In the realm of sports, it’s not too often that an expert can call to memory a team that has gone from the bottom of the barrel, panned by sports commentators as the statistically worst team, to the top of the heap within a matter of years. For that reason, there is a tangible sense of pride for Temple University students and alumni when Temple football team rebounds and receives 38 votes from sports experts to be placed in the top 25 national teams. Fittingly enough, Temple is a Philadelphia school, known for its underdog heroes and underdog triumphs. Heroes such as Rocky, a punchy but determined boxer who goes from a virtual nobody to an actual champion, frame the mindset that makes Temple’s rise to greatness appealing, accessible, and most importantly, appropriate. Just like Rocky, the team has been pushed by a tenacious mentor, except Al Golden does not usually wear ski caps and have a raspy voice like Mickey, Rocky’s coach. Now, with Golden’s leadership and relentless style of coaching, along with the increasing determination of the team to be a viable national contender, Temple stands at the gates of a bowl game and Golden is no longer just a nobody. Like Rocky, Golden’s chance to be considered a champion is now up as he has been nominated for NCAA Coach of the Year. Golden is up to the challenge.
Temple’s football program has had a long history of being a losing program and has less than 50 winning seasons in over 100 years of football in its school’s history. Temple’s winning percentage in program history is a disappointing 43 percent. At their worse during 1991-2005, they managed to only average 2 wins a season and at one point did not win any games in a season. Temple has been unable to put together a good season largely because of their lackluster running game. Temple has only had a running back rush for over 1000 yards twice since 1991 by Tarnardo Sharps in 2001 and 2002.
Before this year, Temple has not been able to say that they have had a successful year in over 25 years, attending their last bowl game in 1979. After the Garden State Bowl in 1979, they were without a winning season until 1990. What made the consistent decline much harder on Temple was their status as the worst team in Division 1 for the majority of the time they were members of the Big East Conference (1991-2004). Belonging to the Big East usually generates a large revenue stream for schools, as it is one of the more prestigious and paid attention to conferences. Even with the $2 million dollars in funding from the board members of the Big East Conference, Temple still turned a deficit in their revenue. Without that money, Temple came close to sinking to a status as a Division 2 school and even, to cutting the program entirely.
In 2006, after managing to acquire funding for two years and hiring a promising young coach from Virginia University by the name of Al Golden, the Owls began to turn their luck around. Now, Temple has managed to be among the top teams, despite their funding being less than what most big football schools rake in. While Temple lacks the Big East funding they had just years ago, they bounced back and joined the Mid-American Conference two years later. As an established conference, the MAC does not generate exceptionally high revenue; four of its teams turned million dollar deficits just two years before the Owls entered: Toledo (3.3million), Akron (2.8 million), Bowling Green (2.2 million) and now departed Central Florida (3.6 million), according to the U.S. Department of Education. Golden has done the improbable and not only made the Owls an athletically successful team, but a financially stable one as well. With Golden at the helm, the Owls have turned a higher revenue than before his run as coach. Just this year Temple led the MAC in total revenue with $ 9 million dollars according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Al Golden’s high level of skill as a coach is important to the once faltering Temple football program. Temple as a school has yet to be able to attract, let alone afford, any big time athletes. Their reputation for being a mediocre football program makes it difficult to recruit higher ranked prospects and because of this, Golden has put emphasis on recruiting players that have grown up only an hour or two away from Temple. Golden’s focus on hometown athletes has paid off in dividends and is one of the strategies he puts in effect. Local athletes are easier to recruit and fund as well as having the reputation for not being as dynamic as Southern recruits. Golden’s emphasis on the hometown athletes costs less and is less about accommodating a star athlete and more about raising star athletes. The simplicity that comes with loyal Temple athletes results in exceptional players that post statistics comparable to the rest of the nation’s elite.
Golden’s first recruiting class is graduating after this season and one player according to Temple football officials, is expected to be drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. That player is Andre Neblett from New Jersey. If drafted, Neblett would be the second player in two years to get drafted in the top three rounds from Temple.
With Golden’s second and third and fourth recruiting classes he has built an offensive line and running back core that has rushed for 27 touchdowns and 2,752 yards this season. That rushing total is double Owls rushing total from last season. Individually, the Owls starting running back this season, Bernard Pierce, tied the single season touchdown record set by Paul Palmer in 1986. Palmer finished as runner-up to Vinny Testerverde for the Heisman trophy and went on to play 4 seasons in the NFL. Pierce did not start the first two games of the season and did not finish the last three games of the season, but still ranked as high second in the country in rushing at one point. When piece was hurt, he was replaced by another freshman running back Matt Brown who is only five foot five inches tall and 165 pounds. Golden took a chance on a small guy and Brown rushed for over 150 yards in two of his 3 starts, scoring the ball four times. Brown may be the finest example of Golden’s recruiting skills. Noelle Divine is the only other running back at the division one level that is under 5’8 and rushed for more than 150 yards in a game.
Ultimately, Golden has finished 9-3 on the season and is only one of two coaches to win 9 games at Temple University. The other, Wayne Hardin, did so in 1979, the year of the Owls’ last bowl game. Reaching these Bowl Games is a crucial factor in the recruiting process, and consequently the revenue process, of college football. It has steadily become more and more of a necessity that Temple continue to clinch these bowl games in order for their revenue to increase to continue to recruit talented athletes. The means that Golden has to work with for his recruiting prospects are menial and downright uneven compared to others. Coach Brian Kelly of the Cincinnati Bear Cats is favored to win the Coach of The Year Award that Golden is in the running for. But, unlike Golden, Kelly has much more to work with. The blatant discrepancy in funding is staggering, presented here: The Bear Cats football team spends $8,775 more per player and spends $664,398 more towards their football program every year. Furthermore, as an athletic program Cincinnati brings in a substantial revenue of $33,886,516 compared to Temple’s $27,478,056. As a team in the lower earning percentile, Temple has little to no expendable revenue, as every bit of money is needed.
With the proverbial odds stacked against him, Golden has proven to be something of an anomaly as a coach, winning where no one believed he could and overcoming obstacles previously thought to be insurmountable. Temple has beaten 5 of its opponents emphatically, by 3 touchdowns more, and has played programs this season that have produced some of the NFL’s best talent. While other schools often tout their success as exceptional, most know that it is expectable. Unlike other schools, Temple has had to dig at every inch they have moved forward. With a stadium removed from campus, fan support, home field advantage, morale, and of course revenue are hard to maintain. Fan attendance was at average lower than 15,000 fans per home contest in a stadium that holds more than 50,000 people. Despite the detriment to these facets of the game that are often times taken for granted, Golden has molded a team that would seem just as comfortable in a big football school where the games are sold out. With the prestige of being named Coach of the year on the line, it is important to realize what it is that should make the award valid. Coaches who win consistently, while admirable, are often times too comfortable, and have their reputation recruit the talent, not the talent vie for the team. Coaches whose teams are led by superstar athletes place the weight of the game on one pair of shoulders and everyone knows that everyone eventually buckles without help. Golden has none of the glitz and glamour of an established hot shot coach, but all the drive and vision of a hardened leader. Golden has done what not many coaches manage to do. He has taken the underdog and made it a pure bred. He has taken a team of what were once thought to nobodies and turned them into real time contenders. For that, Golden deserves the award in spades.