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Villanova Orientation: A beginner's guide to Villanova football

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It's the start of Orientation at Villanova, so let's get the new kids up to speed with the gridiron 'Cats.

Villanova has a football team? You're kidding right?

Absolutely not! And it's got a pretty extensive history to boot! The program started in 1894 as a Division 1-A independent, and the current football stadium was built in 1927.

The 'Cats played in the first college bowl game to be played on foreign soil in 1937 (during an era where college bowl game invites were a rare honor, rather than a consolation prize), when they tied Auburn University 7-7 in the Bacardi Bowl in Havana, Cuba. The Wildcats went undefeated in 1937 and 1938. Villanova is also one of the very small number of schools to hold a winning record against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

In the 1940s and 50s, as college football was getting bigger and more important across the country, Villanova began moving games from campus to larger stadiums in Philadelphia. These included games at the Shibe Park baseball stadium as well as the notorious "grocery bowls" that former Nova AD Bud Dudley arranged at Municipal Stadium, against the likes of Georgia and Mississippi. Those games attracted big crowds, thanks to creative promotion.

Villanova also had a heated and long-running rivalry with Boston College that started in 1922. Though that series ended after 1980 (and was revived in 2013 as a one-off), the Eagles remained Villanova's most often played opponent until the University of Delaware overtook them a few years ago.

The 'Cats appeared in five bowl games, winning the 1948 Harbor Bowl and 1961 Sun Bowl, and have finished as high as 6th overall in the AP College Football poll during their I-A era. Wildcat graduates regularly ended up in the NFL draft, including first round picks Ralph Pasquariello (Rams), Rich Moore (Packers) and Mike Siani (Raiders), and one alum (we'll get to that later) made it to the NFL's Hall of Fame.

Tragedy struck in 1981 when the school cancelled the program. Football was reinstated as a Division 1-AA program in 1984 and was taken over by Andy Talley, who is still the head coach today. Jay Wright deservedly gets a lot of press here, but Andy Talley is a hero too and has been the lifeblood of the football program, turning it into an elite program despite not having the resources or backing that his rivals do.

Talley has run a strong program since '85, but since 2008 they've been on an especially good run of results, so there's no better time to start following the team. Both the offense and defense play fast, aggressive, spread-you-out styles of football that make the team very fun to watch.

Do they play in the Big East like the basketball team?

Not exactly. The Big East doesn't exist as a football conference anymore thanks to...we'll get to that during basketball season or we'll be here all day. Villanova plays in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). The CAA is usually one of the strongest and most competitive conferences in FCS.

So get used to opponents like James Madison, William & Mary, Richmond, and Delaware on the gridiron.

FCS? What the hell is that?

It was formerly known as Division 1-AA -- a half-step below the big-time -- where the talent levels are relatively high, but teams are only allowed 63 scholarships. FCS has also been doing the playoff thing for a while now, and the bracket is a 24-teams deep. There are some really good programs (North Dakota State has won four straight National Championships), and some of those good programs jump up to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, formerly known as Division 1-A) because there is a lot more money and notoriety available there.

So why doesn't Villanova join the FBS?

Glad you asked! Villanova has actually had the opportunity to do just that on a couple of occasions.

The question is one that has caused excessive angst in Villanova's football circles. The program's "hiatus" came about in Spring 1981 after a series of incrementally-more competitive seasons under Coach Dick Bedesem, who was rebuilding a program that was coming off of a rough stretch in the late 60s' and early-70's. The program had been long-mismanaged by the administration at that point -- the stadium issue had been neglected, and at least one athletic director was fired for putting a schedule together that was too good!

The response to the schools' decision was one of outrage from alumni, who immediately organized a committee to bring back football. They raised money and asserted pressure on the school. It didn't take long for the administration to crack -- they hired current head coach Andy Talley in May 1984 after he impressed university officials with his vision for building the program back, and announced that the team would play at the I-AA level. At the time, there was a lot of excitement among alumni, many of whom thought that the move back up to the big time was inevitable.

After the Big East Conference decided to organize football in the early 1990s, Villanova (along with UConn, Georgetown and St. Johns -- the other FCS-playing schools in the league at the time) was invited to move up to FBS and join the league. The Big East was a strong league back then, and was immediately one of the six "power conferences" when the BCS system started to form. The league put a deadline of December 31, 1997 on the offer to move up. Georgetown and St. John's immediately declined because they were non-scholarship in football. UConn ultimately accepted the offer.

Villanova probably would have quickly declined as well if it had been up to Father Edmund Dobbin, then the President. However, the Board of Trustees appointed a committee to study the issue and produce a report. The report was very strongly in favor of making the move -- the financial issues were manageable, and they had lined up feasible short-term and long-term plans for where Villanova could play. The whole thing came crashing down because of Fr. Dobbin's opposition to the move, which he stated to be on financial grounds, but (given the results of the report) insiders believe it was a deeper cultural bias. Without the President's support, the Trustees voted against the upgrade, since he would have been the one to ultimately execute the plan.

The Athletic Director resigned near the end of the process, claiming it had nothing to do with the decision.

In 2010, the issue arose again, with the college football landscape again beginning to shift drastically and with Villanova coming off of an FCS National Championship season in 2009, the Big East asked the Wildcats to reconsider the issue. Football television dollars had grown significantly in the prior decade and the decision should have been a slam dunk, but again, the President of Villanova seemed disinterested, according to sources close to the situation. A number of Trustees as well as Jay Wright and then-AD Vince Nicastro pushed the issue, however, and a new study was initiated, and again the results looked positive, with enough alumni appearing interested in supporting an FBS program, and dollar signs lining up right. Still, the administration stalled, pushing back the decision until April of 2011 -- supposedly to attempt to raise a significant dollar figure to go toward facilities improvements.

Ultimately, a small group of Big East football schools ultimately lost their patience waiting for Villanova and the whole deal was torpedoed. A lack of interest from the Presidents' office has been cited as a major factor.

The Athletic Director resigned, claiming it had nothing to do with the decision.

So, why should I follow the team?

Because you're at Villanova, and this team is and has been good for a while! Ever heard of Howie Long? He's in the NFL Hall of Fame and now works for FOX's NFL coverage. He's a Wildcat (an he just made a big donation to the program) and is about to have a new weight room named after him on campus.

How about Philadelphia Eagles legend Brian Westbrook or Brian Finneran of the Atlanta Falcons? They both won the Walter Payton Award at Villanova and led the 1997 team to the only perfect regular season in school history (they went "undefeated" twice in the 1937 and 1938, but had a tie in both seasons).

What have you done for me lately though? Keep reading, because the 2015 Wildcats are expected to be playing some of the most exciting football anywhere in the country on Saturdays (and a Thursday, and a Friday) this season.

What's this Walter Payton Award?

The award is given to FCS's best player- think of it as the Heisman Trophy for the FCS. Villanova is the only school to have three winners with Finneran winning in 1997, Westbrook in 2001, and John Robertson last year.

Anybody still playing in the NFL?

You bet. Darrel Young converted from linebacker and is now the starting fullback for the Washington Redskins. He scores touchdowns, so make sure you pick him up in fantasy football. Ross Ventrone has been with the Pittsburgh Steelers for a while, and DE Rakim Cox looks like he may play for the Carolina Panthers this season. Ben Ijalana is also entering his third season with the New York Jets. A trio of players from last year's team - TE Earnest Pettway, OL Vince Kowalski and RB Kevin Monangai are currently with the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively and are fighting for roster spots.

That's pretty cool - so what does this year's team look like?

Finally, the exciting stuff! The football team is ranked as high as #3 entering this season and the hope is that they can compete for a National Championship and end NDSU's tyrannical reign over the country. Quarterback John Robertson is THE best player in college football (since you'll want to tweet about it: #Pinball4Heisman). He's an All-American, won the Walter Payton Award last season, and is productive both running and throwing the football. He still has one season to go and already owns multiple school records. He's basically Superman, but we call him Pinball because nobody can tackle him.

The defense also has an All-American linebacker named Don Cherry who is essentially a one-man wrecking crew. Somewhat to the surprise of the folks around here, the word around preseason camp is that the defense is even better than the offense so far, which is great to hear. The offense has put up big numbers the past few seasons, and sometimes the defense has struggled to keep up.

You didn't mention anything about the kicking game?

Don't go there. I'm begging you.

With Robertson, we don't need field goals -- in fact, that was the strategy for Villanova in the latter half of last season on 4th downs, when Andy Talley opted repeatedly to go for it, rather than risk a missed kick. If the defense can be dominant, it could be a special season, like we had in 2009.

What happened in 2009?

National Champions baby!

2009 was the first and only National Championship that the school has won. The team featured all-purpose back Matt Szczur, who now plays for the Chicago Cubs.

Wait, I thought you said he played football?

He was a star of both the football and baseball teams at Villanova, but he liked his career outlook much better playing hardball. But you need to know the name Matt Szczur. He's a Villanova legend, not just for his exploits on the field, but off it as well.

Okay, now I'm crying.

We are too. We're only human.

How can I sign up for this Bone Marrow donor program?

Check out the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation for more information, but you will absolutely have an opportunity to register on campus in the Spring. Just look for the football team volunteers, and do a quick cheek swab.

Back to football - who is on the schedule this year?

You can see the full schedule here- You're not going to go wild here, but it's important to remember that the CAA is one of the best conferences in the country at this level. Even if the names stink, the games will be good. Villanova opens the season at UConn, where they honestly should probably be favored to win. UConn is baaaaad, but a win over an FBS team will get the team some attention from the media, so that's fun!

After that they'll play at Top-25 Fordham before coming home to play their biggest rival, Delaware, for the home opener. It's a brutal start to the season, but we'll find out quickly if these guys are who we think they are. There are a couple more Top 25 teams on the schedule in James Madison and Richmond, so it's going to be a wild ride. Make sure you're a part of it!

Awesome! So where do I tailgate at Villanova?

Oh, if it were only that easy. Ever been to a game at Boston College? It's like that, but worse (although it's getting better). Tailgating is allowed in Pike & Main Lot, but Public Safety (oh, the fun you'll have with them) monitors it like hawks. If you're underage, it's just not worth the risk. You will get caught, even if you're with your parents.

(But hey, this is what dorm rooms are for. Or this. Wait, I didn't show you that. Sorry parents)

If you can sacrifice the booze, the Villanova Football Club runs an awesome tailgate in the lot behind Villanova Stadium (and yes, there is plenty of alcohol if you are of age). You can't miss their big tent and blaring music. We highly recommend stopping by this tailgate - worst case, you'll make a couple of awesome connections. The Football Club guys are all great, and if you're sociable, you might meet a few ex-NFL players.

I have lots of other fun stuff to do on Saturday afternoons though!

No you don't. That's a lie.

But my Dad used to make me watch Notre Dame with him on Saturdays.

Bottom line, it's okay if you want to root for Notre Dame or Penn State on your own time. Just don't be that kid who uses it as an excuse to not show your pride and support for your own school (and besides, the Football Club tailgate probably has the game on their flatscreen). There's nothing worse than the kids who wear Notre Dame, Georgetown or Syracuse shirts around campus. Except for, maybe, the kid who is wearing UNC gear.

Don't be that kid.

I'm on my way to get the lighter fluid now to burn that stuff.

Love you! Go buy some Villanova gear.