Photo by Tessa Marie Images
Matt Szczur’s college baseball career hadn’t even begun, and he wanted to end it. In February 2009, Szczur sat in the office of Villanova University football Coach Andy Talley and told him that playing football and baseball while trying to manage a demanding course load was too much. The sophomore had missed the 2008 baseball season due to injury, and he wanted to forgo the diamond for the gridiron.
“[Talley] looked at me like I was crazy,” recalls Szczur. “He said, ‘We’ll figure it out. You came here to play both sports, and you should do that.’ A lot of coaches would’ve jumped at [my offer to quit baseball]. They would have said, ‘We would love to have you full time.’ But he was looking out for my best interests. That shows you what kind of guy he is.”
Szczur played the ’09 football season while leading Nova with a .346 batting average. Two years later, he was in the Chicago Cubs organization and has spent parts of the past three seasons with the big club.
Talley had worked out a schedule that allowed Szczur to miss some spring football practices to play baseball. “Matt was special, and when you have a special kid, you try to accommodate his skill set,” says Talley. “At Villanova, you can do that.”
Granted, Villanova is no gridiron leviathan focused only on winning and profit. And Talley isn’t an ordinary coach. As he enjoys his 32nd—and last—season leading the Wildcats, the man who resurrected the once-shuttered Villanova program is more concerned with developing his players as young men than he is about winning every game. Make no mistake—Talley hates to lose. But, as he closes a career that has lasted nearly 50 years, he’s best known for his passion for character building and adhering to the school’s mission.
“Andy has done an excellent job of being able to understand what matters to the university,” says Vince Nicastro, Nova’s athletic director from 2000 to 2015 and now deputy commissioner and COO of the Big East Conference. “The academic, leadership and service components of the job are just as important or more important than what he’s done on the field.”
Talley came to Villanova in 1984 to resuscitate a program that, three years earlier, had been abandoned due to crippling budget deficits. During his tenure, he has posted a 221-133-1 record, won or shared six league titles, and led the Wildcats to 11 NCAA tournament appearances. In 2009, he took Nova to its only national championship. He’s a two-time AFCA National Coach of the Year and the winningest coach in Villanova history.
Mark Ferrante, who has assisted Talley for 29 years, will take over next season, a move that Ferrante describes as less a “sudden change” than a “continuation.”
“His tenure has been remarkable,” says Columbia University coach Al Bagnoli, a close friend of Talley’s who won nine Ivy League titles during his 23 years at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s hard to stay fresh like he has. It’s hard to stay as consistent as he has. His is one of the great stories in college football.”
Talley’s work on behalf of his Bone Marrow Foundation may be even more impressive than his football accomplishments. Since 1992, he’s added thousands of people to the rolls of potential donors and helped save hundreds of lives. Talley has enlisted more than 50 football programs around the country as partners and expects to be even more active in the cause once he retires. “He’s saved so many lives, and I want to do anything I can to get people to participate,” says Szczur, whose 2009 donation ended up saving the life of a girl from Ukraine.
Andy Talley called his first office at Villanova the “bomb shelter.” But when he hosted pre-practice quarterback meetings there during the early years, participants were the ones under siege. The new head coach would teach the passing game while puffing on a cigar in the cramped, windowless space. “It was not a big office, but it was a big cigar,” says Kirk Schulz, part of Talley’s first recruiting class.
Schulz is second in all-time passing yards for Nova, so apparently the daily blast of secondhand smoke didn’t affect him much. But Talley’s instruction did. The man who’d grown up five minutes from Villanova’s stadium knew that there was a lot of pressure to resurrect the program quickly. “If it failed, [the school] would have dropped it,” Talley says.
Talley wasn’t especially daunted by the challenge. “I was no rookie; I was 41,” he says. “I didn’t have stars in my eyes. I knew what I had to do and how to do it.”
Talley was involved in everything, from holding position meetings to ensuring that the team’s road trips were first class, to raising money for offices and weight facilities. And, of course, there was recruiting. His first class included 25 freshmen, Schulz among them. But his most important conscripts were three fifth-year seniors: Roger Turner, Pete Giombetti and Todd Piatnik. They had come to Villanova in 1981, having never played a down. Talley found a way to get them scholarships for their graduate seasons and enlisted them immediately as tri-captains and leaders over a team of freshmen and walk-ons. “It was a young, cohesive group of boys and men together,” Turner says. “[Talley] communicated his expectations and told us what we were allowed to do in order to represent him and Villanova. That’s a recurring theme when people talk about him.”
“You couldn’t go to Villanova and run amok,” says Brian Westbrook, a former Eagles Pro Bowler and a three-time all-America running back. “Villanova was a rigorous academic school, and Coach Talley toed the line with that. He didn’t make a lot of exceptions. For him to do that, win games, and produce players who went to the NFL, that’s pretty impressive.”
The Wildcats went 5-0 in their inaugural 1985 season, playing as a Division III independent. They finished 8-1 their next year and stepped up to the I-AA ranks in ’87. Villanova joined the Yankee Conference in 1988 and, a year later, tied for the title, an accomplishment that earned the Wildcats their first playoff berth. As Villanova grew more successful—save for a 1993-95 stretch that featured three straight losing seasons—Talley changed his management style, delegating more responsibility to his assistants in order to handle a plethora of administrative duties.
“I’ve morphed into a coach who makes decisions on game day that aren’t related to the game plan,” he says. “Should we block a punt? On third-and-one, should we throw it? Are we going for it on fourth-and-one? Do I need to take the quarterback out?”
That approach bleeds into his personal life. His wife of 48 years, Arlene, reports that she pays the bills, while Talley pays attention to the big picture—like whether the retirement accounts are hefty enough. They have two children: Josh, a graduate of Brown University and Villanova Law School, and Gina, a University of Pennsylvania alum who’s a faculty advisor at Nova. “He’s a good delegator,” Arlene says of her spouse. “He expects people to do their jobs and doesn’t micromanage.”
Arlene insists that being a coach’s wife is akin to single parenthood, due to the long hours associated with the job. But Talley doesn’t want his staff to grind for 16 hours a day. “He allows you to do your job without looking over your shoulder,” says Ferrante, who played QB for Talley at St. Lawrence University from 1979 to 1982. “He also allows you to have a life outside of football.”
Besides Ferrante, who is the longest-tenured staff member, offensive coordinator Sam Venuto has been at Villanova for 21 seasons, defensive coordinator Billy Crocker for 11, receivers coach Brian Flinn for 11, and cornerbacks coach David Riede for nine. That continuity is directly attributable to Talley’s approach.
But Talley is a football coach, and that means winning on Saturday is important. Though the Wildcats won plenty of games in Talley’s first 20 plus seasons on campus, the one thing that eluded them was substantial postseason success. VU had reached the playoff semifinals in 2002 and the quarters in 1997 and 2008, but its fans wanted more. That came in 2009. Villanova went 14-1 and dumped Montana 23-21 for the national title. “That was really a good football team in so many ways,” Talley says. “Winning a national championship at this level is almost impossible because you have to play four games after your regular season ends, and you usually have to overcome injuries. The ability to keep a team up is really hard.”
The title sits atop the Talley résumé, but perhaps even more impressive is his ability to keep his job through the tenures of five athletic directors and three school presidents. “His greatest strength is dealing with people,” says Arlene.
Ferrante, his offensive line coach, has known that he’d be taking over the program ever since Talley signed his most recent contract. After this season, Talley will move into a supervisory role. He feels it’s time, thanks to some health concerns, including a 2002 heart attack and six stents in his ticker. Part of Talley’s substantial legacy is a $20 million facility, which opened in September—one of the finest in the FCS realm. Although he’ll only enjoy its spacious head coach’s office for a few months, the building is a tangible exclamation point to the Talley era and a resource Ferrante can use for future success.
“I looked at the whole picture, and I asked, ‘What would be a good way to end this?’” says Talley. “It’s for Mark Ferrante to get the job, so that I know my 33 years of history here will be reinforced by someone who’s been with me for 29.”
Andy Talley celebrates a 2015 win over the University of Delaware.
The biggest photograph in Andy Talley’s office—bigger even than the collage of images from the ’09 title season—is a shot of a little girl standing in front of the Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, raising her hands in triumph. It’s Clara Boyle, who’s now 6 years old and cancer free.
Talley cites that his Bone Marrow Foundation’s efforts have produced 280 transplants in the past three years. What started in 1992 as a response to a radio report he heard on the need for potential donors has turned into a nationwide phenomenon. “Go across the country, and it’s hard to find an organization any more impactful to human life than his,” says Brett Gordon, who played for Talley from 1999 to 2003 and ranks third on the school’s all-time passing yardage list. “It has taken him from coach to ambassador.”
Talley envisions adding more teams to the foundation’s list and building a momentum that leads to more transplants. “We’ve received more positive mentions for [the foundation] than for winning nine or 10 games on the field,” Vince Nicastro says.
Clara’s family is part of the chorus of praise. When Boyle was 4 months old, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. “We thought she had a little cold,” says her mother, Brooke.
AML is a particularly nasty predator, and Brooke and her husband, Alan, were told immediately that extreme measures would be necessary. “[Clara] was high-risk, and no matter what, she was going to need a [bone marrow] transplant,” says Brooke.
After two courses of chemotherapy, an operation to remove a fungal infection that had settled in her lung and brain, and an avalanche of medications, Clara under-went a transplant in January of 2011. The donor was John Stephens, then a freshman linebacker at SUNY Cortland, one of the schools Talley had enlisted. During his recruiting visit to Cortland, N.Y., in spring 2010, Stephens had submitted to a quick swab of his cheek. He had his red blood cells extracted on Jan. 11, 2011, and they were inside Clara a day later, fighting her leukemia. She was able to go home in less than a month.
After an 18-month recovery, finally cancer free, Clara traveled from her Northern California home in October 2012 to meet Stephens. Anybody who watches the video A Story of Clara and John on YouTube can see the wonderful bond between the two as they frolic on the football field and when Stephens holds Clara in his arms. “Automatically, when they met, there was a very physical and emotional connection between the two,” says Brooke. “Clara knew there was something special about him.”
Anne Brady walked down Lancaster Avenue, distraught and homesick. The man in the blue Mercedes noticed her and made a phone call. “He asked, ‘Is your daughter all right?’” recalls Bob Brady, who played at Villanova from 1986 to 1990 and remains one of the best receivers in school history. “A couple days later, he had lunch with her.”
“He,” of course, is Talley. And when he saw a former player’s daughter in a tough spot, he helped out, just as he always does. That’s the atmosphere Talley has created. Brady has three daughters, all of whom attend or have attended Villanova. “I can’t tell you how good he was to them,” he says.
When the Wildcats practice these days, Talley isn’t worried much about the strategies and techniques. He’d rather hear about players’ lives off the field. At 73, his counsel is more grandfatherly than paternal, but the players know he cares. “He was always trying to teach life lessons,” says John Robertson, a QB who graduated in May as the school’s all-time total offense leader. “He was always giving us warnings about what to expect in life.”
Talley routinely puts former players in touch with people who can help them find jobs. He counsels them through life’s challenges and is there for their kids. And he’ll continue to do the same after he retires. As a self-confessed “man without hobbies”—though he loves Italian food and movies—remaining present in the lives of his former players is a preferred leisure activity.
“What he was trying to do was build a family from the ground up,” says Brady. “The deeper the roots of the family, the stronger the program will be.”