VILLANOVA, Pa. -- At first, all Andy Talley wanted was an office.
The year was 1984. Talley had just been hired to resurrect the Villanova football program, which had been dropped following the 1980 season. But given the four-year hiatus, there were nowhere for him to work.
“There really was nothing,” he said.
Athletic officials initially wanted to put him in a trailer by Villanova Stadium. But showing the determination and resourcefulness that would come to define his 31-year tenure, Talley said he enlisted the help of a couple of carpenters working on the Pavilion to build the coaches’ offices “in the bomb shelter inside the stadium” that are still there today.
That was Talley’s first of many victories. Like he did with his office, he also built the Villanova football program into a perennial FCS power, winning 221 games in a staggeringly impressive 31-year career on the Main Line — one in which, he announced Wednesday, will come to an end following the 2016 season.
He will then turn over the program to longtime deputy Mark Ferrante — who, unlike Talley, will have a solid foundation to work from when he becomes Villanova’s head coach in 2017.
“That’s how I started here,” Talley said in a packed Pavilion press room, speaking candidly and telling jokes in front of family members, fellow coaches and old and current players. “There were no offices, no players, no coaches and I had no reputation with anything at that point. But it was a tremendous journey for me.”
Indeed, while the 72-year-old Talley has become a fixture in the Philly sports scene, he certainly had a lot of challenges to overcome when he was first hired at ’Nova after serving as the head coach of Division III St. Lawrence. During Wednesday’s press conference, Talley recounted stories of his old high school JV coach calling in WIP when he was a guest and exclaiming, “I cannot believe you’re the head football coach at Villanova.” Not long after that, Talley heard that when Villanova alumnus Charlie Johnson found out who the new head coach was, he said, “What he hell is an Andy Talley?”
But Talley quickly changed of the mind of Johnson, who was one of several former football players at the Pavilion on Wednesday. Another one was former Villanova and Eagles great Brian Westbrook, one of three players to win the Walter Payton Award under Talley’s watch. The others were wide receiver Brian Finneran in 1997 and quarterback John Robertson in 2014.
Talley admitted he didn’t always want to give Westbrook a scholarship offer but immediately became convinced when he saw him pull off an impressive reserve dunk in a high school basketball game.
“I went, ‘Let’s go, I’m taking him,’” Talley recalled. “That was it. And he was a magnificent, phenomenal player — truly one of the great ones.”
When asked about that story after the press conference, Westbrook coyly smiled and said, “Sometimes good stories have a bit of truth in there and a bit of fiction.” But more seriously, he expressed sincere gratitude to Talley for the relationship he’s maintained with him and the lessons he taught him.
“He understood the importance of people,” said Westbrook, adding that Talley calls him up every couple of weeks just to check in. “It’s very nice to be important but it’s more important to treat people the right way. … He would always say to me, ‘Brian, you’re the big man on campus but remember all the small things and the people that helped you get to this point.’ And I tried to carry that through my whole life. Coach Talley is one of the guys who instilled those types of values in me.”
Westbrook added that he thinks Talley’s engaging personality is not only why he’s been so successful on the field — where he’s led the Wildcats to 11 NCAA playoff appearances, six conference championships and the 2009 national title — but also how he’s saved so many lives through his bone marrow foundation.
Talley, who had two players miss time this past season to donate bone marrow to patients whose lives were at risk, will continue to work with the foundation even after he retires.
“I’m addicted,” he said. “I need to do this because I can do it.”
Talley also believes Ferrante will continue his bone marrow work when he replaces him as head coach. Ferrante, after all, has been on the Villanova staff since 1987 and played and coached under Talley at St. Lawrence, so he should do a lot of the same things as his mentor.
That’s one of the main reasons why first-year athletic director Mark Jackson decided to hire him after a national search: to maintain the stability and winning tradition that Talley spent decades securing.
“I know Mark was entrenched directly under Andy,” Jackson said. “That played a huge role.”
Talley is extremely grateful that his longtime assistant coach will take over for him. It’s a similar path that Penn took when Al Bagnoli — one of Talley’s best friends — coached one final season in 2014 before the reins were handed to defensive coordinator Ray Priore (who then guided the Quakers to a share of the Ivy League title this past season). But Talley knows it’s still rare.
“A lot of ADs would want to come in and get their own guy,” Talley said. “For him to buy in, he did his homework and realized we have solid ground. It was beautiful the way it worked out.”
At the same time, Talley knows there will be a lot of weight on Ferrante’s shoulders, laughing, “I’m putting pressure on this dude.” And the new coach did admit to some nerves. But more than anything else, Ferrante was emotional, choking back tears as he thanked his parents, wife and son for sticking by him as he passed up other coaching jobs to remain at Villanova for so long.
“There have been a few times over 29 years here where there have been opportunities,” said Ferrante, the 2015 FCS Assistant Coach of the Year. “But nothing was attractive enough for me to leave here. This has really become home to me after all these years — what my family has come to know.”
Before the press conference ended, Talley was quick to remind everyone in attendance that he still has one more year in charge. And given all he’s accomplished at Villanova, few would be surprised if it turned out to be a special one.
“Andy is a true example of what we talk about at Villanova all the time: as a person who ignited change,” said the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, Villanova University’s president.
Later, he added: “And I have to say, he promised me one more [national championship] before he goes.”