- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2004

They are the object of ridicule and punch lines, and that was even before they were given an eviction notice from the football conference in which they are a charter member.

Temple visits No.23 Maryland today as a program best known for its futility. The Owls have been so horrendous the depleted Big East Conference is expelling the Owls after this season.

Sure, the Owls haven’t been to a bowl game in a quarter-century — and that was the now-defunct Garden State Bowl. Yeah, Temple has had 13 consecutive losing seasons, averaging just more than two victories over that span. But that was the old Temple, according to those around the Philadelphia program.

“[The Big East] made a big mistake,” quarterback Walter Washington said. “We have depth. We have experience. We have it all. We are going to make a statement — a big statement.”

Washington is a big reason for the Owls’ optimism. The game-breaking runner is one of 18 highly-touted junior college players who entered the program last season. And Temple expects the JUCO investment to pay off this year as a now-talented and seasoned group is ready to lose only their losing ways.

Did the diminished Big East act prematurely in dooming Temple? The conference is still recovering from the loss of its top program, Miami, and power Virginia Tech to the ACC this season, and Boston College will soon follow the pair.

In fact, the Big East tried to sue Boston College for $5 million for the right to leave. There is no exit fee for the Temple, only a wish for it to leave without any further fall follies.

“We just didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said. “That’s why we made the decision.”

Those around the Owls believe that decision was based on past results, not future prospects. They advise skeptics to forget their 1-10 record last season (0-7 in the Big East) and 28-118 overall mark since becoming a charter member of the Big East football conference in 1991. This year Temple, which lost three overtime games in 2003, is mature and ready to compete in the watered-down Big East.

And besides, do these Owls deserve such an ignominious fate from a conference in desperate need of stability?

“No,” said coach Bobby Wallace, who has a 17-52 record in seven seasons at Temple. “I am looking at it from a strictly football situation. I don’t know the politics of all the other things. Our program hasn’t been a whole lot worse than Rutgers’. [The Big East is] bringing in a new program [Connecticut] that is coming up from [Division] I-AA. We averaged 24,000 people a game last year [at 68,532-seat Lincoln Financial Field].”

The results after the first week support the Big East’s decision. No.15 Virginia pummeled Temple 44-14, while Rutgers registered a major upset over Michigan State, 19-14.

However, it easily could be argued Rutgers should be on the Big East’s guillotine instead of Temple. The Owls had beaten the Scarlet Knights four straight times by an average of 25 points before Rutgers’ 30-14 win last season. And that was the Scarlet Knights’ first conference win of the millennium, ending a 25-game losing streak that began in 1999.

Rutgers’ last bowl game was a year before Temple’s most recent postseason date in the 1978 Garden State Bowl, and the New Jersey school has endured 11 consecutive losing campaigns. Rutgers’ trump card is that it is an all-sports member of the Big East while Temple is a football-only participant and otherwise competes in the Atlantic 10.

At this point, the lame-duck Owls aren’t thinking much about next year, when they will play as an independent. Players believe this is finally their year, even if they are again picked to finish last in the seven-team Big East.

Temple is a 27-point underdog against Maryland, but the schedule lightens considerably after today with only one other ranked team — No. 10 West Virginia — left on the slate.

“Realistically, we are looking at six wins this year — at a minimum,” said defensive tackle Antwon Burton, a 6-foot-3, 315-pound senior who is recovering from a broken foot. “A lot of guys are counting us out because of the old Temple ways. The old Temple ways are not our ways. We have junior college guys who are used to winning. We are used to going to bowls and being All-Americans. We have a little swagger.”

Wallace and his 2003 team might have unwittingly sacrificed last season for this one because so many newcomers were playing key roles. The Owls now have an established and dangerous running quarterback in Washington, who leads a no-huddle attack designed to wear down opponents. The defense is paced by linebacker Rian “Goo” Wallace, whom one publication tabbed as the Big East’s preseason defensive Player of the Year.

Temple is optimistic that the addition of two more JUCO All-Americans, tailback Tim Brown and kicker Ryan Lux, will provide the final pieces of a winning puzzle.

“The conference is wide open, and we have as good a chance as anyone,” said Wallace, whose job will be in jeopardy with another losing season. “This is our last shot at this thing. What a great story it would be if we made something big happen.”

Then the joke would be on the Big East, and Temple would get the last laugh.

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