There’s a recurring inside joke between the prominent group of Temple players and coaches now in the Carolina Panthers’ locker room.
Nobody would be there if not for practice squad wide receiver Keith Kirkwood.
The group, all part of the organization led by former Temple coach Matt Rhule in Carolina now, is hard to miss. Seven players on the roster and more than 10 assistant coaches have a connection to the Owls.
Assistant special teams coach Ed Foley and Panthers tight end Colin Thompson both said the massive group talks about Temple “every day,” but the talks about Kirkwood’s catch stand out to Thompson, a 2016 graduate.
“It’s funny,” Thompson told The Inquirer on Friday. “A couple people said, ‘We’re not here today, we’re not in this situation today if Keith Kirkwood doesn’t catch that ball against UCF that P.J. Walker led the team down the field for.”
The play in question came against Central Florida in October of 2016. Walker — currently a Panthers backup quarterback — found Kirkwood, a Panthers practice-squad player, for an 8-yard touchdown just before time expired to give the Owls a 26-25 win and keep their conference championship hopes alive. Temple went on to win the American Athletic Conference a few months later and Rhule spring-boarded another historic season to take the head-coaching gig at Baylor before taking over in Carolina last year.
But, what if ...
“Who knows, if we don’t win the conference, does coach Rhule get the Baylor job?” Thompson said. “That’s kind of the running joke. If Keith doesn’t make that catch, if PJ doesn’t make that throw with no time left against UCF, are we here?”
The Panthers, nicknamed “Temple South” by some, will host the Eagles on Sunday, marking the first time a handful of players and coaches from the Philadelphia area will play against their hometown team.
When asked what the game meant to him, Rhule noted earlier this week that he still spends part of his offseason in his Cape May house and that he, his wife Julie, and his kids consider the Philadelphia area their home.
“Julie and I consider Philadelphia like our long-term home,” Rhule said. “We love Charlotte, it’s an awesome place. In coaching, we’ve moved to Texas, but our kids consider Philadelphia their place of origin. A lot of our friends are there, we still have a house in Cape May, we spend the summers down the shore. It’s a place that’s meant a lot to me. I was there for 10 years, I was there six years as an assistant coach and four years as the head coach.
“This summer, when I was down in Cape May, everyone was saying ‘I’m coming down to your game,’ or ‘I’ll be at your game,’” Rhule added. “I try to tell people, ‘We have 17 of them, which one are you talking about?’ But they’re only referring to this one. I’ve had a lot of texts and calls this week.”
Rhule took the head coaching job at Temple in 2013 and spent the next four seasons turning a two-win team into one competing for conference championships and bowl berths. Temple hit a handful of program milestones under Rhule, including the first Associated Press Top 25 ranking in 25 years and a win against Penn State, the first time the Owls beat their in-state rival since 1941.
Rhule’s reputation as a program builder was further cemented during his time at Baylor, where he went from a one-win season in 2017 to a Big 12 championship appearance and a January bowl bid two seasons later.
From high draft picks like Panthers edge rusher Haason Reddick and Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins, to players like Walker and Thompson who found spots in the NFL after playing in alternative leagues like the CFL or XFL, Temple has more than a dozen players recruited or coached by Rhule currently in the league.
“We talk about it all the time with all the Temple guys,” Thompson said. “All the guys that had success across the NFL and the CFL, players that have played for Coach Rhule, the proof is in the pudding. Guys are now taking that and playing in the NFL, guys that really at that point in time had no business being in the NFL. He really is a program builder, a player builder, a personnel builder. He changes your life, changes your family’s life, he changes your mindset.”
Foley spent 12 seasons on the Owls’ coaching staff and was the interim head coach for the team’s 2016 Military Bowl appearance after Rhule left for Baylor. He rejoined Rhule at Baylor and has spent the last two seasons as the Panthers’ assistant special teams coach.
Foley said Rhule’s program-building methods aren’t complicated, but challenging nonetheless as he finds a balance between correction and camaraderie.
“He’s very honest with the staff and the players,” Foley said. “It’s not comfortable all the time. He’s very good with maintaining the relationships that we’ve had over the years, but also challenging you. But the approach is really simple, it’s to be the best you can be every single day, come into the office and make the most out of it that you can to make yourself better. The way that that happens is by trusting each other, being friendly with each other, being able to talk to each other about things other than football, about family things. But when it comes time to say, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing here, I don’t think this is correct,’ Matt does a great job of leading that way and also promoting that in the culture so everybody develops this open relationship where we can all feed off each other.”
Foley, a Cherry Hill native, was only in Waco for six months before following Rhule to Carolina, partly because of the connection he had to the several former Temple players on the Panthers’ roster.
He remembers hosting Temple players, including Thompson, at his house for dinner and attending a handful of weddings. It wasn’t all bright moments, though.
Foley said the way players supported him and his family when he lost his father in 2014 and his brother four years later still resonates with him and plays into the culture Rhule is establishing with the Panthers now.
“We all counted on each other to get through the day, the week, the offseason, the tragedy,” Foley said. “Those are lifetime bonds. Those aren’t just things that you just go through and forget about them.”
“It was literally Temple versus the world,” Foley added. “You’re in North Philly, you’re playing in a pro stadium, there was apathy from the students early on, even from some of the professors early on. Then we got into those seasons where all of a sudden we’re playing Notre Dame on national television and we’re beating Penn State and it got contagious there. Everybody got behind us and we got behind them and we became one [unified] thing.”
Foley is one of roughly a dozen assistant coaches with a history at Temple, including defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who has been Rhule’s top defensive coach at Temple, Baylor, and now Carolina.
This season, Carolina’s defense is ranked third in yards allowed and fourth in defensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, something Rhule credits to Snow’s creativity when it comes to scheme.
“I [was a graduate assistant] for Phil way back at UCLA [in 2001], I’ve always felt like he was one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around,” Rhule said. “One of the key things for me going to Temple was when I was able to get him to come. I knew that, and at the end of the day, we’ve had a bunch of different schemes. We were 4-3 at Temple, we were a 3-2 Dime at Baylor. Here, we’ve evolved into a hybrid 3-4.
“I’ve been lucky to have a chance to move to the NFL and it’s because of guys like Phil, who was with me at Temple and Baylor,” he added. “We have a bunch of guys who used to work up on North Broad Street that are here with me now and I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
Even though Foley was an Eagles season-ticket holder at one point, he said the game against his hometown team doesn’t take on more meaning than any other week.
What does take on meaning, he said, is the Temple influence on his workplace.
“It’s literally like working with family,” Foley said. “If we don’t say it in a day or so, Keith will come up to me or PJ will come up to me and be like, ‘Man, how blessed are we?’ I just can’t explain to you the feeling of creating that bond at Temple. I’ve been coaching college football for 30 years, you say goodbye to so many players every year, to be able to rekindle that relationship is awesome.”