our football golf outing a few weeks ago and we have 100 former players from the 60s, right on up to people who just graduated a few years ago." Talley is also actively involved with the Villanova Football Club, a group of program boosters that consists of both former players and avid fans. In addition, he uses social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn to find his former players and reconnect.
The family extends to the men who played their football for Alexander Bell, Frank Reagan or Lou Ferry. Talley prides himself on the relationships he has built with football alumni from earlier eras on the Main Line.
"Former players who didn’t play for me feel comfortable interfacing with me because I go out of my way to understand that we’re here because of what they built," he asserted.
It's easy to build those relationships when you have been around for 26 years. Regardless of the players and coaches that have come and gone over that time, Talley has been a constant. The Villanova football community has had a tremendous opportunity to get to know Andy Talley and what he stands for. In his words, "They don’t have a guy who has been jumping to the next big job; they have a guy who has been tremendously dedicated to academics and the improvement of the football program."
How much longer will he stay an institution on the Main Line? The answer is simple. "I certainly want to coach as long as Villanova wants me here. I still have the energy."
Talley built the program from scratch and has a tight grasp of Villanova's unique football situation. "I think I know what Villanova wants both on the field and off the field," Talley offered. "I understand our problems; I know the Alumni well; I know what the formula for success is at Villanova, which is different than [other schools.]"
He hasn't been without new career prospects over the years. Other universities have come calling over the years and Talley has had chances to move on to jobs at Bowl Subdivision schools. Despite these opportunities, however, "nothing was ever better than Villanova, and I was mature enough to realize that the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side."
Since 1985, Villanova football has been his masterwork and he could never bring himself to leave. Talley sums it: "You don’t want anybody else to take it because you don’t want anybody else to screw it up."
*According to Coach Talley: "If you look at the stats for a Caucasian, the chances of finding a bone marrow transplant are 1 in 60,000. For an African-American, Asian or Hispanic, its 1 in 1,000,000. There are no donors . . . We go out and get donors who stay on the registry from 18 until age 61, so if you get a guy who is 18, 19, 20 years old, he’s on that list for 40 years with a chance to save somebody who maybe 10 years ago would have no chance to live."