I had just been hired as The Temple News’ sports editor, and I realized I was now responsible to be the authority on Temple’s athletic department.
I had to fully understand how important Gavin White was, which teams were still in The Big East Conference and—most importantly—be able to serve my readership in pursuit of the university’s financial situation after the athletic cuts in 2014.
Take it from someone with a front-row seat to nearly the entire process: the cuts were ugly.
But since that time, I’ve witnessed Temple transition from an underperforming, underfunded athletic department to a well-functioning administration moving in the right direction.
The football team went from a 2-10 cellar dweller to what President Theobald called “the front porch” of the university. The men’s basketball team went from winning less games than the nation’s best football teams to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013. The athletic department’s newly slimmed down 17-team lineup is now enjoying more funding per team and more university support than ever.
But the department is still forming its new identity following the cuts. Because of this, it is at a crossroads.
With $136 million—and counting—backing an on-campus football stadium and three graduated Owls hearing their names during the NFL Draft, the groundswell of support may hinge on another successful season.
But would a successful football program be the proper consolation prize for the five sports programs no longer sponsored? It’s unlikely.
There is certainly a better outcome: an entire department of competitive teams.
Athletic Director Pat Kraft and his administration can pursue a big-time football program by continuously pumping a lion’s share of resources into it, or they can continue to spread the wealth in order to pursue a nationally competitive program as a whole. But this isn’t an original idea, in fact, it’s Kraft’s.
“Our goal obviously is to win The [American Athletic Conference] championship, but our eventual goal is to win the national championship,” said Kraft, who was promoted to athletic director last year. “Now that can take time, but the way that you have a successful department is when everybody is winning.”
It would appear Kraft is still in pursuit of his goal, but he faces the temptation of the big-time dollars that come from big-time football.
They’ve flirted with conference realignment, likely after the oversized television revenue Power 5 conferences enjoy. While it seems unlikely it would pan out, even the thought of sending women’s soccer to Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas is cringe-worthy.
The possibility of several million dollars sliding into the department’s budget off the football team is enticing, but the big-time schools display each and every year the compromises big-time football can have with both the integrity of its institution and the commitment to the department as a whole.
Look at Baylor, occasionally pointed to as a promising example of how Temple can make it big without a 60,000-person stadium and a large athletic budget. In February, it was reported that Baylor is currently facing accusations of ignoring sexual assault survivors’—allegedly assaulted by football players—right to justice.
Other examples span from the University of Tennessee, which faces a similar suit featuring harrowing details of protection of football players accused of sexual assault.
The president obviously is behind Kraft and football coach Matt Rhule, one of his first hires in 2013. But rightfully said the university isn’t after a juggernaut of a program.
“Financially, football drives the bus, there’s no doubt about it,” he said in an interview with The Temple News on Nov. 17, 2015. “If you try to run an athletic program around basketball, there simply isn’t enough revenue around that to do it. Football because of TV revenue and marketing and all the things that come with it. … [Football] is the piece you really have to pay attention to, because that’s what allows you to do what you want to do here. So that’s what it does for us more than us trying to be a national power or anything.”
One semester away from becoming an alumnus, I hope the department continues in pursuit of a well-balanced athletic program with student-athletes in mind.
A nationally competitive football program is enticing, but—given the sad nature of the athletic cuts—I should hope the decision to trim the number of teams will yield more than just a handful of exciting Saturday afternoons.
EJ Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ejsmitty17.