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June 16, 2010

Golden puts life back into Temple football

Temple coach Al Golden thinks about the question for a few moments, searching for the right words to form an accurate answer.

"How would I describe the program when I arrived?" Golden asks, repeating the question. "Train wreck."

Are you serious?
Since arriving at Temple after the 2005 season, Al Golden has endured what he likes to call "only at Temple" moments that show the depths of dysfunction that often have racked the program.

Neighborhood kids threw eggs and rocks at players during practice the first two years.

A senior member of a winless team walked into new defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio's office during his first week on the job in December 2005 and pulled a crumbled piece of paper from his pocket with starting lineups for both a 4-3 and a 3-4 set. The player tells D'Onofrio why his buddies should be starting and where they should be positioned. The player later was "removed" from the team.

In 2007, a player quits the team on a Thursday of game week. The reason? He found out he would be starting the upcoming game.

Upon taking the job, Golden finds out there is a pool table in study hall. It is removed a few days later.

In 2007, a scout-team player becomes enraged at the lack of touches he's getting during practice. (Again, a scout-team player.) He gets into an argument with coaches and walks off the field.

In the middle of the 2008 season, the equipment managers stage a walk-out and give a list of demands to Golden and the head manager. The "striking" managers are fired.

In 2007, a guy from a neighboring high-rise apartment challenges D'Onofrio to get his "best 12" and come and play his 12 any day. Evidently, the guy in the high rise doesn't know football is played with 11 players.
Temple inarguably was one of the worst programs -- arguably, it might have been the worst -- in the nation before Golden's arrival in 2006. Things had gotten so bad that school administrators considered dropping football.

"Saying it was 'unsuccessful' probably isn't a fair characterization," Golden says. "It was an embarrassment to the university and the university community. That's why there were so many people who wanted to eliminate it."

Now, coming off of a breakthrough 9-4 season that saw the Owls post their first winning record since 1990 and earn their first bowl bid since 1979, the urban school in north Philadelphia is on solid footing and favored to win the Mid-American Conference this season.

Last season, the Owls shared the MAC East title with Ohio, but a late-season loss to the Bobcats sent Ohio to the MAC title game. The Owls return 16 starters, including seven from a defense that ranked No. 2 overall in the MAC (334.0 ypg) and No. 1 against the run (107.6 ypg); Temple was No. 18 nationally in rush defense.

Temple's program is built around a defense led by rising-star coordinator Mark D'Onofrio. The anchors are end Adrian Robinson, free safety Jaiquawn Jarrett and tackle Muhammad Wilkerson.

"They are typical of the players we recruit," says Golden, 40, who is 19-30 overall in four seasons at Temple. "We were the only school to offer Jarrett, and Wilkerson was a basketball player."

Ultimately, though, the key to success this season will be the continued development of an offense that has to get better throwing the ball after ranking 111th nationally in pass offense last season (146.5 ypg).

Temple's best player is running back Bernard Pierce, who burst onto the scene as a true freshman last season and paced the MAC with 1,361 rushing yards. His numbers could have been better had he not been limited to eight starts during the regular season by a shoulder injury.

"His only other offers were from I-AA schools," says Golden, a former player at Penn State who also has been an assistant with the Nittany Lions and at Virginia and Boston College. "Pierce is as talented as any back that I have been around -- William Green, Thomas Jones, Tiki Barber. We really had to beat no one to get him, like a lot of our guys."

In his first two seasons with the Owls, Golden coached one of the youngest teams in the nation. And it showed. Temple went 1-11 in 2006 and 4-8 in '07, the first time the program had won four games in a season since 2002.

A 5-7 mark in 2008 showed more signs of progress. Then came last season's breakthrough, which saw Temple open 0-2, win nine in a row, then drop its last two games -- including a loss to UCLA in the EagleBank Bowl. While the ending stung, the 2009 season was one of the best in Temple history.

"We went from being a team that snuck up on people to one that was expected to win," Golden says. "We didn't finish as well as we liked, and hopefully that has our guys' attention as we go into 2010."

Many left this program for dead after it was booted from the Big East after the 2004 season. How bad had Temple been? In 14 seasons in the Big East, the Owls went winless six times in conference play and finished with a 14-80 mark in Big East action.

Bobby Wallace suffered through some of the worst of it as the coach from 1998-2005.

"The day we got kicked out of the Big East, we didn't know if we were going to play football," says Wallace, who has been coach at Division II West Alabama since leaving Temple. "The president talked about dropping football. And it went downhill from there.

"But there was no doubt in my mind -- and I told Al this before he took the job -- I felt like it was going to be a good situation because of the job [athletic director] Bill Bradshaw continues to do. Al also has done a great job."

Remember when?
Temple ended a postseason dry spell that dated to 1979 by playing in the EagleBank Bowl last season. Following is a look at the longest current bowl droughts.
TeamLast bowl
New Mexico State1960
Kent State1972
Eastern Michigan1987
Utah State1997
San Diego State1998
NOTE: Florida International (an FBS member since 2005), Louisiana-Monroe (1994) and Western Kentucky (2009) never have been to bowls.
Perhaps the best thing that happened under Wallace's watch was facilities improvement. Still, the program was overmatched in many ways in the Big East.

"We were playing Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College," says Wallace, who went 19-71 as Temple coach. "At that time, the Big East was really strong. Those were some of the better teams in the country. We felt like we got competitive for the first few years there. But my last two years, we recruited 20-something junior college players because we couldn't tell high school kids if we were going to be playing football.

"That being said, we were allowed to play in the Big East for two more years, which was like a death sentence. You can't recruit anybody, but you get to keep playing Miami and Virginia Tech."

Temple went 3-31 in Wallace's last three seasons, including a 0-11 mark in 2005 that featured myriad drubbings: 65-0 to Wisconsin, 70-7 to Bowling Green, 51-3 to Virginia.

Enter Golden, who arrived from Virginia, where he was the youngest defensive coordinator in I-A when Al Groh hired him in 2001. Now, his work with the Owls has made him one of the nation's hottest commodities. He interviewed for the UCLA job in 2007 and for the Tennessee and Notre Dame jobs after last season. For now, he is dug in at Temple, signing a five-year contract in May that will keep him in the fold until 2014. And he continues to dream big.

"This all really hit me after the bowl game," Golden says. "I was distraught that we had lost. But I had former players like Raheem Brock and Tre Johnson coming up to me and hugging me and thanking me.

"It put it in perspective for me. I never realized what they had been through. This is all we wanted to do, put an end to the hemorrhaging and get the ship righted. But we still have work to do. We can be even better."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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