VILLANOVA, Pa. — Just as he has for more than three decades, Andy Talley gathered the Villanova football team near one end zone following a grueling preseason practice.
And as always, the players leaned in close to hear their legendary head coach dole out the kind of advice they know will stick with them long after they graduate from college and stop playing football.
If anything, they were even more attentive than usual Tuesday, despite the brutal August sun beating down on them at Villanova Stadium.
That’s because each practice brings them closer to the end of the coaching career of Talley, who will retire following the 2016 campaign after 32 years at the Wildcats’ helm.
And they want to make sure that his final season counts.
“He’s trying to keep it as normal as possible but at the same time we keep it in the back of our mind that this is his last year,” senior linebacker Austin Calitro said from Villanova’s media day Tuesday. “So we do want to send him out on a great note because he does so many great things here. It would be nice for me and the rest of the seniors to send him off the right way.”
A captain and leader of a defense that figures to be one of the best in the CAA, if not the entire FCS, Calitro will likely play a major role in whether the Wildcats can give Talley a storybook ending.
But as gifted of a player as he is, he knows he still must lean on his veteran head coach, especially when his emotions kick into overdrive.
“Some of us, myself included, get a little crazy before the game,” Calitro said. “His calm demeanor helps keep us cool and collected.
“He’s like a father figure away from home,” he added. “He’s there to tell you when you do something wrong but, at the same time, when you do something right he’s the first one there to praise you. He helps out a lot of guys with their life and career.”
Other players certainly echoed Calitro’s sentiment.
Defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, a preseason STATS FCS All-American, also used the term “father figure” to describe Talley, pointing out how much he helped him off the field by ensuring he didn’t blow off any class as a freshman and always showed up 15 or 20 minutes early to everything.
That advice, the standout senior believes, helped him land a very good internship this summer at an accounting firm.
“He tries to guide us on the right path,” Kpassagnon said. “His number one goal is to make sure we have a future after this. He always looks after people. I definitely wasn’t the smartest guy coming in here and he kind of molded me a little bit.”
Like Calitro, Kpassagnon said he’d like to repay Talley’s devotion by giving him a “great last” season. But instead of thinking about a glorious swan song himself, Talley seems to be focusing more on a successful handoff to assistant coach Mark Ferrante, who will take over as head coach after the season while Talley remains at the school for another year in an advisory role in the athletic department.
“It’s my last year coaching, so after 32 years here I feel really good about what we have built,” Talley said. “Our new football building, operations building, is here now. It did take 32 years to get that but we have it. Mark Ferrante has been with me 29 years and the staff [will remain] in tact. So the beat goes on as far as I’m concerned. And I have another year on my contract, so I’ll be here to kind of be the big daddy keeping an eye on things, making sure we’re doing OK.
“It’s as good an ending as you can have.”
Even if the transition is a perfect one, Talley will naturally miss the job, especially all of the players that he “looks very proudly” on after mentoring so many in so many different ways, from the Walter Payton Award winners to the walk-ons.
And it’s quite clear his players will miss him too. Luckily, they still have a few more months with Talley as the Wildcats look to bounce back from an up-and-down 2015 season and get back to the FCS playoffs for the sixth time in nine years.
Perhaps they can even bring him his second national championship.
“I would say he’s just a really positive guy,” quarterback Zach Bednarczyk said, adding that Talley kept reminding him to keep his head up as he was thrust into the starting role last season when star John Robertson got hurt. “He’s always there to pick guys up. If there’s a problem on the team, he’s always solving it.
“He’s definitely just a great guy.”