Villanova's football program was living on borrowed time. Telltale signs were the red ink that flowed over financial statements, the apathy that infiltrated the student body.
Reports of the program's demise may have been premature at the start of the 1980s, but by the spring of 1981 they proved numbingly accurate.
It was in April of that year when the university's board of trustees unceremoniously turned thumbs down on football. The decision was made in the early afternoon on a Tuesday. It wasn't until 8 that night that coach Dick Bedesem found out. And as legend has it, he was in the home of a recruit at the time.
"There was a lot of backlash," Villanova athletic director Ted Aceto said yesterday, remembering a dark era along Philadelphia's Main Line. "It was a tough time to work here. I had to support [the direction] the bosses were heading in, but I didn't say I supported the decision to cut football."
A decade later, football is back at Villanova. It has found its proper place. It is Division I-AA. It is the Yankee Conference. It is 65 scholarships.
The Wildcats are 4-4 heading into tomorrow's game at New Hampshire. They are averaging 10,495 at home with a pair of sellouts. They have played two Friday night games. A year ago they were co-champs in the Yankee Conference and reached the Division I-AA playoffs, where they lost, 52-36, to the eventual champion, Georgia Southern. In a city where it must compete with Temple, Penn and the Eagles, Villanova football is getting along quite nicely, thanks.
So for those locals who think they may have seen the last of Towson State football, there is proof of life after death. Dead for four long years, Villanova football was resurrected in 1985 and nursed back to health with a cautious, calculated game plan.
"The program is very healthy because we did it the right way," Aceto said. "We brought it back gradually. The first year we played five games and three were against JV teams. We built two classes of scholarship players. We moved into a conference.
"We were all on the mark to go to Division I-AA. That was the goal from the beginning."
There are, of course, a few very large differences between Villanova and Towson State. Villanova is a private school, Towson a state school. Villanova had big-time football for 79 years when the board of trustees snuffed that tradition out. Towson has had football for 22 years.
Aceto knows about Villanova's tradition. He quarterbacked two bowl teams for the university, in the Liberty Bowl in 1961 and the Sun Bowl a year later. He was also the athletic director when football was discontinued after a 6-5 season.
"We had a void, and the void was very painful," he said.
"There was a lot of ill feeling there for a while. It was big on the part of the administration, the president and the board of trustees to try to iron out the problem, to come up with some sort of pro forma to bring football back."
Prodded by the alumni and student body, the board of trustees voted to reinstate football in December 1983. Various factions spent the next year working out details for a reasonable return. Aceto was instrumental in the fine-tuning.
"We upped the prices of tickets, to where alums guaranteed X-number of tickets to be sold," he said. "Students were charged so much to bring back football. That first year I think it was $35 [apiece]. The university made the commitment to bring the family back together again."
The new Wildcats returned in September 1985 and went 5-0 against a group of JV teams that included one from the Naval Academy. In 1986, against a mix of Division III, II and I-AA teams (Iona, Mercyhurst, Columbia, Central Connecticut), they went 8-1. In 1987 they played I-A and I-AA teams and went 6-5.
In 1988 they joined the Yankee Conference and went 5-5-1. A year ago they went 8-4. Success begat success.
"We were fortunate," Aceto said. "We got a lot of support. We've had an average of [at least] 10,000 at all our games. It's a great level, it's great competition. It has kind of built up the interest. But like anything else, if we're playing Saturday afternoon and it's not Parents Day or homecoming, our students might go watch Notre Dame."