BY Jim Fenton
Robert Talley was on the staff at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for five seasons, then worked as an assistant coach at Colby College and Dartmouth College.
His hopes of becoming a head coach at the college level, though, were not being realized, so Talley decided to take another route.
The native of Staten Island, N.Y., became a special assistant to San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan and worked as an assistant offensive line coach, spending 2005 and 2006 in the NFL.
It was a move that Talley hoped would eventually open the door and earn him a head coaching job in college.
"The reason I went to the NFL,'' said Talley, "was to make myself more attractive to be a college head coach.
"Two years in the NFL, it was almost ridiculous how much football knowledge I was able to take from that, just organizational knowledge of how to run an entire program.''
Everything that Talley, a standout defensive back at BU, learned with the 49ers has come in handy in his first head coaching job.
Hired in 2007 to take over the struggling program at Stonehill College, Talley has slowly but surely built the Skyhawks.
Stonehill had 10 straight losing years before he arrived, including a winless 1999 season and a pair of one-win seasons. The Skyhawks were playing in a highly competitive Northeast-10 Conference and just couldn't get going.
Under Talley, Stonehill went 5-5 in his first season and were either at or just below the .500 mark the next five seasons, always making some progress.
It has all come together this fall for the Skyhawks, who are 8-2, shared the Northeast-10 regular-season championship at 8-1 and will play for the conference title on Saturday in Springfield against American International College.
Times have changed for Stonehill, which had not put together a winning season since going 8-2 in 1996 under coach Connie Driscoll.
One of the main turning points came last season when the Skyhawks, playing at home on national cable television, nearly upset third-ranked New Haven before losing in the final seconds.
"Even though we didn't win, our kids truly believed we could beat anybody, and that's a big hurdle to get over,'' said Talley. "When we first got here, I remember we went down and beat Post and it was like we won the Super Bowl. Everybody was more or less shocked. The expectation wasn't there.
"Now we go week in and week out and the expectation is there that we can win if we play our best. That New Haven game really gave us that shot in the arm, that confidence, to know we can win.''
Stonehill finished 5-5 last season and had experience and depth to work with this season. Its only losses came to nationally ranked Bloomsburg on opening day and to AIC.
A victory over the Yellow Jackets this weekend will likely send the Skyhawks to the NCAA Division 2 tourney for the first time, which would only add to the progress that has been made.
"I knew it was going to be a challenge when I got here because of the recent history,'' said Talley. "But before that, Stonehill was winning some football games in the 1990s. Those guys were used to winning. To me, it was just getting back to what we were used to.
"I wanted to be able to compete for conference championships on a yearly basis. I wanted to make the games at the end of the year more meaningful and kind of put Stonehill on the map a little more from a football standpoint.''
The roll that the Skyhawks have been on this season should only help moving forward.
"We have a beautiful college, an administration and a faculty that really is committed to our student-athletes and students in general,'' said Talley. "The school sells itself.
"I planned on bringing 20-25 players (in) this season and we wound up taking 38. They were interested in Stonehill and playing football. As far as attracting kids here, that's never been a problem.''
The trip to the NE-10 championship game will make the Stonehill program even more attractive in the future.