Sports

Onward, the beaten path

Facing blame for sports cuts, the football team fights through a history of inadequacy to remain relevant in a new era of investment.

Sometime in the 1990s, for the honeymoon before his second marriage, Gavin White took a cruise around the world.

He and his bride-to-be were on the water for 95 days. They headed south through the Panama Canal, up the West Coast and across the Pacific Ocean to Japan. They circled Australia, sailed through Indonesia and wound their way up to Southern Spain, before heading back across the Atlantic Ocean to New York.

White loved that boat trip. It was the greatest experience of his life, he said. He speaks about it nostalgically, much like the way he discusses his 40-year career in Temple athletics.

White, 88, served Temple as a football player, coach and athletic director from 1949-88 and is a member of the Temple Athletics Hall of Fame. He remembers a time when local rivalries dictated football schedules and the athletic department prided itself on the success of its Olympic sports.

Last month, Temple announced it would be eliminating seven of those sports to cut costs. The baseball, softball, men’s gymnastics, men’s crew, women’s rowing and men’s indoor and outdoor track & field teams will lose their Division I sponsorship, effective July 1.

White’s son, Gavin R. White, was among those affected. He will lose his job this summer after coaching crew for 34 seasons. When the older White learned of the university’s decision, he was floored.

“It has nothing to do with my son. It has to do with tradition,” White said. “It’s a shame to give up on what’s good to be reaching out for stuff that you don’t know what’s going to happen with.”

White’s sentiments are shared by scores across the Temple community. Many are casting blame at the football program, which the university is investing in heavily despite its penchant for losing games on the field and money off the field.

A review of the football team’s history shows that an inconsistency in institutional support has prevented the football team from building and maintaining a reputable program. Experts say two periods in the university’s history – the 1950s and the 1980s – when the administration didn’t invest heavily in athletics created rifts in the football program’s momentum.

Former coaches say not having a strong profile, in addition to Temple’s history of being a commuter school located in North Philadelphia, has always made recruiting high-level prospects from outside the tri-state area difficult.

Furthermore, Temple’s inability to consistently win games has prevented the football program from bringing in the type of revenue that teams in major conferences use to prop up their athletic departments.

In the newly formed American Athletic Conference, Temple has the second smallest athletic budget ($41.5 million) but is tied for the most number of sports sponsored (24), according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education. Officials pointed to that discrepancy as the main reason for the cuts.

The athletic department estimates the cuts will save the university $3 million to $3.5 million. President Theobald and Athletic Director Kevin Clark both deny that the football team was the root cause of the cuts and brush off the notion that the leftover money will be funneled into the upstart program.

Among the eight former players, coaches and administrators interviewed for this article, there was no consensus as to the football team’s role in the decision to eliminate sports. However, no one disputes this: In the post-BCS era, a university’s athletic department lives and dies with its Division I football program.

The football team’s role in sponsoring an underfunded athletic department raises questions about its implication in the cuts and outlines the future challenges of the program, which is pushing forward just as Temple has cut back elsewhere.

The Beginning

The most successful era in the history of Temple football happened close to 80 years ago, when students with nicknames like “Swede” were led by a coach named “Pop” to blowout wins against smaller, local schools.

At the turn of the 20th century, the football team was merely an extension of the physical education department. But after World War I, Temple saw an influx of students and became the second-largest university in the Philadelphia area in terms of enrollment.

President Charles Beury vowed a stronger commitment to athletics. In 1928, the university built Temple Stadium in Vernon Park on the outskirts of Germantown for $350,000. With a capacity of more than 30,000, the stadium would be a popular city football venue and the Owls’ home for close to 50 years.

Leading Temple on the field, beginning in 1933, was Temple athletics Hall of Famer Glenn “Pop” Warner. Widely considered to be one of the great football minds of the era, Warner coached the Owls to five straight winning seasons and an invitation to the inaugural Sugar Bowl, which Temple lost to Tulane, 20-14, in 1935.

During the next four seasons until Warner’s retirement in 1938, Temple scheduled games against some of best teams in the country. In Warner’s last season, the Owls played against three teams that would finish in the Top 10, including eventual national champion Texas Christian.

“There have been times when Temple was at the pinnacle of the sport,” said James Hilty, a professor emeritus in the history department and a Temple historian. “Temple had its own football stadium and hired the best football coach in the United States. There are prideful moments in the program.”

Temple had come a long way from the modest schedule of its early beginnings when the Owls beat up on the local military institutes and Big 5 schools. The first recorded win in the history of the program was a 14-6 victory in 1894 against the Philadelphia Dental College.

Temple hired Ray Morrison from Vanderbilt as Warner’s full-time replacement in 1940. Morrison led the Owls to promising results in his first two seasons, posting 4-4-1 and 7-2 records.

And then… a war.

Little Means

On the exterior of Sullivan Hall on Liacouras Walk, inscribed beneath a window on the second floor façade, there is a quote from Temple founder Russell Conwell: “Greatness really consists in doing some great deeds with little means.”

Experts say the statement illuminates one of the fundamental challenges the athletic department has faced since its founding: Temple’s mission dictates that it strive to be the best while pledging to allocate as few resources as necessary.

After World War II, there was a nationwide increase in university enrollment. Many Midwestern universities used the boost in tuition money to prop up their athletic departments, and particularly, their football teams, Hilty said.

“There was this notion that an athletic ideal was attached to football,” Hilty said. “Maybe because of the success that the Ivy League schools had in the 1920s and 30s…but the Big Ten schools really took off.”

But just as major programs across the country were pushing forward, Temple decided to pull back.

In 1952, newly appointed Athletic Director Josh Cody rolled out an “administrative de-emphasis” of intercollegiate athletics. The football team stopped playing a national schedule, replacing Michigan State and West Virginia with the likes of Lafayette and Muhlenberg. The Owls even stopped playing Penn State.

Old budget numbers are hard to come by, but multiple people with knowledge of the university’s decision-making said Temple became less willing to commit the money needed to sustain a competitive football team and more concerned with maintaining an affordable education for its students.

“The reputation Temple had was a city school for poor kids that could get a good education,” said White, who was with the football team as a player from 1949-51 and a coach from 1956-68. “The main focus of those years was providing education for local city kids. Football wasn’t the main thing then.”

“It’s a commitment made by the university, by Russell Conwell and all of his successors,” Hilty said. “The presidents and trustees have always tried to maintain the lowest level of tuition and the lowest cost to students.”

The lack of institutional support caught up with the football team by the end of the decade.

The Owls went through three coaching changes in the 1950s, managing only one winning season and ending the decade on a 21-game losing streak, which stands as the longest in program history.

“It was about money after the war,” White said. “The stadium was far away. They weren’t drawing as many people as they should…our sights weren’t set that high originally.”

Hang On, Sloopy

On a rainy October afternoon in 1965, the Ohio State marching band made the unaccustomed decision to stop playing Tchaikovsky and start playing The McCoys.

The band played the No. 1 hit “Hang On, Sloopy” during halftime of a 28-14 win against Illinois. It got such a positive reaction from the crowd that the band continued playing it for the rest of the season. To this day at every home game, the band plays “Hang On, Sloopy” before the fourth quarter.

Some traditions, it seems, need to find a way to build on their own.

Ernie Casale took over as Temple’s athletic director in 1959 and convinced the Board of Trustees to re-emphasize athletics. The football team started to take a step forward under new coach George Makris in 1960, White recalled.

“We brought in a big recruiting class,” said White, who coached future stars Joe Morelli and Bill Cosby that year. “They must have brought in 200 guys that year to try out…I had the biggest freshman football team that we’ve probably ever had.”

White said most of Temple’s players came from the city’s public high schools. Other local colleges were more successful in recruiting talent from New Jersey and Maryland.

“I don’t know if we got our share,” White said. “There were other good schools who recruited in those areas. It depended on where your assistant coaches were from, so you’d try to bring in new coaches from outside areas.”

“We were trying to recruit kids to a campus that was in the center of the city,” White added. “It was a very difficult job to do.”

But Temple made do. The Owls won five or more games in five straight seasons for the first time since the 1930s and captured their first Middle Atlantic Conference championship in 1967. By the end of the decade, the football team left the conference and returned to playing a national schedule as an independent.

Casale hired Wayne Hardin from Navy in 1970, ushering in the most prestigious era of Temple football since the Warner years. Temple won 80 games during Hardin’s tenure from 1970-82, including a 28-17 victory against California in the 1979 Garden State Bowl.

In 1975, Temple played Penn State for the first time since 1952 and lost narrowly, 26-25. By the end of the decade, the Owls were playing the Nittany Lions, West Virginia and Pittsburgh every season.

White credits Hardin and the administrative support from Casale for the revitalization of the program.

“[Casale] went after [Hardin],” White said. “He wanted Wayne Hardin in the worst way…it put even further back into big-time football.”

Temple Stadium was demolished in the 1990s. It served as the football team's home from 1928-74. | Courtesy TEMPLE ATHLETICS

Temple Stadium was demolished in the 1990s. It served as the football team’s home from 1928-74. | Courtesy TEMPLE ATHLETICS

Subway Alumni

Every day, there was a bus.

It seemed to always be parked outside Mitten Hall. In the spring it was loaded with baseball players, the fall with soccer players. The football team would ride it year-round.

From the beginning through much of the 1970s, student-athletes from most sports took the daily 20-minute ride from Main Campus to Vernon Park in Germantown to practice or compete at Temple Stadium.

The stadium was built in the 1920s with a capacity of 34,200. When the Owls moved back into playing a national schedule in the 1970s, the near 50-year old venue soon became inadequate for home football games.

Beginning in 1974, the Owls began playing in South Philadelphia at Veterans Stadium, the new home of the Philadelphia Eagles and Philadelphia Phillies. The football team would also share space at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field, a longtime agreement Temple held in the case of scheduling conflicts.

The question of where Temple should play its home games has been a persistent issue since the university moved from its old stadium. Former coaches say Temple not having a facility to call its own hampers recruiting, while administrators stress that the lack of a strong athletic donor base has prevented the university from making the upgrades needed.

In the 1980s, Temple was in the midst of one of the most significant transitions in its athletic department’s history. Wayne Hardin retired as Temple’s coach in 1982, the same year that the former dean of the law school, Peter Liacouras, took over as the university’s president.

Liacouras is a well-known supporter of intercollegiate athletics, but some question whether or not his administration had the resources it needed to invest properly in athletics in the 1980s.

“The money wasn’t there when I first got there and Peter first started,” said Charlie Theokas, athletic director from 1986-93. “Money has always been a problem at Temple.”

“We’ve always insisted tuition be on the low end and insisted it be the primary source of revenue by default rather than donors,” said Hilty, who was also Liacouras’ director of planning from 1982-88.

Hilty said upgrades to athletic facilities in the 1980s as simple as a $1 million improvement to the East Park Canoe House, the former home of the rowing teams, were nearly impossible to negotiate due to Temple’s weak donor base and unwavering commitment to affordability.

“We haven’t been successful as a university in raising large amounts of external funding,” Hilty said. “You have to have a [base] that’s there for its students and there for the general public. Temple wants a subway alumni. People who root for Temple because it’s a Philly thing. People who don’t have a college affiliation to say Temple is our school.”

“They’ve been trying to do that for a long time,” Hilty added. “It’s had some success, but it hasn’t created the huge momentum that can match Penn State or Pittsburgh.”

Larger upgrades, like a new football arena to replace the old Temple Stadium, were essentially out of the question.

“It’s a city problem,” Theokas said. “It doesn’t mean you give up football, it means you compete at the level you can compete at.”

Still, Theokas insists that the athletic department generated momentum during Liacouras’ first decade in office.

Bruce Arians and John Chaney were brought in the coach the football and men’s basketball teams, respectively, in 1982. Arians managed two winning seasons in six years, while Cheney led his team for two decades in the most prominent era in program history.

In 1986, the Board of Trustees approved a recommendation from Theokas to eliminate eight varsity sports: men’s fencing, swimming, cross country and wrestling and women’s bowling, badminton, cross country and swimming.

Theokas said at the time that the decision was meant to re-emphasize Temple’s commitment to its club sports, but in an interview last week, he said it was more about streamlining support for the remaining Division I programs, particularly the ones that generated revenue.

“You’re either in the business or out of the business in athletics,” Theokas said. “If you’re in, you can’t be mediocre. You have to chase the proverbial rainbow because good things happen in the end.”

A trend line showing the history of the football team's win totals shows that the Owls were losing on the field during two periods in which the university didn't invest heavily in athletics.

A trend line showing the history of the football team’s win totals shows that the Owls were losing on the field during two periods in which the university didn’t invest heavily in athletics.

‘Bona Fide’ challenges

Bobby Wallace remembers a football practice, sometime in the 1990s, when a teenager from the community rode his bike onto the field and collided with the punter.

The football team stopped practicing at Temple Stadium after the Owls began playing their home games elsewhere in the 1970s. They moved to the fields behind what is now the Student Pavilion, sharing time on the lower grass field and the upper Astroturf field.

By the time Temple gained entry into the Big East Conference in 1991, its facilities weren’t up to the standard of the other football programs in the conference, let alone most schools across the country.

“It is grossly inadequate,” President Peter Liacouras wrote about the practice field in a 1998 discussion paper about the football team. “Continuous and multiple use leaves it in poor shape and with unpredictable availability for safe football practices. No other [Division I] football program can make that statement.”

Coaches had offices without windows in the middle of McGonigle Hall, which resembled a high school gym. There were no meeting rooms. Wide receivers held group sessions in a stairwell leading to a downstairs bathroom.

“The facilities, from the coaches’ offices to the practice fields, were worse than anywhere I’ve been, including [Division II] North Alabama,” said Wallace, who coached the football team from 1998-2005. “I would come to work and the community would be playing touch football.”

Multiple people involved in the university’s decision making said that after a financially-strapped decade of transition in the 1980s, drops in enrollment and demographic changes in the early 1990s prevented Temple from being able to make necessary investments to stay competitive in football, just as the sport was skyrocketing to new heights across the country.

Officials point to two highly publicized faculty strikes – in 1986 and 1990 – as causes for enrollment downturns. Numbers from Temple’s institutional research and assessment office show that total enrollment dropped from about 32,600 in 1989 to about 29,200 in 1990 and continued to flatline in the early ‘90s.

“Those strikes hurt. We lost considerable enrollment,” said Hilty, the former director of planning. “Because the endowment’s not large and the state appropriation was leveled or cut back, there’s no room for growth … we lost so much in the way of tuition dollars, there was no room for expansion or investment.”

“We were strapped,” secretary to the Board of Trustees George Moore told the Temple News in 2012. “We didn’t have the money to invest in anything: the campus, athletics or anything in the ‘90s.”

Meanwhile, Big East schools like Miami, Boston College and Syracuse were fielding some of the best teams in the country. In Temple’s first seven years in the Big East, the Owls changed coaches twice and went 4-42 in conference play.

“The [recruiting] challenge at that time is, No. 1, facilities. No. 2 was the perception of campus and where it was located,” Steve Addazio said about Temple. Addazio was an assistant at Syracuse from 1995-98 and head coach at Temple from 2011-12.

“Those are legitimate, bona fide challenges,” Addazio added. “In doing that and playing a Big East schedule when the Big East was the Big East. That was a real challenge.”

Wallace took over as head coach in 1998, a year when Temple averaged a home attendance of 15,127, ranking 101 out of 112 Division I schools, according to NCAA data. The average Big East home attendance that year was 39,895.

Temple’s budget, facilities and attendance numbers became so unacceptable to the Big East that conference members voted to kick the Owls out of the conference in 2001. It’s the only time in the history of intercollegiate athletics that a conference has formally voted out one of its members.

“Nothing was done for so long,” Addazio said. “It’s like a house. If you don’t make yearly repairs, all of a sudden you step back and you’re confronted with this massive problem.”

Temple negotiated a three-year stay and officially left the conference in 2004. Chairman of the Board of Trustees Howard Gittis commissioned a task force of trustees, faculty, students and alumni to determine the future of the football team.

President David Adamany, among others, thought the program should be disbanded. Ultimately, it was decided that the Owls would continue competing in Division I in a non-BCS conference, largely due to conversations Temple was having with Rick Chryst, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, who was interested in bringing the Owls in.

The task force’s recommendation was decided by one vote.

Edberg-Olson Hall, the Owls' practice facility, received a $10 million upgrade in 2012. | Steven Reitz TTN FILE PHOTO

Edberg-Olson Hall, the Owls’ practice facility, received a $10 million upgrade in 2012. | Steven Reitz TTN FILE PHOTO

The New Conference

It was a dreary Dec. 6 afternoon when Gavin R. White called his father, Gavin White Jr., the Temple athletics hall of famer and former football player, coach and athletic director.

“He said they’d been called into a room and told their sport was dropped,” the older White recalled. “It was a very short conversation. I was sort of in shock when he said that. And of course he was too.”

White’s son had been Temple’s crew coach for 33 seasons. He led the Varsity 8 to Dad Vail Regatta titles 20 times. He even coached the men’s four at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

In a brief meeting last month, the younger White was informed by Athletic Director Kevin Clark that the university would be eliminating his sport, along with six others.

The news broke the heart of his old man.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” White Jr. said. “I didn’t hear any rumors to that effect from anyone else I knew at Temple. It was a complete shock. I don’t know how else to describe that feeling.”

The cuts were described by officials as a culmination of the university’s long history of having an underfunded athletic department, while always sponsoring a large number of sports.

In the American Athletic Conference, only Connecticut had as many sports as Temple, despite the fact that Temple ranks second to last in the size of its overall budget, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.

The American was formed after the Big East folded last year. Temple was invited back into the Big East in 2012 for all sports, though the move was mostly due to the recent resurgence of its football team, former Athletic Director Bill Bradshaw said in an interview last week.

In 2000, Temple opened Edberg-Olson Hall, a new football practice facility on 10th & Diamond streets that was the culmination of a three-year donation effort by the Owls Club. It would later undergo a $10 million expansion in 2012.

With Veterans Stadium set to be demolished, Temple announced a 15-year agreement in 2003 to play home football games at Lincoln Financial Field, the new home of the Eagles.

On the field, the Owls started winning games. Coaches Al Golden and Steve Addazio led the football team to two bowl appearances and a 26-12 record from 2009-11, the highest three-year win total in program history.

“I felt pressure,” Addazio said. “We wanted to lift it up ¬– to get to a bowl game, win the bowl game, get the facility and get into a new conference … I always felt it was so important to keep a great buzz around the program.”

Temple was competing in the Mid-American Conference, which admitted the Owls after they spent two years as an independent. From 2007-11, Temple paid the MAC a membership fee. Officials won’t disclose the amount, but said it was significant enough that Temple didn’t gain any profit from bowl revenue shared among the conference’s schools.

Now in The American, Temple’s budget and facilities are still at the low end of the conference and questions remain about the Owls’ ability to draw.

The football team finished second to last in the conference this past season with a 1-7 record and the Owls’ average home attendance of a little more than 22,000 finished only better than Southern Methodist.

The Future

Almost as soon as President Theobald took office in January 2013, rumors began to spread about the possibility of Temple building a football stadium on campus.

Theobald said publicly throughout last year that negotiations about building would have to begin soon if the university wanted the stadium open by 2019, the year after Temple’s contract with the Linc is set to expire.

Speaking at a post-inaugural event this past November, Theobald said the university is in “serious discussion” about building its own football stadium and that the venue would at “some point, likely” be included in Temple’s next master plan.

Theobald and Clark both denied interview requests for this article. Issues like Temple’s location and having the donor base to fund major projects remain, but the administration’s comments on the prospect of building a new stadium illustrate how serious it is about investing in the football team.

Most former coaches and administrators interviewed for this article said they didn’t believe the sports cuts were made because of the football team. They believe it’s about making smarter investments in the remaining programs.

“What they’re doing right now is having an organized approach to solidifying and building their athletic program,” Addazio said. “It’s really hard to be all things to everybody. No one can do that.”

“I’ve heard some people say how difficult it is to cut sports,” said Bill Bradshaw, who retired last summer after being athletic director for 11 years. “The most difficult thing is to keep sports and find ways to fund them to be competitive.”

Still, no one disputes the rewards of investing in an athletic department’s revenue sports, particularly the football team.

“Temple is in the crossroads,” Theokas, the former athletic director, said. “I’m sensitive to what they’re going through. Schools that continue to support athletics consistently with continuity will be rewarded. Are they going to subsidize? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Absolutely.”

“We’ve had splurges of investment in which we’ve spent a lot of money and then it’s tailed off and we’ve had to reinvest all over again,” Hilty, the Temple historian, said. “And we’re at one of those periods in history – we had to decide to reinvest or cut back.”

“In some respects, it’s sad. But it’s who we are.”

Joey Cranney can be reached at joseph.cranney@temple.edu or on Twitter @joey_cranney.

2 comments on “Onward, the beaten path

  1. Spot The Owl on said:

    Fire Theobald and Clark. They will never be trusted by anyone at Temple again.

  2. David Josephs on said:

    Does anyone remember the Hot Chocolate sold at Temple stadium. It came in a can and was the best.

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