This story appears in the Nov. 2, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
To get to the heart of the best Cinderella story in college football, go north from Center City, up Broad Street, a boulevard that runs through Rittenhouse Square, Logan Square, Spring Garden and up to the gates and gray-stone buildings of Temple University, a place where football has always seemed like a closely guarded secret. The football complex lies on the very northern edge of campus, in the shadow of a rumbling train overpass, with a lone practice field enclosed by a tall steel fence, flanked by the row houses in a well-worn neighborhood where the hangouts are a dimly lit hookah lounge and a pizza joint selling $6.99 pies.
Sunday afternoon, inside his modestly appointed office overlooking the emerald practice field, third-year coach Matt Rhule is processing the most telling indicator that his program has arrived—more significant than the 7–0 start (the best in the program's 121-year history), the No. 21 ranking (the school's highest since 1979), the 27–10 whipping of Penn State (the first over the Nittany Lions in 74 years) and the most recent victory, a 24–14 slugfest at East Carolina on Oct. 22. "Apparently," says Rhule, relaying a message from assistant athletic director Rich Burg, who stands nearby looking at his phone, "it's the longest GameDay deliberation, ever." The following day ESPN would announce that GameDay was in fact bringing its circus to Independence Mall in Philly, near Lincoln Financial Field, where the Owls play their home games, for the Oct. 31 rumble against No. 9 Notre Dame. On Halloween night Philadelphia—a football-crazed city that hasn't hosted a college football game between two ranked opponents in more than 60 years—will become the center of the college football universe. Spooky.
Yes, Philadelphia finally gives a hoot about the Owls. It's a feel-good story for the most hardened fans in America: a charismatic 40-year-old coach is leading a band of outcasts and late bloomers into the sport's elite and attracting an eclectic group of fired-up supporters along the way. There's New Jersey senator Cory Booker, who visited the team earlier this season and cited an old African proverb in a motivational speech that's become a mantra for the Owls: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." It's plastered on signs all over the facility. Then there's the rapper Young Jeezy, who offered words of inspiration to a different beat, riffing on facing adversity. "Basically, [it was] the exact same things I tell them every day and they tune out," says Rhule, with a playful roll of the eyes. "Jeezy says it, and their eyes are wide-open and they're like, Wow, now, that's some good stuff right there."
The Owls have not only fired up a city desperate for a winning team—the Linc sold out the Notre Dame game on Oct. 13 (though no one can say how many of the ticket buyers are Irish fans)—but they've also become a beacon for the Group of Five programs with dreams of crashing college football's exclusive playoff ball. Temple is the team to champion for fans who believe the sport has become dominated by the old-money titans of the Power Five and lorded over by the oligarchs of the NCAA, who seem to exist solely to keep out the insurgents. The Owls screech: Cinderella stories are still possible.
Stroll through the halls of the Edberg-Olson football complex, and it is apparent how different Temple is from most Top 25 programs. Unlike other schools, where teams train and practice on sprawling estates and work out in buildings that feel like five-star resorts, Temple is far from Versailles. Different units share meeting space; one room, for example, simultaneously serves as the offensive linemen's meeting room, the team's dining room and the press-conference room. Before a 2012 renovation, players who came to the lounge to take naps between two-a-day summer practices were awakened by the rumble of the SEPTA train passing every few minutes just outside the window. Says Rhule, "We need to be a little different, a little more creative in how we do things," so one room is the team's virtual reality training ground, where players stand in front of screens, don goggles and experience practice reps without stepping onto a field.
Nowhere is the school's Moneyball mentality more apparent than in recruiting. To find undiscovered talent, the Owls, like other Group of Five schools, rely heavily on the American Idol approach, holding open auditions. In recent summers Temple has hosted one-week camps in which up to 2,000 high schoolers show up, including girls, hoping to become what Rhule calls "diamonds in the rough that we discover only by seeing with our own eyes." Rhule estimates that 60% of his roster came through one of these camps, including senior cornerback Tavon Young, who attended as a Maryland high schooler and caught the attention of Temple coaches during drills. He started as a true freshman and is now a team captain.
What the Temple coaches look for in a player is athleticism and versatility. "We don't worry, get too caught up, about position," Rhule says. "Once they get here, our guys will find the right place for them." That partly explains why the soul of the Owls—an impenetrable defense—is built around speedy players who fly around the field. Senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who leads the team in tackles and is on every major award watch list this fall, was heralded as a first baseman and catcher at Milford Academy in New Berlin, N.Y., (UConn, the school he wanted to attend, was interested in him only for baseball), but lightly recruited for football because he was then 6' 1" and barely 200 pounds. Rhule, an assistant when he first saw Matakevich, looked past his size and saw his potential, and the now 235-pounder has rewarded that foresight. Like Matakevich, junior defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis was mostly ignored out of Hunterdon (N.J.) Central High but is now, as the Owls' most dominant inside defender, drawing the attention of NFL scouts.
Matakevich and Ioannidis are the leaders of a unit that ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense in 2014 and has been even more fierce in '15, giving up only 14.6 points per game (down from 17.5 a year ago). The unit has allowed no more than 14 points in four of its seven games, which has allowed the Owls to come from behind in the fourth quarter three times this season. Three times Temple has been the underdog and won. Gritty, defense oriented and undaunted by adversity, the Owls are the perfect team for the City of Brotherly Love.
Thinking of an athletic program that has come further than Temple's over the last decade is difficult. Rock bottom could have been when Temple was booted from the Big East in 2004 because of dreadful records (14 straight losing seasons) and fan apathy. Or it might have hit in '05, when university officials considered eliminating football altogether—only an 8-to-7 vote by a school committee preserved the program. Al Golden arrived as coach in '06 and restored the Owls to respectability, leading the team to 17 wins and a bowl over his final two years, '09 and '10, before his successor, Steve Addazio, followed with a nine-win season and another bowl. But Temple crumbled back to irrelevance afterward, going 4–7 in '12 and 2–10 in '13, Rhule's first season.
Rhule can seem old-school: He has a poster of John Wooden's pyramid of success on his wall, and he cites lessons that he learned as a linebacker under Joe Paterno at Penn State in the mid 1990s ("He told me I should consider being a coach, which was his nice way of saying I shouldn't play") and as an assistant offensive line coach under Tom Coughlin with the New York Giants in 2012. But Rhule is also a coach who blares Young Jeezy over the practice field, who sports a scraggly beard that makes him look as if he's wandered out of the brush on Survivor and who, if needed, will order his troops around like Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. Players who were around after the team started 0–3 in '13 still shake their heads and shudder: Rhule, a longtime Temple assistant under Golden and Addazio, was so disgusted with the performances of the seniors that he told them to go away and not come back for a week. (The team had a bye.) He made the remaining players participate in daily scrimmages at full speed all week while running gassers in full pads for every missed third-down conversion or minor error. Young, the captain, calls it the moment the team realized, "O.K., we've got to get this fixed."
The turning point for Rhule's Owls? Maybe it was their 2014 season-opening 37–7 thumping of Vanderbilt, the school's first win over an SEC team since beating Florida in 1938. Maybe it was their win late in that season against then No. 23 East Carolina, the school's first victory over a ranked opponent since '98. Rhule himself, however, looks back to the day last December when the 6–6 Owls were told they wouldn't be invited to a bowl. Rhule assembled his players and, standing next to then deputy athletic director Pat Kraft, broke the news. Some seniors cried. Anger reigned, along with a sense of unfinished business. In the front of the room senior captain Kenneth Harper rose from his seat. "In the end this is going to be the best thing that's happened for Temple football," he said. "Remember how this feels. Remember the pain. Remember that no one is going to give you anything, to take nothing for granted. You have to earn it."
The Owls have not lost since.
Next week the College Football Playoff committee will release its first weekly rankings and with it will come the usual fury and second-guessing. While the debates will diminish after the rivalry games and conference championships, one big question looms: What to do with the insurgents?
As it stands after Week 8, four undefeated teams come from outside the Power Five. No. 17 Toledo, the Mid-American Conference juggernaut, toppled a then-ranked SEC program (Arkansas) on the road in September. The Rockets should blast through the rest of conference play undefeated, but with no ranked opponents remaining on their schedule, they will not be able to assemble a playoff-worthy résumé. For the other unbeatens—Temple, Memphis and Houston—it's a different story. Playing out of the American Athletic Conference, that coalition of orphans from the Mid-American and Big East conferences and transplants from Conference USA, each can stake a claim to an invite if it goes unbeaten.
Memphis and Houston are offensive-minded teams led by rising young coaches. The 16th-ranked Tigers are averaging 48.9 points per game (third in the FBS), and they rocked the football world in Week 7 with a 37–24 shellacking of then No. 13 Ole Miss. The Memphis quarterback, Paxton Lynch, a 6' 7", 245-pound junior with an arm like Jameis Winston's, could be the top quarterback in the 2016 NFL draft. The only young coach hotter than 39-year-old Justin Fuente of Memphis might be Tom Herman, 40, whose Houston team is ranked 18th and fourth in the country in scoring (47.6). The Tigers and the Cougars will claw it out on Nov. 14 in Houston. "I'm really proud of our conference—for Memphis and Houston to do what they're doing is great to watch, and gets some national attention—but I do believe that as a whole, this conference deserves a lot more love," says Rhule. After Memphis beat Temple 16–13 in Philadelphia in November 2014, Rhule climbed aboard the Memphis team bus to tell Fuente how impressed he was with the Tigers.
The Owls don't play Houston in the regular season, but Memphis comes to Philly on Nov. 21. If the Tigers beat the Cougars, they'll most likely be a top 15 team. If Houston prevails, Memphis might still be Top 25, and Temple would be on course to face a highly ranked Cougars team in the AAC championship. Either way the Owls could finish the season with wins over Penn State, Notre Dame and a ranked Memphis or Houston, or both. That would be two Power Five victories and three wins over ranked teams. That scenario would assure Temple of the Group of Five's slot in one of the New Year's bowls, and it would force the playoff committee to at least talk about the Owls during its deliberations.
Even if Temple falls short against the Irish, a conference championship would still be the biggest achievement in the history of a program that has played in three different conferences over the last 11 years (between the Big East and AAC, the Owls took up residence in the MAC), and doesn't have a conference title trophy of any kind in its case. That would be a big boost for a university that has begun securing funding to build a $100 million, 35,000-seat stadium on campus. Rhule signed a four-year extension in June, though with each victory the rumors of his departure for a bigger program heat up—he has recently been mentioned in connection with openings at Maryland, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Last week, during a visit to a Philadelphia hospital, employees mobbed him. "Last [month], they were taking photos with the Pope," says Burg. "Now it's Matt Rhule."
On Friday, the day after his team's win over East Carolina, Rhule woke up before dawn and decided to walk to work. He left his downtown apartment, where he lives with his wife, Julie, and three kids, Bryant, 11, Vivienne, 2, and Leona, 5 months, and walked past the multimillion-dollar town houses of Rittenhouse Square, the middle-class neighborhoods of Logan and Spring Garden's working-class enclave, up Broad Street toward campus. Everywhere along the four-mile path people stopped to shake his hand, honked their horns and rolled down their windows, screaming, "Seven and oh!" Says Rhule, "They say the fans here are the toughest, and that may be so, but there's nowhere better if you're winning. This is fun, but it's just the start." He clasps his hands and rubs them together; six days until the biggest college football game in Philly in years, and the coach is ready to rock. "Now," he says with a grin, "comes the hard part."