There may be room for upward mobility in college football given the constant realignment we’ve seen over the past few years, but when some teams move up, others have to fall. When most teams start heading down, they tend to continue the spiral, moving down to lower conferences or lower divisions and perhaps even abandoning football altogether. Things are so continually discouraging that it can be easy to give up. The Temple Owls are breaking that mould, though, and their own 20-year odyssey has had a remarkable conclusion.
Temple, a school whose football history dates back to 1894 and was once coached by the legendary Pop Warner, has been on a roller-coaster ride over the last 20-plus years. They went 7-4 as an independent in 1990 and then joined the Big East in 1991, but things went mostly downhill from there. The Owls kicked out of the Big East for their lack of competitiveness (which creates endless jokes, given that conference’s football struggles) in 2004, and that was with some justification, as they’d put up a 14-80 record in conference since 1991 and went 2-9 overall in 2004 (1-5 in the Big East).
Things got even worse in 2005, as they went 0-11 as an independent. At the time, it looked like they might have to step down a level before too long or perhaps even abandon football altogether. Instead of continuing the slide, though, they’ve bounced back. After a few years as an independent and a resurgence in the Mid-American Conference, the Owls will be back in the Big East in 2012. Their story is a remarkable one, and it’s proof that just because things are currently bad for a program, it doesn’t mean that will always be the case.
For Temple, one of the keys was hiring the right coach at first. No big-name guy was going to touch an independent that had been kicked out of the Big East and was coming off a 0-11 year, so the Owls had to cast their net a little wider. They found their man in Al Golden, then the defensive coordinator at the University of Virginia under Al Groh.
Groh’s Cavaliers were a decent team that had put up eight, eight and seven wins overall in the previous three years, but weren’t exactly an ACC or national powerhouse, and they weren’t gaining a lot of national buzz. However, Golden had done great work under the radar, improving the Virginia defense from 104th nationally in total defense in 2001 to 18th in 2004. He was an assistant with a promising record, but not one being heavily courted by bigger and better schools; the exact combination Temple needed.
Of course, Golden’s hire wasn’t a slam dunk. He was the second-youngest coach in Division I-A football at that time (behind only Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald), and he’d only spent five years as a defensive coordinator. He also was the youngest defensive coordinator in Division I-A when he first got that job in 2001. Golden had only been working in college football at any level since 1994, too, so he was far from proven. His hire was a gamble, but it’s one that paid off for the Owls.
The turnaround didn’t happen overnight, but signs of progress were there. Although Golden’s team lost their first eight games in 2006, they were starting to click, and the work paid off with a win over Bowling Green that saw them snap a 20-game losing streak, one game before they reached the school record. The Owls finished that year 1-11, but joined the MAC the next year, and they improved to 4-8 in 2007 and 5-7 in 2008, their best record since 1990. Things really fell into place in 2009 when Golden’s Owls went 9-3 in the regular season and made their first bowl appearance since 1979, although they lost the EagleBank Bowl 30-21 to UCLA. 2010 was a slight step back to 8-4, but it was still miles away from the 0-11 2005 team.
Golden left after 2010 to take the Miami job, though, and Temple was faced with the tough task of sustaining momentum. Despite their progress, they still weren’t a major destination for the most-coveted assistants, and their eventual hire (Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio) was widely panned by many college football fans.
The Owls stayed strong in 2011, though, putting up a 9-4 record and winning their first bowl game since 1979 (a 37-15 victory over Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl). Now, they’re moving back to the Big East, and despite that conference’s recent struggles, this is still impressive progress for a team many thought might be headed to lower levels or complete extinction.
It just goes to show that even long, turbulent and discouraging college football journeys can still eventually get you back to prominence.