SMU (7-5) will face Nevada in the Dec. 24 Hawaii Bowl, the Mustangs' first postseason appearance since the 1984 Aloha Bowl. Temple (9-3), meanwhile, will play UCLA in the Dec. 29 EagleBank Bowl, it's first bowl appearance since 1979. Only New Mexico State (49 years) and Kent State (37 years) have gone longer without a bowl appearance.
The droughts are over for the Owls and Mustangs, but the paths to rebirth couldn't have been more different.
When Al Golden first took over at Temple in 2006, the program was in disarray. "It was really, really tough," Golden said. The Owls had just 54 scholarship players (31 less than the maximum allotment), had gone 19-71 in eight seasons under Bobby Wallace and had been thrown out of the Big East two years before Golden's arrival. Cosby, the school's most famous graduate, even lobbied for the team to drop out of Division I-A.
"When I first got here, locals were throwing rocks at us," senior tight end Steve Maneri said. "We were the laughingstock of college football."
Golden, a squeaky-clean, hard-driven former Penn State tight end who had been on staff at PSU, Boston College and Virginia, knew he couldn't compete with the Nittany Lions, Terps and other regional players for recruits. But he viewed Temple and the MAC as viable options for players who would otherwise be drawn to schools like UMass in the FCS ranks. The Owls' 15-year contract to play home games in the Philadelphia Eagles' Lincoln Financial Field didn't hurt, and after four recruiting classes, Golden had built a roster filled almost entirely (all but six) with players from the Northeast.
Golden picked up where his predecessor left off, going 1-11 in 2006 and losing by an average of 34 points. His Owls improved in 2007 (4-7) and appeared poised for a breakthrough in 2008, but two losses by four points or less and two more in overtime left the Owls one win from bowl eligibility.
Golden used the frustrations of the '08 season to set the stage for this year. The Owls spent the offseason going through each loss, pinpointing the small, fixable situations that wound up determining games.
"We addressed it head-on and we didn't sweep it under the rug and I think that had prepared it for us this season," Golden said. "There wasn't one game in the fourth quarter where we didn't feel like we weren't going to win."
The Owls had to learn to "deserve victory instead of suffering death by inches," Golden said. Following an early season 31-6 loss to Penn State, something clicked. The Owls ripped off a school-record nine-game win streak, and only a loss to Ohio in the season finale, suffered with 1,300-yard rusher Bernard Pierce out, kept Temple from playing in the MAC Championship Game. But eight Owls still found their way to the All-MAC first team, and the long-awaited bowl bid was secured.
"He has really and truly turned it around," said Cosby, who has been doing p.r. rounds for the Owls. "Given the challenges, we are not yet up to the great schools known for football. ... We want to go to a bowl this year and next year and win championships, and it will be great."
Golden delivered dormant Temple from the dead. Turnaround artist June Jones, meanwhile, brought once-proud SMU back from the death penalty.
Jones capped his nine-year tenure in Hawaii with a 12-win 2007 season and trip to the Sugar Bowl, but left paradise behind to revive a program that became anything but after the NCAA hit it with the death penalty in 1987 for paying players out of a slush fund. Jones inherited a program that boasted a Heisman winner (Doak Walker) and three national championships, but that had recorded just one winning season between sanctions and Jones' arrival.
"Well, I would say there's reason why schools lose and it's not just the football part of it," Jones said. "Obviously it was kind of a mess why we got here, but that's the reason that you get jobs like this one, because they're a mess, usually."
Jones had rebuilt a program before. He took Hawaii from 0-12 to 9-4 and bowl-bound in his first season (1999), but found repeating the feat difficult at SMU. The Mustangs struggled through Jones' first year, going 1-11 overall and 0-8 in Conference USA play. They ranked 86th or worse in 14 different national categories, but Bo Levi Mitchell and the passing offense were a bright spot, ranking 17th in FBS.
Jones has drawn comparisons to Lakers Zen master Phil Jackson, and not just because of his laid-back demeanor. Like Jackson and his triangle offense, Jones is a firm believer in his run and shoot system, which produced a slew of records at Hawaii and which Jones firmly believes will produce again.
"You just stick to what you know works and you just keep doing it over and over and eventually the light comes on," he said.
Despite losing Mitchell to a shoulder injury with five games to play, SMU finished tied for first in C-USA's West division this season. Backup Kyle Padron led the Mustangs to four wins in their last five games, putting Jones in line for a return to Hawaii. While it seems like an ironic twist, Jones says he's has his sights set on making the bowl since C-USA signed the agreement in April.
"When I saw that they signed on, I know the guys at ESPN pretty well and I told the guys 'They signed this contract because they think we can win six games, so we have to win six games,'" Jones said.
Now, Jones will lead his new team to the place he's called home for 12 years. As the home team, SMU will even get the same locker room Jones used to occupy.
"I even told the equipment guy where I wanted every body to be. It's going to be like old times for me," Jones said.
It's no longer old times for SMU, though, or for Temple. Their decades-long droughts over, the programs now face a new challenge: making sure this breakthrough is a building block, not a blip.
"Hopefully moving forward we'll be able to establish this and do it every year," Golden said. "We'd like to be a bowl team and we'd like to be a team that's considered as a Top 25 team here. That's the type of program we're trying to build."