Up until that point, I always just assumed I’d be a Penn State guy.
As preparation, I was a Penn State football fan, watching its games on Saturday afternoons.
I specifically recall being devastated on New Year’s Day, 1979, when the Lions had four cracks at the goal line from a yard out and couldn’t score against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
But when Penn State played against Temple, I had to pull for the Owls.
It was in my blood, my DNA. My family tree is planted on North Broad Street.
Temple winning was unrealistic, I know, but that’s where my emotional attachment was rooted.
I regularly attended Temple games since the early 1970s, when Wayne Hardin’s teams won more than they lost and played a lot of games in the comfy atmosphere of old Temple Stadium in Mt. Airy.
Temple took on Penn State a few times and nearly won a few, a fact that hastened my distaste for the arrogance of the average Nittany Lion fan who took the thrill out of victory for themselves by expecting it as a birthright.
By the time I became a Temple student, I had no need for Penn State in my life. I was particularly disgusted by friends who went there – notably female friends who wouldn’t know a goal line from a clothes line – who got swept up in the tail-gate culture.
Temple was more of a basketball school, and I was there when the Owls were No. 1 in the country for most of a season (Mark Macon’s freshman
year) under John Chaney.
That was nice, but basketball ain’t football, folks.
We had Paul Palmer setting records, and even a 6-5 season in there (good enough for one of the 819 bowl games nowadays), but it wasn’t the big time.
It only got worse from there. Coaches I don’t even want to remember – Jerry Berndt, Ron Dickerson, Bobby Wallace – were good men who couldn’t stem the tide of the slide.
The Big East gave us the boot for being too feeble of a sparring partner. The games with Penn State were rarely close anymore , as Joe Paterno would run up the score and then empty the bench.
All I wanted was a reason to hope.
I had modest goals. A few winning seasons, maybe? An upset victory over Penn State just once before I perish?
Enter Al Golden, a former Penn State player and Paterno disciple. Within a few seasons, he had Temple not only competitive, but winning. Sure, it was the MAC and not the Big East, but the Owls went to the Eaglebank Bowl in 2009 (losing to UCLA, but only because star running back Bernard Pierce got dinged before halftime). We were just as good the
following year, going 8-4, but became the first 8-win team since the expanded bowl format not to get a bowl invite. (Meanwhile, teams that were 6-6 went to bowls).
Golden bolted for Miami and Steve Addazio arrived. The Owls went back to a bowl game in 2011, the New Mexico Bowl, and won. Yes, won. My goal became simple. Give me four .500 seasons and three second-tier bowl appearances within a 5-year cycle.
I had no delusions of grandeur about national titles, or even finishing in the Top 25.
It seemed like Addazio was going to give us that standard, despite a little bit of a dip under .500 in 2012, as he was a better recruiter, pound for pound, than Golden.
Then, he bolts for Boston College, clearly showing that Temple is a stepping-stone job for these guys.
Enter Matt Rhule, a former first lieutenant under Golden who spent his time in exile earning a Super Bowl ring as the offensive line coach with the New York Giants (as high on my NFL “hate” list as Penn State on the NCAA level).
Rhule ran an offense under Golden that was, at times, painful to watch. It only produced because of the running of Pierce and his backup, Matt Brown, behind a solid offensive line. The play-calling was often gruesome.
But he seems to have returned a changed man, revamping the
offense to a more wide-open look.
When Connor Reilly stands over center at Notre Dame – yes, that Notre Dame – he will be the fourth starting quarterback in four seasons. Meanwhile, Rhule is the third coach in four seasons and the American Athletic Conference the third league in three seasons.
Can we get a little continuity here?
Last year’s quarterback, Chris Coyer, who also started the second half of the previous season – earning MVP honors in the New Mexico Bowl – has been moved to H-Back (don’t be surprised if he ends up back at quarterback at some point, even if H-Back gives him a better shot at a pro career).
The era of dominant running attacks – paced by Pierce, Brown and Montel Harris – seems to have given way to a running-back-by-committee approach, if only out of necessity (Kenny Harper and Jamie Gilmore are likely to be the main guys, when running plays are actually called, but there is no need to memorize their names).
The defense, led by sophomore linebacker Tyler Matakevich, appears to be more of an issue than an offense with some nice playmakers at receiver.
But that’s not my concern.
All things considered, my goal of being bowl eligible is not outlandish once league play and some less insane out of conference games commence.
But Saturday scares me.
I suppose it’s noble, taking the dare and playing at Notre Dame and opening the season in that hornet’s nest as a 30-point underdog, but it could cost the young team an ego blow – on national television, in front of a trillion zealous Irish-Catholics from coast to coast – from which it doesn’t recover.
Saturday’s opener is almost being viewed as a nice little field trip for the team that will be followed by a friendly scrimmage against the No. 14 team in country.
Oh, if only that were true.
It’s a train wreck waiting to happen. I have to watch, for loyalty reasons stated above, but anyone else without a vested interest should consider this warning that the images they are about to see Saturday afternoon could be disturbing.
I am hoping for the best – which, realistically, is staying competitive – but am fully prepared for the worst.
As Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone in “Godfather II” – “this is the life we have chosen.”
And I chose Temple.