Ryan Wheeler watched as his team disappeared.
Behind the tinted glass of the front lobby in the Liacouras Center, Ryan Wheeler’s players could not see as he watched each one of them disperse a day after the team’s final game.
“It was like the scene from ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’” Wheeler said. “Guys just started fading off. I had to go down into my office. When I came back up, I was able to look out, but they couldn’t see in. I watched some guys get into a car and head off down the road, a few other guys walked up Broad Street back to their apartment, a couple of guys were embracing.”
Amid a season of meetings, interviews and desperation, the baseball coach finally accepted that Temple’s 87-year-old baseball program had come to an end, as one player at a time slipped away down Broad Street.
“That’s how Temple baseball ends, at midnight, right there on Broad Street,” Wheeler said.
Dec. 6, 2013 – the day the university announced its decision to cut seven sports, later reduced to five, including baseball – still haunts Wheeler.
“I don’t think that will ever be a day that I forget,” Wheeler said. “I dealt with it every single day for six months.”
During the days following the cuts, Wheeler was desperate to figure out his next step, and unsure if he could hold his team together for its final season.
“Initially, I recognized that guys were going to leave,” Wheeler said. “After I digested it, I realized it wasn’t fair for the seniors – we had the opportunity to play the season. So I very quickly changed my thought process to ‘Let’s try to play this season, especially for the seniors.’”
Despite his resolve to keep his team focused on their final season, Wheeler couldn’t dedicate all of his time to the Owls. Once the cuts materialized, the first-time head coach had to quickly shift his focus from saving the program he had invested in, to finding another job.
He eventually accepted an assistant coaching position at Saint Joseph’s University, the team’s former crosstown rival.
“It’s different,” Wheeler said. “It’s a little weird … For years we’ve been trying to beat them, but here I am trying to help them, it’s been a little strange, but I’m fully embracing everything here at St. Joe’s.”
Wheeler is one of three former members of Temple’s baseball program to move to St. Joe’s, joining junior and sophomore pitchers Tim McCarthy and Patrick Vanderslice, both of whom made plans to transfer during their final season with Temple baseball.
The two pitchers said they were relieved to hear their former coach was coming with them to their new school, mainly because of the appreciation they’d developed for him during their final season.
“Coach Wheeler handled things really well,” Vanderslice said. “He did whatever he could to save the program, he was constantly on his phone and busy trying whatever he could to save us.”
Wheeler, however, said he was completely unprepared to handle the cuts, and he notified his players early that their last season together was going to be a learning process for everyone.
“I remember I had about 45 minutes from when I found out and when I actually spoke to the team and they had just received the news,” Wheeler said. “The first thing I said was, ‘Guys, they don’t give you a manual on this when you enter coaching.’”
Despite being unsure of what to do, Wheeler said he approached administration countless times attempting to save the baseball program.
Wheeler said he fought to save the team, partly because of its storied history.
“The baseball program had some history, it had some success at Temple,” Wheeler said. “But this was all about money, our sport is costly and our facility is not as flexible as some other sports. But I just don’t think there was enough creativity because the time schedule was fast.”
Heading into the final stretch of their season, Wheeler’s team lost its locker room to the lacrosse team due to locker room renovations. The team had to move to the women’s basketball visitor’s locker room to finish their final three weeks.
The adjustment proved to be the final straw for a despondent group.
“That crushed my guys,” Wheeler said. “One of the only things that we had was our locker room. That was a sacred place.”
Nearly 10 months after the cuts were announced, Wheeler said his contact with Athletic Director Kevin Clark was cut off. Wheeler found the severed relationship disturbing, citing the team’s relative success in the spring.
“We were the only sports team at Temple to win a game in our conference tournament and I got nothing,” Wheeler said.
For Wheeler, the thought of his final moments with the team still conjure up emotions.
“I felt like as I got into the summer that I was okay with things,” Wheeler said. “As we got closer to the fall here, the thought of me not returning to Temple, them not returning to campus and seeing them again, it really hit.”
“I obviously wonder how they’re doing, but I had to let them go,” Wheeler added. “They’re off with their new coaches and new programs. It still hurts.”
Wheeler said his biggest disappointment, however, lies in the fact that he lost the opportunity to see his coaching career through at Temple.
“Those guys were there for four years, but I came to Temple with plans to make it someplace I stayed for the rest of my life,” Wheeler said. “I was pouring everything I had into the program and we were building, we were changing and we were moving forward. … Not being able to see that through, that really bothers me.”
EJ Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @ejsmitty17