A few days before he brought his Wildcats to Chattanooga for the NCAA FCS title game, Villanova football coach Andy Talley had a heart test.
"When I told a couple of friends of mine who are with the NCAA about it, they asked me if really thought I should be coaching this game," Talley recalled late Friday night, just after 'Nova edged Montana 23-21 at Finley Stadium.
"I told them, 'If I die here winning the national championship, that would be a pretty good death.' That should tell you how much this means to me."
If Chattanooga's run as host of this game dies at 13 years, this was a pretty good death as well.
On a night far better suited for arks, at least 10,000 area fans showed up among the crowd of 14,328 to try to prove to the NCAA that we deserve to host this game for at least one more contract.
But that's for later -- January, to be precise. For today it's best to ignore the future to focus on this game, because Wildcats-Grizzlies is the kind of game that could be discussed for years to come, wherever the FCS final next calls home.
Befitting a veteran squad with a 14-0 record and the determination to erase last year's title-game loss on this same Davenport Field, this was clearly Montana's game early on. The Grizzlies jumped to a 14-3 lead after 23 minutes. Conversely, 'Nova was nowhere.
Or as Talley said, "We really had trouble catching up to them."
They had the most trouble catching up to Griz wide receiver Marc Mariani, who was looking like the mountain man version of Jerry Rice. He had six catches for 142 yards and one score. The entire Villanova team had only 21 more yards at that point.
And if you hadn't arrived at Finley rooting for the Wildcats, you had to like this result. After all, this was the Grizzlies' third time in the title game in six years. The Gridiron Grinch had stolen enough of their Christmases.
Then again, perhaps there's a reason why Montana was 0-2 in its previous two title games under Bobby Hauck. That reason could be the Colonial Athletic Association. The Grizzlies previously lost to CAA members James Madison and Richmond. Now they faced Villanova, which Talley pretty much rebuilt from the ashes after the school disbanded football before the 1981 season.
Suddenly, the Wildcats scored 3:34 before intermission to pull within 14-9 at the break. Then Mariani never caught another ball. And Villanova scored two second-half touchdowns. And Talley, 25 years on the job, finally had the hardware for all that hard work.
"It's really hard to explain," he said. "I've been content with having a great program, graduating kids, winning enough games to keep my job. But I knew this was a really good team."
And with junior Matt Szczur running over the Grizzlies and quarterback Chris Whitney suddenly looking like the FCS version of Tim Tebow, running and throwing with equal aplomb, Montana once again fell short, causing Montana coach Bobby Hauck to lament, only slightly in jest, "Chattanooga's been a disaster for me personally."
Now we wait to find out of this night will be a disaster for us in keeping this game away from Frisco, Texas. But if we lose it, at least we'll know that on a night when every aspect of Mother Nature was against us, we may have saved our best for last.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...