ANDY TALLEY GREW UP in Bryn Mawr, about a mile away from Villanova Stadium.

"On one of those old blue-collar streets," he said. "When I was a little kid, many of the students lived near our home because there weren't enough dormitories. I remember getting into the football games. You'd just pick up the fence and slide under.

"In the summer, we'd sneak into the old swimming pool, which was where the Pavilion is. There was no summer school. It was a sleepy college. Every third week a security guard would maybe come around and throw you out.

"My father drove a trash truck for the township. At the time I got out of high school, they were coming off a Liberty Bowl and a Sun Bowl. And I was a Division II football player. So Villanova was never on my radar.

"It was light years away from my environment."

Tomorrow night, Talley will coach the Wildcats (13-1) in the FCS championship game against Montana (14-0) in Chattanooga, Tenn. (8, ESPN2). At 66, Talley is completing his 25th season with the program, one that he rebuilt at this level after the university dropped the sport in 1980 because it didn't want to compete in what was then called Division I-A.

So what were the odds that a quarter-century later, the story would be playing out like this?

"I would say it was a million to one shot, really," Talley said with a smile. "I think about that sometimes. The day I got the job, I went on WIP. They had a talk show back then, before it was all sports. I was going to answer questions from callers. So a little voice comes on and says, 'Are you the same Andy Talley that played at Haverford High?' I said yeah. So he goes, 'Did you wear Number 22?' I said yeah. And he says, 'I do not believe you're the football coach at Villanova.'

"It was my old coach, Art Valenti. And that sort of summed everything up. Anybody who knew me would be like, 'He's the football coach at Villanova?' I don't think so . . .

"Charlie Johnson, I always give him a hard time about this. He was the captain of the Liberty and Sun bowl teams. When [Athletic Director] Ted Aceto told him Andy Talley was going to be the new football coach, his exact comment was, 'What the hell is an Andy Talley?' I bust him every time. 'Hey, Charlie, what the hell is an Andy Talley?' Every now and then he'll go, 'Would you get off that.' "

Talley, better known to those who know him best as Coach T or Head Cat, has won 206 games, 178 on the Main Line. He's never taken a team this far before. He has been a national coach of the year, and produced two Walter Payton Award winners. And he's done it at a place that's much better known for hoops.

"That's the thing I've been realistic about," Talley said. "Some things used to bother me, but I'm past all that now. I do have my days when I feel like we're not necessarily the show at Villanova, but I'm sure that's natural. I also understand the reason we can maintain a high-quality program is because of the money generated by basketball.

"It's a great tool for me. I need to use that to my advantage. When your basketball coach [Jay Wright] is the national coach of the year, that's helping me. If it gets me into a home to recruit, fantastic."

Talley had opportunties to leave. For whatever reasons, it never happened. So here he remains. And it's not like he's going anywhere anytime soon.

"I don't have one regret staying here," he insisted. "Not one. We had a blueprint, to build a family where players could come back years later and still feel like they were a part of it. We've done that. And we've done it the right way. We're proud of that. I think people here have a good feeling about the program.

"I think anyone who watches us says, 'You know what? Those guys know what they're doing.' "

Vince Nicastro, the fourth AD Talley has worked for, knows exactly what he's got.

"His record obviously speaks for itself, and not just his record on the field," Nicastro said. "Those other components are as important, or more important, at a school like Villanova. All things combined, he's had a tremendous impact.

"He probably doesn't get his due, because it's not [FBS]. But it's really, really good football. To his credit, he jokes about being at a basketball school. But he's taken that rising national profile and used the exposure to his benefit. Many times, recruiting is centered around basketball weekends in January.

"Years from now, when you look back, his records and his teams probably will never be eclipsed by any single coach at Villanova. Moving forward, if the game stays the way it's going, guys won't stay as long as he has. He's a dying breed."

There's every chance Talley is going to keep doing what he does for at least another 5 years or so. Still, it's never too early to think about one's legacy. Or is it?

"I don't look at it as me, me, me," Talley explained. "I'm the face of it, but I've been surrounded by a lot of great people. Those guys do the coaching. I do the managing, the stirring of the drink. It's worked, and everybody's OK with that. They let me do my thing. I think they trust me. They never bother me. That's the key.

"I would like [my epitath] to probably read like this: Hometown Boy Comes Home and Makes Good. You know what I mean? I think I've made a difference. We'd only be the third private school to win it. Everything else was a large land-grant university. But things have to fall right.

"I think I appreciate [the success] more now, because football has kept me young. If we'd won it in 1997 [when they were ranked No. 1], I was still cocky. I've had my butt handed to me by the best of them."

And handed some back as well. Especially lately.

There's a painting overlooking Talley's desk. It was done by former Delaware coach Tubby Raymond, and shows the two men sharing a laugh before their teams' annual scrum.

"What does that say to you?" Talley asked. "That that man, who was a bitter rival, would write, 'Often in combat, always friends.' How great is that? It doesn't get any more heated than Villanova-Delaware. But he painted that. He's been to my office three times this season.

"That's what it's about, right there."

Szczur an All-American

Wildcats junior Matt Szczur made the FCS All-America team as the all-purpose player.