One summer after he retired, James “Skip” Wilson and his wife got home from a weeklong vacation in Avalon, N.J. There was a new plasma television sitting in their living room.
“What the hell happened here?” Wilson thought.
The late Jesse Hodges, a former Temple All-American, bought the TV for his old coach.
Each year during the 1960s, a group of players from the baseball team got together for a dinner in New Jersey. Hodges went to pick Wilson up to drive him to the dinner one year and had noticed an outdated television set that Wilson had in his living room.
“I didn’t want to ruin your eyes for the World Series this year,” Wilson remembers Hodges saying to him. “I bought this thing so you and your wife wouldn’t have those lines going through the middle anymore.”
But the lines are blurring even further now – this time, for Wilson’s former program instead of on his TV.
On Dec. 6, 2013, Athletic Director Kevin Clark walked into the Student Pavilion and made a brief announcement. The Board of Trustees had approved his recommendation to cut seven sports. Clark began listing the disbanded programs to an emotional group of student-athletes. Baseball was the first to be called.
Senior pitcher Matt Hockenberry joked earlier in the morning that the program would be cut after student-athletes were sent an email from their academic advisers.
“We thought someone got caught plagiarizing and they were going to make an example of someone – it was the academic advisers,” Hockenberry said.
But Hockenberry’s joke became a harsh reality as he sat next to six teammates who would transfer weeks later, in hopes of continuing their baseball careers at a program with a more promising future. Hockenberry said he was baffled and that he couldn’t believe that Clark and President Neil Theobald – who had been at Temple for less than one year – could make such a major decision.
“They were never a part of the history, they were never a part of the school,” Hockenberry said. “I’ve been here longer than them. They never asked me what it’s like to be a Temple baseball player or what the team means to me or any of my teammates or coaches.”
The board reversed part of its decision in February when it reinstated the crew and rowing teams after funding for a new boathouse surfaced. But men’s gymnastics, men’s indoor and outdoor track & field, softball and the baseball program Hockenberry has called home for the past four years are still set to be eliminated on July 1.
The administration didn’t consult with members of the baseball team before making the cuts. It didn’t ask coach Ryan Wheeler about how to permanently solve facilities issues. It didn’t consult with players about frustrations in the 22-minute ride to Ambler Campus and whether it affected their well-being as student-athletes. It didn’t talk to former coach James “Skip” Wilson, who helped build the program to become the most decorated among Philadelphia schools.
While many involved in the program remain frustrated, the university maintains that the cuts are necessary for Title IX compliance and to create better experiences for the student-athletes that remain.
After its 87th season is complete in May, the Owls will leave the diamond for the last time.
‘Joe Paterno of baseball’
Hockenberry has only been a part of the baseball program for four years, but he’s not ignorant to its history. He likened Wilson, the 46-year Temple baseball coach, to the late Joe Paterno at Penn State.
“He established this program that’s a winning program,” Hockenberry said.
Before Wilson’s tenure, Temple played as an independent – without any conference affiliation – until 1958. Then, under Wilson’s predecessor Ernie Casale, the Owls joined the Mid-Atlantic Conference. Temple won the MAC title and advanced to its second NCAA tournament in program history in 1959 – Casale’s final season.
When Wilson took over the program in 1960, he took Casale’s successes and established a winning program. In his first 10 seasons, he led the Owls to nine winning seasons and two NCAA tournaments. In the 33 years prior to him taking over, Temple made just one NCAA tourney.
Wilson would go on to coach until the middle of 2005, leading the Owls to 12 NCAA appearances – including two trips to the College World Series.
Under Wilson, Temple captured 10 conference titles and sent approximately 100 players to professional leagues, including six to the MLB.
Joe Hindelang pitched at Temple from 1965-67 before being drafted by the New York Yankees. He ranks 10th on the all-time career strikeouts list at Temple with 200.
“His motto was ‘I’ll play anyone, anyplace, any time. But don’t cheat me,’” Hindelang said. “He was competitive as all hell. He was a great infield coach and was tough as nails.”
Hindelang, who played both basketball and baseball while at Temple, would go on to coach for 27 years, including 14 at Penn State – where he’d coach Wheeler. He credits his ability to coach for so long to things he learned as a player at Temple.
“A lot of what I did in my 27 years of coaching, I took and learned from Skippy,” Hindelang said. “He made the opposing coach uneasy. He would squeeze with his cleanup hitter or third hitter. He just put constant pressure on you.”
The Glory Days
Rod Johnson’s girlfriend, who’s now his wife, called Wilson in 1976. She wanted Wilson to bring Johnson onto the program. So Wilson traveled up to Spring-Ford High School to watch Johnson, a second basemen, play.
It just so happened that Johnson’s teammate, Jay Hallman, threw a no-hitter with Wilson looking on.
Both joined the Owls and now sit in the Temple Hall of Fame. Johnson is third all-time in the program with a .399 career batting average and Hallman is fourth all-time with 24 wins.
Wilson said recruiting was easy for him during the early days. He remembers baseball talent in the Philadelphia area as much better in the 1960s and 1970s than it is today.
“I was out to games every night of my life watching high school, sandlot, American Legion,” Wilson said. “I went all over the city and state, anywhere from a 75-100-mile radius.”
In 1972, Wilson led the Owls to a 33-15 overall record and the program’s first appearance in the College World Series. The Owls fell to Arizona State 1-0 and finished in third place. Wilson estimates that 99 percent of that team came from the Philadelphia area.
Five years later, in 1977, Temple got back to the College World Series after going undefeated (9-0) in MAC play. Temple finished the year with a 34-9 record and an eighth-place finish.
In Wilson’s first 25 years, from 1960-84, Temple had 22 winning seasons and 14 conference championships.
To this day, Temple has never played a baseball game on Main Campus.
The program played its first 78 years at Erny Field in Mount Airy before moving to Skip Wilson Field in Ambler in 2004.
Hindelang recalls the countless trips from Main Campus up to Mount Airy, and described them as a “bonding experience.”
“It’s not about earned run averages and batting averages or setting career records and individual records,” Hindelang said. “It’s the experiences. It’s about relationships. It’s laughing at some of the crazy things we did. The school, with Clark and Theobald, use, ‘Oh, the trip out to the Ambler Campus.’ It’s just ridiculous.”
Erny Field is now used by Arcadia University. Wilson remembers it being the “best field in the city.”
“It was well manicured and well taken care of,” Wilson said. “I don’t think being off campus was too big of a deal.”
Wilson said he doesn’t know why the program left Erny Field in favor of Ambler.
“When they compare it to other fields, it’s like a Little League field,” Wilson said of the field that has his namesake.
The lack of an on-campus facility was one of the many reasons the university used to justify the baseball program being cut. Playing off-campus is a reality known to every Temple baseball player before they enroll at the university.
Hockenberry said he sees it as an advantage when the team travels to other universities.
“The fact that we have to travel to our own field makes every other weekend that we travel to a different team’s field much easier because it’s always like we’re playing a road game,” Hockenberry said.
A solution to that problem was thought to be settled back in November when Wheeler – with the assistance of Clark – helped strike a deal with Campbell’s Field to host 11 of the 12 Owls home games against American Athletic Conference opponents.
Campbell’s Field, home to the Camden Riversharks, was named “Ballpark of the Year” in 2004 by Baseball America. Camden, N.J., is across the Ben Franklin Bridge, much closer to Temple than Ambler.
“I was ecstatic,” Wheeler said. “As we were going through it and I knew it was getting closer, we started to share it with recruits, with alumni, with the players on the team. It was making a huge difference, I was very excited about it.”
“We are truly excited to be able to provide a first-class venue for our team to perform in this historic season,” Clark said in a statement released Nov. 7.
Less than one month later, Clark recommended to cut the program.
The baseball program at Temple is no stranger to adversity. In 1994, the program was set to be dropped along with men’s and women’s gymnastics. Temple was dealing with a university-wide budget crisis.
What was different in ‘94 was that word got out before the Board of Trustees voted.
“They came out and told us they were going to drop it, which gave us time to fight it,” Wilson said.
Former Temple baseball player-turned attorney Ed Hayes led the fight against the university and the team eventually staved off a vote.
The damage was done, though.
“It was a very shallow victory,” Wilson said. “It became very difficult for me to recruit, because the kids weren’t sure if there was going to be a program or not, they just weren’t sure.”
The university also cut the program’s scholarships from nine to four, even though the NCAA was allowing 11.2 scholarships at the time.
As Wilson got older, his relationship with the athletic department began to sour.
Wilson took a fall in 2005 at Ambler, right behind the third base dugout. At 75 years old, he required two artificial hips from the fall.
Wilson retired shortly after. It wasn’t just his injury that led to him retiring. Wilson said he was no longer getting his message through to his group of players.
“What happened the last few years, and I was 74- and 75-years-old, kids weren’t as nice as they were before,” Wilson said. “They didn’t want to listen to the basic fundamentals, and I’m a basic fundamentals guy.”
“I had three rules: Come on time, be prepared and try,” Wilson added. “Those rules weren’t hard to follow, but they didn’t want to follow them at the end.”
Temple hasn’t had a winning season since Wilson’s departure.
The Wheeler Era
When Hindelang took over at Penn State in the summer of 1990, Wheeler was a young shortstop coming off of his freshman year.
Wheeler, whom Hindelang described as skinny “like angel hair spaghetti,” was concerned about getting cut. That didn’t happen, as Wheeler had a successful career as a Nittany Lion before being drafted by the California Angels.
“He’s a wonderful success story,” Hindelang said. “Temple could not have hired a better guy.”
When Wheeler got hired, after spending 11 seasons as an assistant coach at William & Mary, Penn and Richmond, the first thing he did was contact Wilson.
“I called him and we had a great conversation,” Wheeler said. “Once I got up here after a few weeks I met up with him to let him know that I’m a big believer in the past. Respecting that tradition and respecting the job that he did was the least that I could do coming in here. That got out very quickly to alumni and that sort of got people on board.”
Growing the alumni base was something Wheeler wanted to do immediately. There were dinners, banquets and golf tournaments to raise money and bring baseball alumni together.
“That’s one of the things that hurts about this cut,” Wheeler added. “I’ve met so many wonderful people that have been associated with the program through playing here.”
Wheeler was just as blindsided as everyone else was on Dec. 6, 2013.
“It took a few days, three days maybe, for it to really sink in,” Wheeler said. “I would be spending 15 hours on it every day. I’d go to sleep and wake up and say, ‘Did what you just go through, is that real? Yeah, it’s real, they cut the program.’ It was tough, those first few days, to just really come to grips with this being over.”
Temple has had a consistently small budget for baseball in recent years. During the 2012-13 season, Temple’s baseball team spent a conference-low $166,355 on operating expenses. No other team in the American had less than a $300,000 budget that year.
Wheeler said the program has always been filled with fighters, and that was part of the great tradition at Temple.
“I want these kids to go out in that same tradition, in that same manner – fighting until the bitter end,” Wheeler said. “That’s what I’m seeing from them now and that’s why I’m so proud of them.”
Before the season started, the baseball team took on the slogan “Band of Brothers” for the season. The slogan was decided on in the fall, before the cuts were announced.
Hockenberry said that after the cuts, the slogan stuck and had more meaning. As a senior leader, Hockenberry wants the program to go out on a high-note, battling until – as Wheeler put it – “the bitter end.”
“I want our program to be remembered as the team that didn’t give up,” Hockenberry said. “We’re still committed to the weight room, we’re still committed [to the] classroom and we’re just trying to prove that Temple shouldn’t have cut us.”
“So we’re the team that didn’t give up,” Hockenberry added. “We’re not going to stop fighting.”
Jeff Neiburg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Jeff_Neiburg.