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A Good Kind of Crazy: Temple Football’s Improbable Season

After 25 Tough Years, Temple Football is Relevant Again
October 30, 2015, 10:16pm
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Before the highly anticipated Temple-Notre Dame football game on Saturday night in Philadelphia, former Owls star running back Paul Palmer plans on tailgating in the Lincoln Financial Field parking lot. Palmer, the runner-up in the 1986 Heisman trophy balloting and a first round NFL draft pick in 1987, is now in his third season as Temple's radio color analyst. He won't be drinking alcohol or partying hard, but that doesn't mean he won't be enjoying himself. He'll listen to music, talk with friends and celebrate a season that few could have predicted at a school accustomed to losing and one that nearly dropped football 10 years ago.

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Palmer and his ex-teammates have been following the same tailgating routine for a few years. With Temple at 7-0 for the first time ever and ranked 21st in the AP poll and 22nd in coaches poll, they now have a lot of company in the pre-game festivities. Locals who never cared about Temple football are jumping on the bandwagon.

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"It's so typical of the Philly area," Palmer said. "When it's going good, everyone's there. When it's going bad, they're throwing you under the bus. It's gotten to the point now where it's hard for me sometimes to maneuver my way through the parking lot because people recognize me. It's getting kind of crazy, but it's a good crazy. It's a great crazy. We wanted it to be crazy. We just never achieved it."

For Temple, even when things have gone right in the past, it usually hasn't lasted too long. Palmer is a prime example. Former Temple coach Bruce Arians, who is now coaching the Arizona Cardinals, was the only Division I coach to offer Palmer a scholarship because Palmer was small (5-foot-9) and had struggled academically in high school. When Palmer ran for 1,516 yards as a junior in 1985, Arians looked like a genius, and pro scouts and agents took notice.

The summer before his senior year, Palmer accepted a few thousand dollars from two agents. He said he kept the cash in a coat in the back of his closet in case he needed any extra spending money for food or clothing. He also said he sent cash in envelopes with no return address to his great-grandmother, who had raised him in Maryland.

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As a senior, Palmer helped Temple gain some national exposure, led the nation with 1,866 rushing yards and finished behind only Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde in the Heisman voting. Two years later, while Palmer was playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, his past transgressions caught up with him. Palmer admitted to receiving money from agents Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom. And after an FBI investigation, a federal grand jury charged Walters and Bloom with paying college players.

"My thinking was, 'As long as I keep doing what I'm doing, I'm going to make this money anyway and besides it's just a loan,'" Palmer said. "You figure out a way to justify what you're doing. You knew it was wrong, you knew you weren't supposed to do it and you knew it was against the NCAA rules, but you figured it's not going to hurt anyone but me. It turns out that it hurt a lot of people, not just me. It hurt Temple's program. It hurt the people that were involved with all the accolades and all I had achieved."

When Palmer admitted to accepting the money, Temple vacated all six of its wins during the 1986 season because Palmer was technically ineligible. The school also stripped him of his records before reinstating them in 1999. By then, the Owls were in the midst of a brutal stretch, although Palmer is hardly to blame for all their futility. From 1991 to 2008, Temple never had a winning record and played in front of tiny crowds. During that 18-year stretch, the Owls won one game six times and two games five times. The worst season came in 2005, when Temple finished 0-11 and lost by more than 35 points per game. At the time, the Owls were simply happy to still be playing football.

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In 2001, the Big East conference's presidents voted to kick Temple out of the league. Three years later, at the behest of university president David Adamany, then-chairman of the board of trustees Howard Gittis appointed board of trustees member Patrick O'Connor to chair a 12-person committee that evaluated the school's athletics programs. After some heated discussions, they voted in January 2005 to continue playing football.

"The president wanted to get rid of football," said O'Connor, who is now chairman of the board of trustees. "I thought seriously about it, but I came on the side of keeping football. It was a close vote, but wisdom prevailed. That was a tough decision. We got critiqued on both sides of the coin. Some said you've got to [keep football]. Some said, 'You're absurd. You've got a failed program.' But it's beyond football. You bring young people in who get a great education. They wouldn't have an education but for Temple."

Temple Coach Matt Rhule has led the Owls to three straight seasons of improvement. Photo by James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports.

O'Connor credits former coach Al Golden, who was hired in 2006, for helping turn around the program. Golden led Temple to a bowl game in 2009 for the first time in 30 years and went 8-4 the next year before leaving for Miami. When Golden departed, the Owls replaced him with Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio. After Addazio went to Boston College following the 2012 season, Temple hired Matt Rhule, a former Golden assistant who had been rejected for the job two years earlier.

Now, in Rhule's third year, the optimism and hype surrounding the Owls may be at an all-time high. During a news conference on Tuesday, Rhule spoke on a dais into microphones from eight television and radio stations. Around two dozen reporters were in attendance and asked questions about the season and facing Notre Dame, which is 6-1 and 9th in both polls. In the 2013 opener, Notre Dame defeated Temple 28-6 in Rhule's first game as the Owls' coach. Temple finished 2-10 that season before improving to 6-6 last year. The Owls' undefeated start this year has been fueled by a defense that's 8th in the nation in points allowed per game (14.6). Rhule swears not much has changed since he arrived in terms of defensive schemes.

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"People after the first year would ask me, 'What are you guys going to do differently?,'" Rhule said. "I said nothing. We're going to just keep teaching, keep teaching, keep teaching. You don't go to medical school for a year, do you doc? You go for four. Four years?"

Rhule looked at the crowd. He wanted to make sure he was accurate about the medical school requirements.

"I didn't even take biology in college," he said, laughing. "I just think they learned about details and attention to detail. That's where I think they are now. They play with tremendous attention to detail."

So far, the season's highlight occurred in the opener when Temple defeated Penn State 27-10, beating the Nittany Lions for the first time since 1941 and snapping a 31-game losing streak against them. Afterward, Temple senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich and his parents showed up at Palmer's tailgate.

"He got mobbed by a bunch of old Temple football players," Palmer said. "He stood there and he took it and he took pictures with all of us. We hugged his Mom. We hugged his Dad. It was like a real weird kind of thing, but he stood right there smiling. This year so far has been absolutely incredible and surreal."

And it could get even better if Temple wins on Saturday. ESPN's "College GameDay" will be at the game, and it's already sold-out, a rarity for the Owls. The success is almost enough to allow Palmer and his former teammates to forget that they never achieved the team goals they had set.

"It doesn't fix our old wounds," said Palmer, laughing. "We're still licking our wounds. But whenever I talk to the younger ball players, I say, 'Dude, you're making my chest stick out. You have no idea how good you're making a bunch of old guys feel right now.'"