A new beginning

The football team’s expulsion from the Big East Conference at the end of last season left an air of uncertainty as to whether the Temple Owls would even grace football fields on autumn Saturday afternoons.

The football team’s expulsion from the Big East Conference at the end of last season left an air of uncertainty as to whether the Temple Owls would even grace football fields on autumn Saturday afternoons. With a list of negatives as high as the Bell Tower – no more than four wins in a season since 1990, no bowl game appearances since 1979, five road conference wins in the past 15 years – some associated with the university began wondering why they should support a Division I-A football program.

A university task force put at least some of that speculation to rest in the spring, when the committee ruled to not only keep the football program, but remain at the highest level of competition and resist dropping down to Division I-AA. Still, the Owls were facing a daunting Independent schedule for 2005 and scrambling for a new conference.

In May, the Mid-American Conference extended an invitation to Temple. The Owls play four MAC opponents this year, a six-game conference schedule in 2006, and a full conference schedule in 2007, when Temple will be allowed to compete for the MAC Championship.

The principal players from the MAC and Temple are calling it a match made in heaven, but after an embarrassing 70-16 loss to perennial MAC contender Bowling Green last season, time could turn the marriage into an unhappy union.

“I think [the MAC] is a great fit for Temple,” coach Bobby Wallace said at Temple’s media day Aug. 10. “With the addition of a residential university, a nice practice facility, a beautiful stadium, and now a conference, all the components that it takes to build a winning program are in place.”

Members of the conference said they are just as excited.

“The one thing I notice about Temple is its quest for equality,” said Gary Ritcher, assistant commissioner of the MAC. “Temple is highly respected athletically and academically, and to have them in the conference is just as much a complement to us as it is them. We feel that Temple can only help us continue to be very competitive against the traditional [Bowl Championship Series] conferences.”

The Owls hope their move to the MAC follows the trend of teams that have played musical chairs with conference affiliations in the past.

Big East members Virginia Tech and Miami moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004, followed by Boston College this year. In its first year of ACC competition, Virginia Tech won the conference title, something that eluded the Hokies in the Big East since 1999.

In another example, the Big 12 was formed when the Big 8 joined with teams from the now-defunct Southwest Conference in 1994. Since 1996, five Big 12 football championships have been won by teams that moved from the SWC; Oklahoma has three titles, and Texas and Texas A&M have one each.

But Temple will be hard-pressed to vault into those ranks. A program Temple is more likely to mirror is Connecticut, which became a Division I Independent in 2000 and within two seasons earned a bowl berth. That berth helped UConn gain the attention of the Big East, and in 2004 the Huskies became a competing member of the conference. The Huskies finished one game out of the conference lead last year, and earned a berth in the Motor City Bowl, which pits a Big East school against – small world – a MAC opponent.

Wallace and Director of Athletics Bill Bradshaw talked last spring about the “puzzle pieces” for football success being in place. Eight thousand students now live in on-campus housing to attend games at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Owls have their own locker room. The Edberg-Olson Football Practice Facility on 11th and Diamond streets provides an on-campus workout and practice facility, and in two years the Owls will be able to compete for a conference championship in a mid-major organization in which the level of competition more closely matches their own.

In order to be the MAC’s version of UConn, however, the Owls understand one thing must change.

“We eventually have to win games to make this all pay off,” said Wallace. “This program has gone worlds from when I first got here. It’s not even the same thing. If you would have told me six years ago we would be sitting here in 2005, going into the season with all the things in place that we have, I would have thought it’d been a miracle. I compliment the administration for what they have done, but now it’s up to the football program to win.”

The leaders among the players echoed Wallace. Senior defensive tackle Antwon Burton said he sees the program finally turning it around this season.

“There’s no way, with the talent that we have, we can’t win six games,” Burton said. “I think the moon, the stars, and the sun are lined up right now for Temple, and this season is going to be a great stepping stone into the conference. However, I don’t think Temple cares so much about the conference outlook as they care about winning games. We want respect more than anything.”

The Owls have a chance to earn that respect within the conference by playing four MAC opponents this season: Toledo, Western Michigan, Bowling Green, and Miami (Ohio). Only one of those games, the rematch with Bowling Green, will be played away from the Linc.

In two games against MAC teams last season, the Owls lost by a combined score of 115-33. One of those teams, Toledo, went on to win the MAC Championship, while Bowling Green’s victory was nothing less than historic.

Junior offensive tackle Elliot Seifert said he feels this year should be different.

“Those teams [Toledo and Bowling Green] are good,” Seifert said. “However, I don’t think the scores entailed the whole story. This year, we plan to have a different result. All we have to do is put the work in.”

The program’s future was in jeopardy in recent years, so this will be the first season for upperclassmen like Seifert to lay the foundation for the Owls’ complete entry into the MAC in two years.

How do those players feel, knowing they will never compete for a MAC title?

“We don’t seem to have any hard feelings about it,” Seifert said. “We all have the same goal in mind right now. We are focused on this season.”

“I think the fact that [the upperclassmen] want to win football games before they leave has got them all motivated,” Wallace added. “The fact that we finally have enough talent to do that has motivated them as well. I think the conference and the future is probably more important to the younger kids.”

The ‘younger kids’ are already using the MAC as motivation for seasons down the road.

“This is a great opportunity,” said sophomore kicker Danny Murphy, who will be able to compete for the conference championship as a senior. “I am more excited now. It seems like everything is in place. Team morale is definitely higher. There is a new level of dedication and discipline. And not just with the new guys, [but] with everybody. A lot more guys are taking on leadership roles, and it’s those little things that show we’re headed in the right direction.”

After all the uncertainty and negativity that has surrounded the program, the Owls claim they now have the tools needed to begin the long climb to being competitive on the college gridiron. The team’s mantra of “New Look, New League, New Attitude” shows through in the optimism of the players and coaching staff.

Temple most likely will not crack the top 25 in 2005. However, this season could be the first step in making the program respectable.

“[Other teams] aren’t going to put Temple on [their] schedule anymore and circle it as, ‘Oh, we won that game,'” Burton said.

Greg Otto can be reached at gregotto@temple.edu.

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