CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - A quarter-century ago, before he'd ever coached in his first football game at Villanova, Andy Talley got a championship ring. It was given to him by Rollie Massimino, after his Wildcats shocked the college basketball world by winning the NCAA Tournament. And for several years after that, Talley made sure he wore it whenever he was on the recruiting trail.
"I didn't know if I'd ever get one [of my own]," Talley said yesterday. "I didn't know it would take 25 years to get here. But at long last, we're fighting for one."
Tonight at Finley Stadium (8, ESPN2), No. 2 Villanova (13-1) will play top-seeded Montana (14-0) for the FCS title. It's the defending national runner-up against a team that had only been to the semifinals once before this season.
So, has it sunk it yet?
"I think it finally hit us [Wednesday]," said junior Matt Szczur, who just made first-team All-America as an all-purpose player. "We got to the stadium, they were taking pictures, we got our plaque that said 2009 Division I national championship and it's like, 'Man, we're here.' We've earned this. We deserve to be here. We've been working 365 days to be in this position."
Montana, which overcame a 27-point, third-quarter deficit in the opening round against South Dakota State and avoided overtime last week against three-time champ Appalachian State (2005-07) with a late goal-line stand, went down in last December's final to Richmond, another Colonial Athletic Association team.
A team that 'Nova had beaten 3 months earlier.
Anyway, the Grizzlies won it all in 1995 and 2001, and also finished second in 1996, 2000, 2004 and '08. So they have a pedigree. Of course, the Wildcats have beaten a No. 1 club each of the past two seasons.
"In our league, we play a playoff game almost every week," said quarterback Chris Whitney. "That helps a lot. Being here might be new for us, but the challenge isn't. We have to focus like we have for every other big game, not let the lights and cameras get to us."
Or the opponent.
"We are ready for our toughest game of the year," Talley said. "It's been a long, hard charge to get here. I asked our players about going to a movie [last night] to get out of the hotel, but they didn't want to go. They are more businesslike than I am. I think when you play in a really good league, you come into a game of this magnitude very well prepared. The best you can hope for is to come in having been battle-tested.
"Playing an undefeated team, you can look at it two ways: Wow, they have no weaknesses, or they have a [target] on the back. It's just difficult to go undefeated. We had an undefeated team in 1997 and lost in the second round. And that team still today was maybe the best team we've ever had. You just never know in any one particular game. If you are undefeated like Montana, you are special, and it will take an incredible effort to overcome that . . .
"It's very important to bring your 'A' game, because of all the factors involved. It's very difficult to break their will with a 'B' game. You can't just come out and play good. You have to play great. We have the ability to do that. We want to say that we either won or lost, but we couldn't have played better. If you do that, you show college football and your league and the people that follow you a piece of your heart."
Montana coach Bobby Hauck, an alum (class of 1988), is 80-16. But he's never lifted the ultimate trophy. This is the fifth time the Griz have gone through a regular season unbeaten, and second in 3 years. But they've never finished this tourney unbeaten.
The last time anyone did was Marshall, 13 years ago.
"I try not to make this a personal quest," Hauck said. "It's not about me. We've been here before and we can't try to win it any harder than we have in the past. We'd love to cap [things off]. But we can't turn over any more rocks. We just need to play well. I'm very proud of the last 7 years, and I don't think you can point to one game and say that validates 80 wins any more than a loss would.
"You don't get to this point without being a complete football team. We just want to win it. It doesn't matter who [it's against]. They could roll out the Girls Scouts [tonight] and I would just as soon play them. We have a history with that conference. But in terms of the two leagues, we're here, they're here. It's nice for the conferences, but it's our team against their team."
Montana has won the Big Sky 12 consecutive times, the second-longest streak in FCS or FBS history. Oklahoma won 14 straight Big Eight titles from 1946-59.
The Grizzlies - who feature a starting offensive line (including the tight end) that averages 6-5, 295 pounds - have 119 victories this decade. In FCS, Appalachian State is next with 101.
"It probably comes down to who makes the least mistakes," Whitney said.
Villanova has yet to turn the ball over in the tourney.
"We've never been satisfied," Szczur said. "We have one game left. We want to finish it off the way we should. We've all talked about wearing those [national-title] hats. You couldn't ask for a better scenario to go out. This is it. It feels weird that we don't have anything next week. All we're asking for now is a ring."
Whatever happens, they'll be talking about this group for decades to come. But rings do make a difference.
"It's like, 'OK, here's the next big hotshot team, let's go,' " Talley put it, as sometimes only he can. "Let's see if we're good enough. We've done what we had to do. Let's find out if we've got one more in us."
Another ring might not be quite as historical as 1985. But it undoubtedly would be even more visible along the old trail. *