Villanova, Pa. — Over the last decade or so a few dozen colleges have dropped varsity football, while roughly the same number have started programs. Villanova University, however, has the distinction of restarting a program in short order. After a four-year absence, the Wildcats are back, busily making last-minute preparations to face Iona in Saturday's game, which launches a new football era on the Main Line.
The revival has not turned many heads because the school is easing into things this first year with a light, five-game schedule against small college (Division III) teams. Things will accelerate rapidly, however, with nine contests next year, and then a big jump up to a full slate of Division I-AA games in the Yankee Conference, which Villanova has joined.
Coach Andy Talley, who came to Villanova from a successful stint at St. Lawrence (N.Y.) University, has called his rebuilding assignment the most challenging in the country, but then the exhilaration is tremendous too.
``There were no offices, no players, no anything. We really had to dig down on Day 1 and get pencils, erasers, the whole thing,'' he said with barely concealed enthusiasm.
He is convinced that football is on the suburban Philadelphia campus to stay.
``The commmitment to football is very strong,'' he said from his spacious, new office, built under a corner of Villanova Stadium. ``There was a lot of controversy and infighting involved in football's return. But now that the decision has been made the feeling is, `We've argued enough. Football is back, let's support it and have a first-class operation.' ''
The previous football program was certainly not an embarrassment, just a financial drain. Athletic director Ted Aceto won't disclose details, but indicates that maintaining a major college team had become ``quite a burden.'' With the university needing the monies in other areas, the administration couldn't justify a tremendous outlay to sustain a big-time, Division I-A program.
Then, too, with a stadium that seats only 13,400, the Wildcats couldn't expect to make much from ticket sales, nor could they attract glamorous opponents like Maryland and Houston to play them at home.
Still, when word came that football was being dropped, the announcement startled many observers. After all, beginning in 1894 the school fielded teams without interruption for 87 years. In 1961 and 1962 Villanova went to the Sun Bowl and Liberty Bowl with Aceto at quarterback. And even though more recent squads struggled, the 1980 team managed a 6-5 record and boasted a future all-pro lineman in Howie Long.
Absence, of course, makes the heart grow fonder, and now, by popular demand, football has been brought back in a slightly scaled-down version. Ticket sales have been brisk among students, who voted overwhelmingly for its return. The alums, too, have shown their support, not only at the box office, but through a $100,000 annual pledge to the football program by the Wildcat Club.
``Maybe we were lulled to sleep a little bit and took football for granted,'' Aceto said. ``But when we lost it that woke a lot of people up to how much they missed it. Football just creates a special atmosphere on campus.''
Football games are happenings unrivaled in their ability to attract parents and alums and infuse the college community with a sense of vitality. Not even basketball, Aceto says, can expect to regularly attract the numbers football does, even at such a perennially strong basketball school as Villanova, which won last season's national title.
That success, however, has benefitted the football program by placing Villanova in the national spotlight, which has aided Talley in recruiting. It also was a key factor in landing the school a three-year TV contract that will provide local coverage for a substantial number of games in both sports.
That, of course, is a lure to many of the incoming players, including the 25 freshman who landed scholarships and will form the nucleus of the budding program.
But it hardly explains why 110 players showed up when practice sessions began last year in anticipation of this year's curtain-raising campaign. Of the group that underwent the rigors of fall and spring drills, about 40 upperclassman have returned, all ``walk-ons'' with the exception of tri-captains Roger Turner, Todd Piatnik, and Pete Giombetti.
These players are the last remaining recruits from the school's previous football era. Instead of transferring, they elected to stay at Villanova and pursue their educations at a fine academic institution. Graduate students now, they are utilizing their final year of athletic eligibility to get one taste of football.
``It seems like forever,'' Turner said of his wait for that long-delayed first kickoff.