The last time anybody really gave a hoot about Temple's football schedule was in 1972. That was the year that the Owls' long-sighted coach, Wayne Hardin, hatched a short-lived rally screech. After a decade of toying with the Gettysburgs, Kings Points and Wayne States of the world, Temple had gone big-time, lining up traditional Eastern powers Syracuse and Boston College for the '72 season. "I didn't want my players to look at the schedule and feel sorry for themselves," recalls the 79-year-old Hardin, who retired after the '82 season. So he invented the Hoot.
During agility drillsplayers were told to raise their hands in front of their eyes, join their fingers in goggle-shaped O.K. signs and shout, "Hoot!" While doing rapid-fire calisthenics, they'd yell, "Hoot, hoot, hoot-hoot-hoot!" The Owls hooted on the practice field, in the locker room shower, on the streets of North Philadelphia. But they waited to hoot it up against an opponent until the third game of the season, at Boston College. As the Owls funneled out of the tunnel in Chestnut Hill, Mass., past hooting Temple coaches and the hooting Temple mascot, their captain led them in rhythmic hoots. They hooted while dashing through the goalposts and between two rows of their hooting cheerleaders. But Boston College had the last hoot: The Eagles plucked the Owls clean, 49--27.
No amount of hooting and hollering is likely to save Temple this year, either. With only two winning seasons in 25 years, and none since 1990, the perennial patsy (2--9 in '04) plays a schedule that's arguably the most brutal in the country. Of the 11 teams they face, eight were in bowl games last season and five--Arizona State, Wisconsin, Miami (Fla.), Virginia and Navy--finished in the AP's Top 25. "Our schedule is like the perfect storm," athletic director Bill Bradshaw says with a sigh. "What we're heading into is either idiotic or quixotic."
"I'd be Don Quixote to say Temple will win more games than it loses," he says.
The only program ever to be booted out of the Big East, Temple is now an affiliate member of the Mid-American Conference. (The school will become a full-fledged football member, eligible to compete for the conference title, in 2007. The rest of Temple's varsity teams will remain in the Atlantic 10.) But even a downgrade in league affiliation won't help the Owls. They're playing the MAC's top three teams: Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) and Toledo.
"It's not like we picked every tough team we could!" coach Bobby Wallace protests. He's right. Where's USC?
"The schedule is tough, but when I was coach our opponents were tougher," says Hardin. "We butted heads with Georgia, Pittsburgh and Penn State--all when they were Number 1."
Did you beat any of them?
Which, he says, is not to imply that the current Owls won't beat one of the nationally ranked teams on their schedule. "If this team hits oil, everything will come up roses," offers Hardin in an exquisitely mixed metaphor. "When that first whistle blows, it's always nothing-nothing on the scoreboard. Anything can happen."
Anything does happen to Temple. In a 1--11 season two years ago, the Owls dropped three games in overtime, one after an extra-point attempt to tie the score was wide left. "Our players haven't had much luck on the field," Bradshaw concedes. They haven't had much luck with fields, period. Temple didn't know where it would play its 2003 home opener until three weeks before kickoff. With the school's agreement to use Lincoln Financial Field still being made final, one of the alternative venues under consideration was decrepit Veterans Stadium, which was being phased out and would be imploded seven months later. "We would have considered playing at the Vet while it was being blown up," says Bradshaw. "If you're losing, you've got to promote something other than your team." Ultimately Temple was able to play (and lose to) Villanova at Lincoln Financial.
A hardy realist under no less pressure than any other Division I-A AD, Bradshaw says his contract is a "multiweek agreement." He was hired in 2002, 16 months after the Big East voted to kick out Temple, effective after the 2004 season, because of its dismal conference record (14--80 over 14 seasons) and an inability to draw an average of 25,000 fans for home games, a league requirement.
"Basically," Bradshaw says, "Owls football is not a habit in Philadelphia." In the City of Brotherly Love, gridiron talk is 100% T.O. and 0% TU. Over the past 10 seasons average attendance at this urban commuter school has broken 20,000 only twice; it was 16,456 a year ago.
Temple's original 2005 schedule, which had prominent names such as Maryland, Miami (Fla.), North Carolina State and Navy traveling to Philadelphia, was set up to change that. Then "there was a series of unfortunate events," says Bradshaw, sounding like Lemony Snicket. "Normally you try to land four games you have a reasonable chance of winning, four you probably can't win against attractive opponents and three that could go either way. But this year the process was as convoluted and frenetic as a game of Parcheesi."
The shuffling began last December, when Navy, in search of an extra home date, offered to extend its series with the Owls by two years in exchange for moving their Nov. 19 meeting to Annapolis. With seven home games, Bradshaw was happy to oblige. A month later the ACC changed the dates of four of Temple's games against its schools (Maryland, Miami, N.C. State and Virginia).
In May, when Temple was accepted into the MAC, things got tricky. "We already had three games set with colleges in the conference," Bradshaw says of home dates with Toledo and Miami (Ohio), plus a road game at Bowling Green. "To be eligible for [one of the MAC's two bowl tie-ins], we needed one more." Never mind that Temple hasn't been invited to a bowl since 1979.
The Owls found a willing partner in Western Michigan, but there was one problem: With 11 games already on their schedule, the Broncos couldn't add Temple without dropping an opponent. Western Michigan was scheduled to visit Wisconsin on Sept. 10; Bradshaw offered to take over that commitment in exchange for the Broncos' coming to Philly on Sept. 24. "It's the only team we may be favored to beat," Bradshaw says of Western Michigan, which was 1--10 in '04. He takes a deep breath. "Maybe."
Now, however, Temple had the conflict: The Owls already had home games on Sept. 10 (against N.C. State) and Sept. 24 (against Middle Tennessee State). So Bradshaw and MAC commissioner Rick Chryst negotiated an agreement to drop the Wolfpack and the Blue Raiders from Temple's schedule and have them play each other.
His work done, Bradshaw is preparing to watch his team take its lumps. He hopes a more favorable schedule--which won't happen until the Owls play a full MAC slate in 2007--and more aggressive recruiting will change Temple's fortunes. "We're about three years from where five wins is not a good season," he predicts. In case you were wondering, the Owls last amassed five wins during the first Bush Administration. The George H.W. Bush Administration.
When pondering the coming attractions in this horror show of a season, the Owls can take solace from something former Temple halfback Bill Cosby once said: "You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything, even poverty, you can survive it."
To survive their Schedule of Doom, players may have to laugh through a considerable amount of pain. The Owls lost their top offensive player (quarterback Walter Washington, who accounted for 71% of the team's total offense and 83% of its touchdowns) and top two defensive players (linebackers Rian Wallace, a fifth-round draft pick of the Steelers, and Troy Bennett, the team's defensive MVP). Thirty-seven players, about a third of the roster, have spent time at either a junior college or another four-year school. "I believe we can knock off one or two of our opponents," insists senior defensive end Mike Mendenhall, a second-team All--Big East selection in '04. "I'd consider that an accomplishment."
The goal of Temple's coach isn't so modest. "I'm hoping for six wins," says Wallace, whose contract expires at the end of the year. "Some people think four would be a miracle. I don't." His mantra: Stay competitive. "Each week we've got a chance to make national news because of who we're playing. Any win will be a great one."
And to many observers, an unexpected one. Asked if 11 losses is a possibility, senior quarterback Mike McGann says, "Anything's possible, but I don't see us having a no-win season. The oddsmakers aren't right allthe time."
SEPT. 1 AT ARIZONA STATE
A mismatch from hell: The Sun Devils' pass attack (ranked fifth in the nation in 2004) meets the Owls' pass defense (94th). Quarterback Sam Keller licks his chops.
SEPT. 10 AT WISCONSIN
Retiring Badgers coach Barry Alvarez can get an early jump on his golf game. Temple has lost eight straight road games--by an average of 21.9 points (and that doesn't count the Sept. 1 Arizona State game).
SEPT. 17 TOLEDO
Last year the Owls grabbed a 10-point early lead, but the Bruce Gradkowski--fueled Rockets still blasted them by 28. QB Gradkowski is back for more.
SEPT. 24 WESTERN MICHIGAN
Perhaps the only winnable game on the schedule. Last year wideout Greg Jennings and the Broncos beat only one team, Division I-AA Tennessee-Martin. But they're 3--0 alltime against the Owls.
OCT. 1 AT BOWLING GREEN
Quarterback Omar Jacobs will be looking to enhance his Heisman chances against a team the Falcons thrashed for 639 yards and 70 points last fall.
OCT. 8 MARYLAND
The Terrapins slumped to 5--6 in '04, but it would have been worse if they hadn't had Temple to kick around, 45--22. This time Maryland and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson really have something to prove.
OCT. 15 MIAMI (FLA.)
Who schedules a perennial powerhouse as a homecoming opponent? The Owls, of course, losers of 12 straight to the Hurricanes, by an average of 34.3 points. (Pssst! Don't kick the ball to Devin Hester.)
OCT. 22 AT CLEMSON
Few college coaches hear calls for his firing as regularly as the Tigers' Tommy Bowden. This week he hears sweet nothings.
OCT. 29 MIAMI (OHIO)
One of the favorites to win the MAC, the RedHawks, led by linebacker John Busing, have a run of 11 straight winning seasons. The Owls' last winning season? It was 7--4 in 1990, and they haven't won more than four games since.
NOV. 5 AT VIRGINIA
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, potential NFL first-round picks in April, get to show off against a team the Cavaliers hammered, 44--14, last year.
NOV. 19 AT NAVY
The season ends against a program that knows Temple's pain: The Middies were a combined 1--20 in 2000 and '01 but have turned it around under coach Paul Johnson and gone to bowl games the last two years. Another bid may be on the line here. Temple can only watch and learn.