The Most Amazing Turnaround in Philadelphia

Al Golden has brought success and respectability to Temple football. And wait til you hear what could happen next

Just about any athlete at a school has heard the stereotype at some point in his career. It’s a familiar refrain designed to knock a jock from the pedestal on which many adoring fans and media place those who participate — and excel — in sports. You may be able to hit/throw/catch/chase a ball, but you’re dumb and really don’t belong with the rest of the students.

A few years back, when Temple’s football team was having the same success as BP’s public relations team, things got even worse on campus. Not only were the Owls dumb jocks, but they were also dumb jocks who couldn’t do their jobs. And their fellow students weren’t shy about letting them know about it. [SIGNUP]

“People used to say that we were dumb athletes who can’t even win a game,” Jaiquawn Jarrett says.

It’s bad enough to be stereotyped as a musclehead. It’s even worse when you’re considered an unsuccessful musclehead. But Jarrett and his Temple teammates didn’t have much ammunition with which to reply. The Owls were a bad football team, and thanks to years of inattention to school work, they were a dumb one, too. Things got so bad that Temple was losing big on and off the field, dropping games on Saturdays and losing scholarships off it because players weren’t making sufficient progress toward degrees — or even showing up for class. Discipline was an alien concept. So was success. Self-respect, hard work and motivation weren’t in the neighborhood, either.

“People had their own agendas,” says Jarrett, a senior defensive back.

Most of Philadelphia knows what happened next. Thanks to Al Golden, a coach with big goals and an airtight plan to reverse things, Temple football took a big step forward. Last year, the Owls played in their first bowl game since 1979. Even though college football’s bloated post-season landscape guarantees all but the most inept teams berths in a “classic,” this was big news.

And it may well lead to bigger things. Much bigger things. For many, that’s a Mid-American Conference championship and a berth in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. But some on North Broad Street are entertaining some wild ideas. Crazy thoughts.

Big East Conference thoughts.

Owl fans remember the Big East all too painfully. Not only did Temple struggle mightily there, posting a 14-80 mark in 14 seasons, but the Owls were summarily booted from the confederation. Some blame West Virginia. Others point the finger at Syracuse. And there are even some who believe fellow Big East member Villanova had a hand in it, even though the Wildcats don’t play football in the conference. Though there might have been some animosity shown by other members toward Temple, the real reason the Big East evicted Temple was that the Owls didn’t belong. They were a small-time operation in a league trying to build a strong national profile, and their Philadelphia address wasn’t enough to overcome a miserable product, tiny crowds and a decidedly small-time approach.

It wasn’t just the Big East. When Golden took over in 2005, there was a strong contingent within the Temple community that wanted to do away with football completely, or at least drop down a level, the better to end the embarrassment of losing season after losing season. “There was actually a vote on whether we would continue to play Division I football,” Golden says.

The sport survived, and in Golden’s four years, it has thrived. Temple is much better on the field (last year was the first winning campaign since 1990) and stronger off it. It has forged a solid recruiting base from Connecticut to Washington D.C. and west to Pittsburgh. And it has begun to attract positive attention, thanks to Golden and players like sophomore running back Bernard Pierce, who ran for 1,361 yards and 16 TDs last year.

Of course, it’s a huge jump from the MAC to the Big East, but the Owls have some reason to hope. The first is the crazy conference landscape prevailing today in college athletics. The Big Ten’s decision to expand this spring triggered a chain of events that impacted two other conferences. Now at 12 teams, the league isn’t finished. Within five years, it could swell to 16 schools, and a few of them could well come from the Big East.

Should that happen, the league will start to scramble. It could look to candidates like Central Florida and Memphis, although neither of those is all that impressive athletically or academically. Maybe Navy would accept an invitation. But it’s possible Temple could get a call, particularly if the Owls keep winning. Almost as important is the university’s commitment to building an infrastructure worthy of inclusion in the Big East. To that end, the Owls have gone about the process of making their athletic department more professional. For instance, they have hired an outside firm to run ticket sales, good news for anyone who has waited in long lines to buy tickets to a football game at the Linc. The school is improving the way its other sports do business, the better to make them more attractive to the Big East. That way, Temple might get full membership in the conference, something that would make it harder to ask it to leave down the road.

But Golden is the key. Football runs college sports now, and a successful program makes a school quite attractive to conference suitors. The Temple turnaround is just underway, but the Owls have plenty of potential for growth. Will it be enough to convince the Big East to take the school back? That depends on a bunch of circumstances, many of which are out of Temple’s control. For now, the Owls concentrate on getting better.

And Jarrett walks the campus with his head held high.

• Isn’t it time Charlie Manuel started demanding better fundamentals from his ballclub? The team runs the bases like Little Leaguers and fails to execute bunts and other baseball basics on a regular basis.

• Be careful not to get too high or low after the Eagles’ first pre-season game Friday night. Early August success or failure very rarely is indicative of how a team plays in November. Then again, since when has that mattered to Birds’ fans?

• Am I the only one who thinks it’s crazy that 8-year old football players hit the field in full pads on Aug. 1, while high school kids don’t start until two (and sometimes three) weeks later? Guess that 60-pound linebacker needs some extra work.