Kern: Talley's career a road well-traveled

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Villanova head coach Andy Talley is congratulated by players after the Wildcats won the FCS title against Montana in December 2009.

OH, THE places the FCS playoffs have taken Andy Talley. They almost read like a road map of America.

In 1989, in just the program's fifth season back after it resurfaced at what was then the Division I-AA level, the Wildcats were sent to Statesboro to play top-ranked Georgia Southern, the eventual national champion. It was their first postseason appearance since the 1962 Liberty Bowl in South Philly.

In 1991 and '92 they went to Youngstown (Ohio) to take on Jimmy Tressel's Penguins, who would reach the championship each year, winning once.

In 1996 it was Johnson City for East Tennessee State.

All of those were first-round games.

The 2002 semifinals would take them to Lake Charles, La., home of McNeese State.

And in 2010 they had to travel to Stephen F. Austin (Nacogdoches, Texas), Appalachian State (Boone, N.C.), and Eastern Washington (Cheney) in consecutive weeks. All were No. 1 at the time.

It's made for a scenic ride.

"That's just being a football coach and going through what you go through," said Talley, who is retiring after 32 seasons on the Main Line. "You can string together all those snapshots that have happened over the course of my time. Unless you're a dominant team like North Dakota State, you're going to have to do that at some point. You could be talking to a lot of coaches who've gone through some of the same stuff here or there."

Nevertheless . . .

"Some of it you just can't make up," he duly noted.

On Saturday afternoon the Wildcats (9-3) will be at South Dakota State (8-3) in a second-round matchup. The eighth-seeded Jackrabbits had an opening bye, while Talley's guys were beating visiting St. Francis (7-5), 31-21. It was the first postseason appearance for the Red Flash. This is Talley's 12th, and sixth in the last nine years. He's 9-2 on Lancaster Avenue (with both losses by three points). And 3-8 elsewhere, which includes the 2009 final against Montana in neutral Chattanooga, Tenn. The two true road wins he finally got the following year were as good as it gets: 54-24 over Stephen F. Austin and 42-24 over Appalachian, which has since moved up to FBS.

The defending champs were then eliminated by eventual successor Eastern Washington, in a game they led late in the third quarter.

"I'd rather be at home," Talley readily acknowledged. "The challenge of going across the country, I know the pitfalls of it. But whatever they give us, we're going to show up. The thing is, you're going to play a team that knows how to win, in front of a big, raucous crowd. No one's going to give you anything. You're going to have to beat them. You have to be ready for everything. And you need to have some luck."

They've certainly had their shots.

They led Georgia Southern at halftime. In '91 Youngstown won by one after completing a tipped 41-yard Hail Mary to set up a last-second field goal by future NFL kicker Jeff Wilkins. The next year the Penguins won by three. The Wildcats lost by six at ETSU. At McNeese they were up 14 at the half and were later hurt by two controversial calls, one of which nullified a fumble-return touchdown. In the 2008 quarterfinals at James Madison they lost on a late TD that was helped along by another strange flag. And Richmond, a team they'd beaten, ended up hoisting the trophy.

Against Eastern Washington they were up in the third quarter, after flying 3,000 miles to play on a Friday night (kids were taking finals on the plane). They lost Matt Szczur to a concussion and had six turnovers. Yet it was still a three-point game with six minutes to go.

"Anything that could possibly go against us did," Talley recalled. "And we were right there anyway. As far as they had come, when it was over that was one of the saddest moments I've had to deal with."

Memories? He's accumulated his share. Cherished and otherwise. Should we mention that they flew home from Chattanooga into a snowstorm and were the last plane to land before the airport closed?

"I remember we stayed in a little dinky hotel near Georgia Southern," Talley said. "That was a good learning experience. They ran the wishbone, and were really fast. So we had to get faster.

"Every time we went to Youngstown it was freezing cold. Dank, windy. Rust Belt. That was rock'em, sock'em football. They didn't throw the ball either.

"Lake Charles was friendly. Great Louisiana folk. Great atmosphere. They wanted all our team and fans to come to the pregame stuff . . . For Stephen F. Austin we flew into Louisiana and took a two-hour bus ride. There's no airport there. East Texas at its very best. Over hill and dale, you know. But I'll tell you one thing. After the game they had the best barbeque I've ever had. Unbelievable. Ribs, chicken. That was the best part about the trip. Other than winning the game. But that was a close second.

"We didn't stay in Boone," he continued. "It's kind of in a valley a little bit. We stayed in the mountains. It was snowing when we got there. The electricity went out in the middle of the night. We all woke up at 3 in the morning to fire alarms, OK. But the people couldn't have been nicer. It's a long walk off the field to the press box afterward, and a zillion of their people were going, 'Coach, great game. We admire your team. Your guys were better than us today' and so forth. That's what makes it special."

And Eastern Washington?

"Worst ever," Talley said. "They have that red turf thing going, and it's in the middle of nowhere. Just the whole setting . . . something about it was almost eerie. We paid a price. It took a toll on us."

South Dakota State is in Brookings, not far from the Minnesota border. The Wildcats will be staying in Sioux City, about an hour away, because there weren't any suitable accomodations near campus. They left Thursday night.

"You have to figure things out," Talley said. "I always like to practice at the place we're going to play, but it makes no sense driving back and forth. So we're going to practice at an indoor facility.

"The people out there wanted to do a big thing for us. Justin Sell is their (athletic director). He used to be an assistant AD here. He's a good guy. But I told him, 'Hey, I've got to be back with my team.'

"I'm just trying to survive."

For the third straight week, he knows this game could be his last. And if he gets another it will likely be at North Dakota State, the five-time defending champ.

"Honest to God, I've been so tied up with what's in front of us that I haven't even thought about it could be the end," Talley said. "I'll worry about that when I have to. Right now we're hitting the road."

Once again.


kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn