Temple of Doom

As a proud Temple alum, I just have one question: Why the hell can't we ever make the Final Four?

OK, I’ve had it.

If you knew me, you’d know that sentence could apply to any number of pet peeves, from people talking on the quiet car of the SEPTA regional rail trains (It’s a quiet car—let’s define quiet) to people who put their chairs out to save a parking space for two weeks after a snowstorm (we’re all in this together, people; let’s pay it forward). But what I have truly had it about — I mean, truly, really, honest-to-God-I-couldn’t-be-more-serious had it about — is the Temple men’s basketball team. [SIGNUP]

You know them. They’re probably in your neighborhood, because they sure as hell aren’t in Syracuse for tomorrow’s start of the East Regional. Once again, the Owls, the pride of my alma mater (Class of ’85), where I still teach a class every week, have done their usual swan dive on the national stage. Last Friday, they got blitzkrieged by the Big Red of Cornell, 78-65, in front of CBS’s top-tier announcing team of Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg, millions of March Madness viewers, and, more specifically, several thousand people inside the Jacksonville arena who looked at rumpled Fran Dunphy and thought: Huh? I thought this team was better.

So did I. So I always do. Because I am always promised, every year, that this year is the year Temple is going to turn the corner. This year, we’re going to go deep in the tournament. This year, if you just have a little faith, cheer for the cherry and white a little harder, this year, we’re going to make it after all.

It’s bull. And to circle back to the top of this column, I’ve had it.

Sports allegiance is a funny thing. Through either loyalty to alma mater or city, we are bred to root, root, root for the home team. Which is natural, and helps preserve the order of things. The problem for me is that Temple has adopted the Eagles way of thinking (or perhaps it’s vice versa): Hey, we’re “competitive.” Isn’t that enough?

No. It’s not. Watching Temple has become the collegiate sports version of watching Lucy plunk down the football, swearing to Charlie Brown that this time she promises she’s going to let him kick it. And yet she never does. And deep down, he knows she’s never going to let him. But yet there he is, time and again, running toward the ball, invariably landing on his back, ending up, as always, disappointed and bruised.

Temple ranks sixth — sixth! — in all-time NCAA basketball wins. That’s behind only Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Duke, and Syracuse. Notice anything about those five teams? Or the four behind Temple that rank seventh through tenth? (That would be St. John’s, UCLA, Notre Dame, and Penn. Yes, Penn.)

Temple has gone to the Final Four in two years, in 1956 and 1958. Since then, no appearances. None. Nada. Zippo. Those other nine schools? How about 69 Final Four appearances, 28 national championships. Temple is the only team in that Top 10 that has failed to make the Final Four once since 1978. Even Penn got there in ’79. Penn!

I went to school in the early ’80s, when John Chaney had just taken over the team. And for the next two decades he did what we all felt was a glorious job with a scrappy band of second-rate recruits, developing what would become a legendary trap zone and even coaching the squad to a number-one national ranking and the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1988. Chaney would take Temple to the NCAA Tournament 17 times, and reached the Elite Eight five times. But what I—and anyone else who has valiantly sung the Temple fight song of “T, for Temple U” in vain lo these last few decades—remember is all the heartbreak, all the torture, all the times Lucy swiped the ball. Ranked number one in ’88, only to be clobbered in a humiliating 10-point loss to Duke in the regional final. A three-point loss to North Carolina in ’91. Another Duke mugging, this one by 21 points, in ’99. A thrilling, improbable run to the Eight as the eleventh seed in 2001, only to collapse to Michigan State. Enough bridesmaids’ dresses for a royal wedding.

The year I graduated Temple, Villanova stunned Georgetown to take the national title. The Wildcats got back to the Final Four last year. Even St. Joe’s—which hardly has the recruiting juice of a Duke, or even a Gonzaga—had made it to the Final Four more recently than we have (1961), and came within a hair of making it as recently as 2004. And don’t hand me this nonsense about how the mid-majors can’t recruit, so only the power conferences can compete in the end. Yes, I am as sick as you are of hearing how “brilliant” Mike Krzyzewski is when he gets to sign every McDonald’s All-American ever born. But how does your NCAA bracket look this year? Took Northern Iowa, did you? You had Cornell? Locked in Saint Mary’s? Say what you want about President Obama, but he’s obviously got some good judgment going: He took Cornell in the first round.

The beauty of the NCAA Tournament — why it’s so addictive, and why so many secretaries in the accounting department end up winning the office pool — is precisely because of this kind of unpredictability. We already know at the start of the season that the Kansas City Royals are toast, or that the Detroit Lions are goners. Today we know before the curtain comes up who is going to win Best Actor and Best Actress at the Academy Awards. We know before the first votes are cast who is going to win most elections. Not so in the NCAAs. That’s why it’s called Madness. You can never be certain when a Kansas is going into the tank, or when a George Mason — which took its Cinderella journey to the Final Four just four years ago — is going to come out of nowhere to take a sledgehammer to everybody’s brackets. Unless, of course, you’re talking about Temple. Then it’s a foregone conclusion. Another “great season,” another “we’ll be back,” another broken promise.

No thanks, Fran. This time, I’m taking my ball and going home.

MICHAEL CALLAHAN is Philly Mag’s articles editor.