Lou Ferry: Villanova’s living legend

Cailin Brophy

If you think Villanova isn’t a football school, think again.

Or just ask Lou Ferry.

Entering his 39th season as part of the Villanova football coaching staff, the defensive line coach is as much of a tradition at Villanova as going to church on Sundays.

Ferry is the embodiment of a rich football tradition at Villanova of which most students are unaware .

The Pennsylvania native’s lifelong commitment to the Wildcats began in 1945 when, as a high school senior, he made a last-minute decision to attend the University. However, it was basketball which afforded Ferry his initial opportunity on the Main Line.

“There were a lot of schools interested in me and Villanova was one of them, but I had a hard time making up my mind,” Ferry said. “At the last minute, [head basketball coach] Al Severance said he had a scholarship for me. I only ended up practicing for two nights and Severance said to me, ‘Lou, you should stick to football.’”

It ended up being pretty good advice, to say the least.

Ferry both played on and later coached some of the greatest teams in Villanova football history, as well as competing with and mentoring many well-known players in an era where the game of football was worlds apart from what it is today.

“When I played, there was not a lot of passing, because most teams ran the ball,” he said. “There also wasn’t any platoon football; players had to play both offense and defense.”

The style of play wasn’t the only difference during Ferry’s early years as a Wildcat. Living through the international crisis of war in a world that is vastly different from today’s fast-paced media and technology-driven society characterized Ferry’s earliest memories of his tenure at Villanova.

“When I came to Villanova in 1945, World War II had just ended and the next year, we had all these veterans come back to the team.”

Ferry has witnessed the evolution of the college student-athlete alongside the backdrop of the vast change and tumult which shaped the nation in the later half of the 20th century.

“There’s such a big difference today,” he noted. “Young people have so many different things they can do today that we didn’t have in the ’40s and ’50s.

Almost none of my friends had TVs or a car that they could just jump into and go somewhere.

Nowadays there are so many things for a young man to be involved in, it becomes hard to really concentrate on the game of football.”

Ferry has also observed the development of athletes in terms of their physical prowess.

“Athletes today are bigger and stronger. When I played, a 300-pound lineman was a freak.”

The Wildcats were a nationally prominent program for the early half of Ferry’s career on the Main Line. As a player, Ferry was a member of the 1947 team which played in the Great Lakes Bowl against the Kentucky Wildcats.

’Nova lost a hard-fought game against Kentucky, who was coached at the time by the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant and led by quarterback Jack Blanda.

Taking the snaps for Villanova was Andy Gordon, grandfather of current Villanova signal caller Brett Gordon.

At the time Ferry was playing, the Wildcats rose to national prominence, playing against teams which today are considered the upper-echelon of the collegiate gridiron.

Throughout the ’40s and ’50s, the ’Cats battled with Georgia, Mississippi, Baylor, Florida State and Clemson, to name a few, while drawing crowds that drew over 50,000 fans on several occasions, thus cementing Villanova’s place in history amongst the great football colleges of the East Coast.

“That was the heyday of college football and Philadelphia was a college football town,” current head coach Andy Talley said. “Villanova had a huge following and was one of the best teams around.”

When Ferry’s collegiate career came to an end, he had emerged as one of the premier defensive tackles in the country, earning himself a spot on the Green Bay Packers of the NFL.

After two years in Green Bay, one with the Chicago Cardinals and five with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ferry retired from the professional ranks after a third knee surgery ended his career. His ability to play may have been diminished, but his love for the game of football remained.

After coaching high school football for three years, Ferry felt his alma mater tugging on his heartstrings, and when a position for an assistant opened up, Ferry was hired and the rest is history. Ferry started out as the defensive line coach for the ’Cats in 1960, moved up to defensive coordinator for a few years and even served as head coach from 1970-1974.

“That was one of the most significant things to happen to me,” Ferry commented when reminiscing on his most memorable moments at Villanova. “We had a pretty good group of players, although we were disappointed that we weren’t selected for a bowl game.”

Ferry compiled a 9-2 record in his first season at the helm and a 21-22-1 overall mark as a head coach.

In 1975, he returned to his role as an assistant where he remained until Villanova dropped its football program in 1981, a moment which Ferry remembers distinctly.

“It came as a shock,” he said. “We had just completed 10 days of spring practice and the students were home over spring break. The board got together and just decided that they were going to drop football.”

Various alumni, who had reveled in the rich football tradition, put forth their best efforts to bring the program back to the University.

Along with their hard work and a little help from an appearance on a Bob Hope television broadcast in Philadelphia, the Wildcats were back on the football field in four years with Ferry was right beside them.

New head coach Talley was assigned the monster task of rebuilding the team from scratch, aided by the experience and wisdom of Ferry as an assistant coach.

“He was the link with the past,” Talley said. “He was very popular as an assistant coach and was one of the most well-known and well-loved of any in his era.”

Ferry’s immense influence upon Talley and the team was more prominent in words than in actions, yet was nonetheless invaluable.

“He’s a very loyal person, and that’s the biggest thing you want to have in your staff and team,” Talley noted. “He stayed at Villanova through the good and the bad and has always treated the players with respect, which is something I have always tried to do.”

Junior defensive lineman Mike Tesei echoes his coach’s sentiments.

“It’s been a privilege playing for him,” he said. “He’s been around a long time and we all have a lot of respect for him and his knowlege of the game.”

Ferry was responsible for the development of several well-known players, including NFL Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long.

“Howie was a pleasure to coach,” Ferry said. “He was just so hard-working and talented.”

Ferry relished the rewarding experience of coaching at the college ranks, evidenced by his tireless commitment to his job.

“You don’t really coach in the NFL because all those guys are already great players. This is where you do your coaching.”

With a lifetime worth of Villanova football knowledge and experience under his belt, one might wonder if Ferry is considering retirement any time in the near future.

“I don’t know, maybe; I’ve had some health problems but I just love the game and the players so much,” he says with a smile. “It keeps you young, so it’s hard to give up something like that.”

Although Ferry will eventually relinquish his position on the coaching staff, his role as a member of the Villanova football community will remain the same.

“Forty-two years ago I came here as a young guy from high school and just fell in love with the place. The student body, the community, the professors; it was all just great and that’s why I stayed here.”