Less than a block west of Temple University, drug dealers used to take over a vacant bodega where you could buy nickel bags of weed from someone on the other side of a barricaded window. A few blocks to the north of the main campus, there was an open-air drug market amid the burned-out row homes and urban blight that’s too common this far north of the Rocky steps in front of the art museum.
North Philadelphia will never be confused with the bucolic campuses that house the nation’s top college football programs. Parts of this urban wasteland make up one of the poorest sections of one of America’s poorest big cities, where public schools run out of toilet paper and don’t have enough books or teachers.
“We’re not South Bend, Indiana,” says Temple Athletic Director Dr. Patrick Kraft. “That’s not who we are. We are proud of being from North Broad Street and representing Philadelphia. That’s who we are. We’re going to be gritty, we’re going to grind it out. We’re proud of everything we do.”
It’s an unlikely place to find one of the great stories in college sports. Temple, a respected academic institution with solid business, law and medical schools, has been slowly transforming North Broad into something better for many years. But the transformation of its long forgotten football program has been rapid under third-year head coach Matt Rhule.
The school motto is Perseverantia Vincit, or Perseverance Conquers, and that seems to be the Temple’s game plan every Saturday.
The Owls, who do not have their own football stadium and play home games on the south side of the city in the mostly empty Lincoln Financial Field (the home of the Philadelphia Eagles), were 2-10 in 2013. They were 6-6 last year in Rhule’s second season. But this year started with the program’s first win over Penn State since 1941, and the Owls were a perfect 7-0 headed into Saturday’s nationally televised home game against Notre Dame.
On Halloween, Philly was the center of the college football universe – ESPN’s Saturday road show, College GameDay, even rolled into town – and No. 21 Temple wasn’t just masquerading as a likeable underdog against the No. 9 Irish. The Owls lost a tough one, 24-20, but they won a great deal more this weekend than any football game could have produced.
“We proved we’re a really good football team,” Rhule said afterward.
Temple gave Notre Dame a hell of a fight. They held a three-point lead with minutes to play, but with an electrified student section on the verge of hysterics, a team that’s been powered by its ravenous defense could not come up with the fourth-quarter stop that would have electrified an entire city.
The game was far from a loss, outside of the final score. The first round of the College Football Playoff Rankings will come out this week, and if there’s any justice in the world, Temple will get some love. In another month, if the Owls continue to play hard and fast and win the remaining four games on their American Athletic Conference schedule, Temple will likely end up in a bowl game, recognition that could infuse the program, the school and the neighborhood with seismic impact.
Big-time college football gets a bad rap sometimes because of the millions that signature programs like Michigan and Alabama and Florida State and, yes, Notre Dame generate. Temple is unique in that it seems to be a program eternally on the cusp of national recognition. It’s always getting started. This is a school that has forever been known for its basketball program, a school that hasn’t done much football-wise since the 1970s – unless you consider winning the 2011 New Mexico Bowl the pinnacle of success.
The New Mexico Bowl pays participating schools less than a half-million bucks. In 2009, the Owls lost something called the EagleBank Bowl, now known as the Military Bowl, which pays out about $1 million per team. That’s chump change compared to the $18 million a school’s conference gets for an appearance in the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar or Orange Bowl. Say what you want about college football and money, but that kind of dough can transform a program.
Imagine what a school like Temple, which cut seven varsity sports a year ago because of a combination of finances and logistics, could do with a large bowl payday. This is a school that virtually auctions off singing the national anthem at home games. Look, Temple isn’t exactly begging for change at stoplights; it’s allocated $170 million to build a new library and has high hopes of erecting its own football stadium on a stretch of North Philly real estate – across the street from where that drug-peddling bodega used to be.
“You don’t build a football stadium because of one hot season,” Kraft says. “It’s a major decision for a university. I want a football stadium. Could you imagine if we were playing Notre Dame on ABC on our campus? The electricity would be insane.”
But Temple is a school that legitimately could use some of that big-time college football money, a shot of school pride, greater alumni engagement and a little slice of all the intangibles that a competitive athletic program can provide. Winning on the field and hosting more games like Saturday’s clash is the straightest and shortest path to achieving that transformation. The school enjoyed virtually a day-long commercial on ESPN and the team fought hard in front of the largest crowd ever assembled for an Owls football game.
Temple did not win the game on the scoreboard, but 69,280 people left the Linc thinking that yes, Temple is for real. It was impossible not to win over those people and more importantly, College Football Playoff voters, as the Owls played a style of football that’s tough and fearless and as hard as the neighborhood that abuts the front gates of an institution founded in 1884 as a night school for poor kids.
“What we’ve been able to do is change the culture. Fifth place isn’t good enough anymore. We need to expect excellence,” Kraft says. “You’re seeing all the boats rising.”
Yes, Temple lost the game on Saturday. But with a surging football program, it stands to win so much more.