Thursday, January 20, 2005

I Think I Can, I Think I Can

I suppose that if you keep telling yourself something, you might be able to believe it. The real question is whether anyone else will believe it.

At the high end of the food chain in college athletics, you'll associate the Duke Blue Devils with excellence in college basketball and the USC Trojans with the same in college football. There are many upper echelon teams, and then there are those teams that make you wonder why they're still having at it.

Such as Temple University football, a program that cannot draw fans in Philadelphia, a program that has not had a winning season in ten years, a program that is a perpetual money loser.

At the end of last season, the team was at its nadir. Kicked out of the Big East, having suffered yet another losing record, they also lost three players who declared early for the NFL Draft. On the one hand, you can't blame those kids. They want to move on to the next level, and they aren't winning in Philadelphia. On the other hand, if the Owls had three players who are draft-worthy, they probably wouldn't be as bad as they were. Which means, on balance, that these particular kids could be part of the source of the problem for Temple -- they think they're better than they are. One, LB Rian Wallace, is a bona fide prospect, but it's hard to say whether the other two are.

Why? Because while Temple is a Division I-A football team in one of the top 7 media markets in the country, they are not the most popular I-A football team in their city. No, despite the fact that Temple is located in Philadelphia, Penn State, located four hours away in central Pennsylvania, draws more press. Even if they have been in a tail spin that rivals that of the Washington Nationals. As a result, the Temple team gets very little coverage, and you also could argue that Division I-AA stalwarts Villanova and Pennsylvania draw more fans.

So what is Temple going to do? One might have thought that after years of futility, the school that brought you Joe Klecko would have folded up the tent, saved the money it was spending on football and plowed it into other meaningful ventures. No one would have blamed them. Nope, they didn't do that. They also could have dropped down to I-AA, but then they probably wouldn't have had any chance to draw fans. And, running a I-AA program doesn't really save a school money (which is why few schools drop down a level). So, they're not doing that either.

Nope, they're staying at it. They'll be independent next year, and then perhaps they'll try to join the conference that gave us Byron Leftwich, Chad Pennington and Ben Roethlisberger -- the Mid-American Conference -- the year after. Imagine the excitement, the potential to see such natural rivalries as Temple-Toledo, Temple-Akron and Temple-Marshall. Compelling rivalries, all. I am sure that most Philadelphians will be lining up to buy tickets to those games. Heck, they wouldn't be lining up to go to those games if the Eagles were 0-16 four years in a row. For whatever reason, some force of nature keeps the fans away.

Which, to a degree, is a shame. My father played football for Temple after the Second World War, and he was a big HS kid on the same team with a bunch of hardened WWII vets, and despite the influx of talent the team was only fair. When I was a kid, he took me to games at Temple's small stadium in one of Philadelphia's neighborhoods. They had some good players, played the equivalent of a I-AA schedule, and had their moments when George Makris retired and Temple brought in Wayne Hardin to coach the team. The Wayne Hardin who coached Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino at Navy and then moved to the University of the Pacific before coming back east to Philadelphia. Great innovator. Unbelievable game coach; one of the best I ever saw.

And then everything changed. Temple improved its schedule, had a Maxwell Award winner in 1973 in Steve Joachim (as well as a TE named Randy Grossman, who won about four Super Bowl rings playing for the Steelers) and played with some of the big boys of the East -- Boston College, West Virginia and Penn State -- and won their fair share. The Owls had their moments against Penn State, too, losing close games in the 1970's that basically confirmed that Temple was destined to be a Charlie Brown of college football. True, Wayne Hardin outcoached Joe Paterno, but Penn State won the games, and that's what mattered. Ultimately, the rivalry fizzled.

And so did Temple football. Wayne Hardin retired, and he had no heir. Temple needed an innovative coach, and they got Bruce Arians, a Bear Bryant assistant at Alabama who was from the Philadelphia area. Arians was not ready to be a head coach, and he flopped (he ultimately landed in the NFL as an assistant, and he was Peyton Manning's QB coach when the QB broke into the NFL), and then Jerry Berndt got the job. Berndt excelled at DePauw and then Penn, where he turned around a dead program and created a killer football spirit that remains to this day. Berndt had returned to Philadelphia from Rice, where he had failed, and he couldn't get it going at Temple either. After Berndt there was Ron Dickerson, a former Paterno assistant, and his teams had few memorable moments. Now there's Bobby Wallace, who had success at I-AA North Alabama.

Unfortunately, Wallace has been unable to replicate that success in Philadelphia. He's had some moments, but the program is your same old Temple Owls. A program that has no tradition, a program that has so-so facilities, a program at a commuter school in a town that is mad for professional football.

It pains me to write this, but I actually think that Temple University should drop football, period. They've tried and tried to get something going, but they just haven't been able to achieve even a small measure of success. They are a school in the middle of a ghetto, and I can only imagine how much good the $3 million plus that the school spends on its football program could do.

It pains me to write this because Temple football is a rich part of my past. My father took me to Temple games from the time I was five or so. He and a friend were members of the Varsity Club, and because they were they got good seats, so we always sat close to the fifty yard-line. And, yes, people did go to small Temple Stadium then, if for no other reason than there weren't tons of entertainment options, the kids who played were local kids from the area, and the football was pretty good. I learned football at my father's side, I talked football with my father, I got a program or a pennant at a games, ate soft pretzels, ate peanuts, and generally had a good time. As the winter months grew closer, we bundled up in sweatshirts, wool hats, scarves and gloves, and we would go week after week.

Back then our society wasn't the event-obsessed society it is now. We went to the games because they presented experiences we could share, and it was a fun thing for fathers and sons to do. Today I realize that the quality of the football was above average, but boy you couldn't tell me that then. You see, I was going to games with my dad. And my dad worked hard during the week, so this was time for me to spend with him and him alone. And a lot of it was about me. Sure, he would talk with his friends, but he would also share his knowledge with me. Afterwards, on the way home, we would go over the games, what went right and what went wrong, and you would have thought we were prognosticators on the cable TV shows of today.

The Owls were our team. Sure, they weren't Darryl Royal's Texas Longhorns, Ara Parseighan's Notre Dame Fighting Irish or John McKay's USC Trojans. They weren't going to challenge for a national championship, and the best kids from the area went to State College to play for Penn State. They didn't stay home and go to Temple, and no one expected them to. But the Owls were what we had. Penn State meant little to us; no one in the family went there, so the lure of Happy Valley and the Kool-Aid of Joe Paterno had little appeal.

I shared a lot of experiences with my father, and many of them are gone. Temple Stadium was torn down years ago. Connie Mack Stadium, where the Phillies' once played, was taken out of commission in the early 1970's and subsequently burned down. A church stands where some awful Phillies teams used to play. Veterans Stadium, where my dad attended Game 6 of the 1980 Series, when Tug McGraw whiffed Willie Wilson to clinch the Series, was torn down a few years ago, giving way to new stadiums. His business died shortly after he did. Some of the restaurants we used to go to in Philadelphia when we both worked there are out, like Eddie's, a place not far from City Hall where the proprietor used to say to a crowded table, "What's the matter, gentlemen, don't you have a conference room in your office?" The ChockFull o' Nuts that served up a mean sugar donut, and the coffee room at the Bellevue-Stratford, a happening spot in its day. All gone.

And now another institution for me, a pillar of my childhood experiences with my father, is on the precipice. And, as much as I would like to see it remain for parochial reasons (although I confess I haven't gone to a game in years), as a reminder of happy times, I think that it's time for everyone to let this sport go at this school. I wish my dad were here for many reasons, of course, and I don't know at all what he would say about this situation.

But as much as he loved his football, he appreciated education even more. And I think that after witnessing the futility of the past 15 years, he would agree with what I'm saying. Spend the money on something else.

That is, if I would have been able to pull him away from leading my five year-old boy in the Philadelphia Eagles' cheer.

Many administrators, many coaches, two University presidents and many University trustees have tried to save Temple football. All have tried hard and admirably to do so. Those who are Temple football fans should be grateful for that, because they got many more years out of this program than they were entitled to.

But it's time to let go.

Turning Temple into a I-A power just will not happen.

And that's okay. No, it really is.

But failing to realize this cold fact isn't.

Not anymore.

I'll keep my memories of course. I'll just have to create different reminders.


Anonymous said...

This story sucks. Wallace was a Division II head coach, not 1AA. Temple will succeed in football because urban universities are now in with both young white and black kids. Football players will follow the other students there. Temple, whose chairman of the Board of Trustees is billionaire Revlon CEO Howard Gittis, will pony up the money for a great head coach to succeed Wallace and away they go off the snide and into consistent success.

SportsProf said...

Probably not as bad as the reasoning in your post does (written with a smile, of course). There is no basis in fact for your statement that Temple will succeed "because urban universities are now in with both young white and black kids." Nor is there a basis for claiming that football players will follow those kids to Temple. They haven't historically, and Temple has a bad football tradition to boot. You're wrong about Gittis' title (last time I checked, Ron Perelman ran Revlon; Gittis his #2 and a lot less wealthy than Perelman). Also, there's no support for why Gittis will pony up the money for a coach. He and many alums (which Gittis is not) have had the chance before and have not done so. Temple has had many chances over the years to build a competitive football program, and it has failed. Perhaps there could be a turnaround, but history and the current facts don't support it.

Anonymous said...

It is a sad reality that Temple's football program is a beached whale that should have been put out of its misery long long ago. Who in the name of heavens are they going to get to replace Bobby Wallace? I can't imagine anyone wanting to 'turn around' a program that just can't recruit top notch players, and had an 0-11 season this year. As I said in a quicl e-mail to the athletic director a few weeks back, put the program out of its misery, you will be saving lives.

Anonymous said...

Yeah it is a shame that Temple football has fallen so badly. I played on those teams with Coach Hardin, Joachim and Randy Grossman. We had a good team and usually ended up at .500. We almost upset #1 Penn State but two late kick returns beat us 27 - 26. We have a new coach now so let's hope for the best. Go Owls!

SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments, guys.

The 27-26 game was a hearbreaker. I remember that Jim Coooper knocked Greg Buttle on his butt and sprang Bobby Harris on a 76-yard TD run on the opening play from scrimmage. I remember Rich Mauti's 102-yard kickoff return for Penn State, and I remember JoePa's taking a victory lap around Franklin Field at the end of the game. My dad, who played for Temple in the late 40's, wanted to get out there and knock Paterno on his butt. The 10-7 loss at the Vet in '78 I believe was equally heartbreaking. It was 7-7 late in the fourth quarter, with Temple driving for a TD. Anthony Anderson fumbled, Penn State recovered, marched down the field and I think it was Matt Bahr who kicked the game-winning FG. That night was highlighted with Casey Murphy's wonderful punting. He led the NCAA's with an average of something like 48.5 yards per punt, and Coach Hardin punted on third down a bunch of the time to keep the Nittany Lions bottled up.

As for the current state of play, I think Temple finally hired the right coach. I never thought Bruce Arians was the right guy to replace Hardin (not ready), and none of Jerry Berndt (not really proven at that level), Ron Dickerson or Bobby Wallace was the right choice either.

In Al Golden they have a young, positive guy with a great pedigree. If he can develop his talent, the Owls can be fun to watch again. He was an excellent choice; other coordinators would have turned this job down, but Golden took a chance. Hopefully it will work out for him.

Thanks for rekindling some fond memories.

PhillyGuyInAtlanta said...

Sportspof, thanks for the analysis. I was actually interested in why Temple doesn't drop down to Div I-AA. This page is the #1 hit on Google when you enter "Temple University Football 'Drop down' 'I-AA'" and for good reason. Your case makes sense. Although I do wonder if they dropped down to I-AA and dominated that would draw fans and interest and rejuvenate the program somewhat. Their travel schedule could also be more local (think Lehigh, Lafayette, Penn, Bucknell) and save a bunch of money. Your thoughts?

I think the 2006 seson bears you out completely.

SportsProf said...

Thanks for your post.

I don't know how much cheaper a 1-AA program would be to run (my guess is that you could pay the coaches less and play in a smaller venue, if one exists close by), but you still have uniforms, insurance, the trainers, etc. The 2006 season is perhaps the purge before the squad gets better, but this is Temple's last chance.

When the Hardin teams were good it was because the kids from the area didn't get recruited nationally the way they do today (other than Penn State). Local kids are going to places like UConn to play, and 30 years ago they would have gone to Temple. Coach Golden is going to have to figure out a way to keep some good talent home on North Broad Street. If he can do that, he can win in the MAC.

Whether or not he can draw people to the Linc depends on a) how good the Owls reallly are, b) who the opponents are and c) how far the Eagles fall in the next couple of years. A strange confluence of events -- a perfect storm, really -- could help the Owls.

My guess is that Coach Golden has 3-4 years to show significant improvement. Otherwise, Temple will have some significant reckoning to do.

AG said...

I hope the work we've done the past couple of years has silenced permanently the critics of our program. We will contend for the championship this year. Whether we win it or not might be out of our control (see UConn game this season) but we will be a contender. Our credibility has already been established. It's now up to us to take it to the next level. It won't be easy, but we will do it.