Temple’s football program was a competitive black hole and a professional graveyard when Al Golden took a chance four years ago and became its head coach.
Everything was a mess. No direction. Marginal talent. Academic disarray. And absolutely no local interest in a perennially bumbling program.
“It was in tough shape,” Golden said. “The academic structure was awful. We lost nine scholarships [for failing to hit the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate]. Basically, everything you read or learned about which leads to catastrophe in the business model, we represented that.”
The Owls (9-3), who will face UCLA (6-6) in Tuesday’s EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium, have spun one of the better tales college football has to offer this season. After uncorking a nine-game winning streak, Temple — yes, Temple — will play in the postseason for the first time since a 1979 appearance in the long-defunct Garden State Bowl.
Not bad for a program cut loose by the Big East after the 2004 season. Or for a team not long removed from losing 28 of 29 games. Or for a school in the midst of its first winning season since 1990.
“When we first got here, the locals were throwing rocks at us, and everyone thought we were the laughingstock of college football,” senior tight end Steve Maneri said. “We kept our mouths shut and tried to get better.”
Of course, the Owls were a laughingstock, playing in front of infinitesimal crowds at Lincoln Financial Field. After eviction from the Big East, they played the role of punching bag in 2005. Two days after clinching a losing season with a 38-7 loss to Maryland in monsoon-like conditions, coach Bobby Wallace announced he would resign at the end of the year.
But who would want a piece of an apparent mess? Try Golden, who played at Penn State and spent five seasons as Virginia’s defensive coordinator.
“There’s a lot of jobs that you can’t put your personal stamp on; everything is in place,” Golden said. “That wasn’t the case here. There was a real good opportunity.”
It would just take time to create a turnaround, something Golden acknowledges he believed had an outside chance of unfolding within three years. But he was taking over a program with only 54 scholarship players, far below the maximum of 85 the NCAA permits.
Bodies were welcome, but so were the right minds. In a program accustomed to losing, it was going to take time to build a team filled with capable and disciplined players.
“When I came here in 2005, there wasn’t really a lot going on as far as football, no real leadership or anything like that,” safety Dominique Harris said. “Now we have more leaders and more players that want to do the right thing on and off the field. That’s what the difference is.”
The change started with Golden, particularly with his philosophy on how Temple could find its niche in the college football pecking order. He said 40 percent of the nation’s population is within a four-hour drive of Temple’s North Philadelphia campus, ensuring a recruiting net stretching from New England to the D.C. area to Pittsburgh.
More importantly, Temple found a home in the Mid-American Conference. The Owls were no longer in a league with Miami, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and West Virginia, and they clearly were not at the same level as Penn State. But they were still a step up from the Division I-AA powerhouses, and Golden believed he had found a marketplace in which Temple could succeed.
Eventually, anyway. Temple went 1-11 in his first season and was outscored by an average of 30 points. The Owls improved to feisty in 2007, going 4-8 in their first season in the MAC while nearly toppling Connecticut.
“Four years ago when we came in as freshmen, Coach Golden was just trying to establish order,” Maneri said. “He laid down a foundation, and at times it was like pulling teeth to get everybody on board. And our play on the field reflected that.”
Even last year, the Owls’ discipline was too shoddy to secure anything better than a 5-7 season. Although Temple was competitive in all but one outing, it still let several games slip away — notably a loss at Navy in which the Midshipmen forced overtime with a fumble return for a touchdown in the closing seconds.
In the offseason, Golden revisited every game and showed his team how it absorbed each loss. With greater poise and intelligence — not to mention the addition of freshman tailback Bernard Pierce — Temple produced a memorable season that has the Owls on the precipice of matching a school record for victories.
“This year, I thought we had enough talent and football savvy to go over the top,” Golden said. “Hopefully we can do this every year. We’d like to be a bowl team and be a team that will be considered a top-25 program going forward.”
With their coach’s Golden touch, the Owls could do just that.