Three years ago, Rutgers appeared in its first bowl game since 1978, quietly finishing the 2005 season 7-5, its first winning record in 13 years.
The Scarlet Knights weren’t so subtle in 2006, shocking the college football world with their 9-0 start. Last year, they played in their third straight bowl game, beating a long-time doormat that finally posted a winning season.
That team was Ball State, which finished 7-6, its first winning season since 1996. Like Rutgers, the Cardinals have followed their initial success with a loud 7-0 start and their first ever appearance in the Associated Press rankings.
Here at Temple, we’re still waiting for the Owls to join the party.
The Owls fell 24-14 to Central Michigan on Saturday and at 2-5 seem destined for their 18th straight losing season.
Temple is beyond fashionably late.
Or maybe our preseason expectations were a bit too lofty.
That might seem like an odd claim to make. But admit it, there was an even odder sense of optimism swirling around the football team in August, especially after it opened the season with a 35-7 victory against Army.
But a closer look at the turnarounds of the aforementioned programs shows the Owls’ efforts might not be off target.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano suffered through four straight losing seasons, including a 1-11 second-year campaign, before the 2005 Knights provided that first glimmer of success. (Note to Al Golden: after three straight winning seasons, Schiano is still there.)
Ball State coach Brady Hoke also witnessed four consecutive losing seasons before the Cardinals turned the table in 2007.
But neither of them inherited the mess Golden did when he took Temple’s reins in December 2005. Let’s take a quick walk down Nightmare Lane.
The Owls had been kicked out of the Big East Conference and the program’s fate was unknown as late as spring 2005. There was talk of the program being cut or dropping to a lower subdivision.
It stayed and even succeeded in rewriting the record books. The 2005 Owls sunk to a new low, 0-11, the team’s first winless season since the 1986 squad finished with the exact same losing record.
If all that doesn’t quite describe the state of the team, how about this? Touchdowns were so rare that the band played the fight song after first downs.
Considering where the Owls were, their present tribulations seem somewhat encouraging. Golden has transformed the Owls from a team that took back-to-back, 62-0 losses in 2006 to a team that lost back-to-back games on the final play.
That’s a strange sense of progress, but it is progress nonetheless.
Actually, it’s similar to what Hoke experienced at Ball State.
In Hoke’s second season, a forgettable 2-9 campaign, the Cardinals were pounded by non-conference and conference foes alike. Purdue dominated them, 59-7, one week before Missouri shut them out, 48-0. Mid-American Conference opponents Toledo and Bowling Green trounced them, 52-14 and 51-13, respectively.
In Hoke’s third season, the Cardinals were still pummeled by their non-conference foes, but held strong against the MAC, finishing with a respectable 4-4 mark within the conference.
By his fourth season, Hoke had the Cardinals on the brink of success. They finished 5-7, but 5-3 within the MAC. They went into Ann Arbor and had No. 2 Michigan on the ropes, losing 34-26. They lost to Indiana, 24-23, the difference a missed PAT.
The Cardinals broke out for a 7-6 record and bowl game appearance the following year.
The Owls appear to be on the cusp of success. Take away a few mistakes, and the Owls are 4-3, maybe 5-2. But one can play the if game all day. Those miscues had consequences – another probable losing season.
Schiano and Hoke endured four of those before they tasted consistent victories. Golden is likely in his third. Given the agonizingly-close losses this year, maybe he’s actually ahead of the ball.
John Kopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.