On a typical Division I football team, 85 players receive scholarships, while the remaining total is comprised of walk-ons. A walk-on is an athlete who, instead of joining the team on scholarship, is required to pay for his own tuition and room and board.
But for the first three years under coach Al Golden, the football team had to fill a larger-than-normal portion of its roster with walk-ons, due to the program’s low academic progress rate. A program’s APR is determined by its success in retaining players while keeping athletes academically eligible. Temple’s APR suffered following former coach Bobby Wallace’s decision to bring in risky junior-college transfers.
When Golden took over the program in winter 2005, he realized a successful walk-on program would be necessary to be competitive. Thus, the Local 215 was born.
“It originated from necessity because we only had 54 scholarship players our first year,” Golden said. “We were playing teams with 85, and it was going to take us two or three years before we could be a full Division I-A program again.”
Golden was faced with the unenviable task of convincing high school players to forgo any potential scholarships and instead pay their own way at Temple. Golden said one of the selling points he used was Temple’s low in-state tuition.
“Our in-state tuition is one of the best deals in the country,” Golden said. “If your kid wanted to play I-A football and he was from the state of Pennsylvania or from D.C., it’s one of the best values in the country in terms of the tuition.”
“Tuition is cheap compared to some of the other local programs, like Villanova and the other in-state institutions cost,” Golden added.
Despite Temple’s low in-state tuition, walk-ons still face financial hardships. In the end, a player is forsaking guaranteed money from a lower-level school for the opportunity to play Division I football.
“We had some financial difficulties [while paying for tuition as a walk-on],” redshirt-sophomore quarterback Mike Gerardi said. “My family had to cut back down on some things. I was always told that if I hung around here, I’d get a scholarship. My mom was always planning for that, so eventually it worked out.”
Some players, like Gerardi and redshirt-freshman tight end Cody Booth, are recruited as preferred walk-ons, meaning they have guaranteed spots on the roster but don’t have scholarships yet. Others must be enrolled at Temple as a student before they can participate in a tryout. The tryout could come during summer practice or the first few weeks of the fall semester, as freshman wide receiver Tomas Cabrera experienced.
“The walk-on process was just a tryout, letting the coaches see your skills,” Cabrera said. “We worked through a lot of drills and a couple of [40-yard dashes]. I just let the coaches know I was an athletic guy. They wanted an athletic player, and I let them know what I had.”
Once a player secures a spot on the roster, he is assigned to either the scout team or the roster, based on the team’s needs.
So now you’re an Owl…
While players might be considered walk-ons, once in the program, they’re treated like scholarship players, except they are often on a shorter leash.
“If you’re a walk-on and you’re not taking care of your academics, you’re going to have a short lifespan. The same could be said if you’re not representing the university well,” Golden said. “You have too many ‘pops’ one night, and you end up getting in trouble – those things aren’t going to go over well.”
From a strictly-football perspective, walk-ons, who are less likely to receive consistent reps in practice, often face a more daunting task.
Because of the limited exposure, Gerardi said walk-ons must make take advantage of any opportunities they get.
“You don’t know what to expect,” Gerardi said. “They have guys on scholarship that they recruit that are like their guys. They looked at them in high school. You just have to keep fighting. They do give you a fair chance. You have a definite legitimate opportunity of coming in and playing.”
“The main thing is to go hard on every play,” Booth added. “If you make plays, coaches will look at you. That’s how Tomas [Cabrera] got looks this year. He was making plays down on scout team, and then he got an opportunity.”
From a personal standpoint, however, walk-ons are treated the same as their scholarship counterparts. Walk-ons live in the same buildings as the rest of the team, and they participate in the team-wide dorm-room draft. Players are ranked based on their grade point averages and years, and the highest-ranked players receive first priority at choosing their residence hall, room and roommate.
“At some places, [walk-ons are] treated like the people on the sea-level deck of the Titanic, it’s not like that here,” Golden said. “We don’t care whether you’re a scholarship player or not, if you’re on our team, you get treated the same way, and I think that energizes our walk-on base.”
Getting on the field
After a player has paid his dues in practice and moved up the depth chart, he could potentially see some live game action. For most, like Cabrera and redshirt-freshman wide receiver Ryan Alderman, this will come in the form of special teams.
Alderman, after he spent his first year on the scout team, found his niche this season as one of the team’s punt returners. The 5-foot, 8-inch Downingtown, Pa., native returned one punt for 28 yards against Villanova on Sept. 3.
“I wasn’t sure when it would happen, but I knew it would happen,” Alderman said. “I really didn’t see it coming this early, but I’m ready for it.”
Cabrera’s impact was not as immediate. The Hanover Area High School product did not see any game action until the Oct. 23 game at Buffalo. In the 42-0 win over the Bulls, Cabrera forced a fumble on the opening kickoff, his first collegiate play.
“The last time I played football was in November of last year,” Cabrera said. “To come in and finally get an opportunity against Buffalo, I made the best of it. The coaches let me know what I had to do, and I went down there and made a play.”
Golden said Cabrera’s rise from student to starting member of the kickoff team was a result of his ability to adapt to what the coaches asked of him.
“As we say in our organization, if you want a promotion, you master your current role, and [Cabrera] did that,” Golden said. “He forced a fumble against Buffalo, so you can see how quickly he took advantage of the opportunity.”
Gerardi and sophomore running back Matt Brown – two of the team’s leaders on offense – are alumni of the Local 215.
Coming out of Parsippany Hills High School in Parsippany, N.J., Gerardi was heavily recruited by Connecticut. When the Huskies extended a scholarship offer, Gerardi’s future appeared bright.
“UConn was here almost every day,” Parsippany Hills coach Dave Albano said. “They watched him play, and their coach stopped by once a week. It was pretty much a done deal.”
However, Connecticut soon experienced an unexpected departure from one of its already-enrolled quarterbacks. Because of the newfound lack of depth at the position, Connecticut’s coaching staff pulled Gerardi’s scholarship offer and pursued a junior-college quarterback, who would be able to join the team in the spring of Gerardi’s senior year.
Suddenly, Gerardi was left with limited options. With no other Division-I offers, Gerardi had to enroll at Kimbell Union Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire.
“I had some offers from D-II schools, but I didn’t want to go that way,” Gerardi said. “My dream was to play D-I. I pursued that dream. I knew I would have to go to a prep school.”
While at Kimbell Union, Gerardi started for one semester and led the Wildcats to a 9-0 record and threw for 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns without any interceptions. For his success, Gerardi was named the Evergreen League MVP.
After his successful semester at Kimbell Union, Gerardi still lacked a Division-I offer. But thanks to his relationship with the Owls’ former offensive coordinator, George DeLeone, Gerardi had the opportunity to walk on at Temple.
Gerardi joined the team in January 2008 and split two years between the scout team and the bench before making his first career start against Buffalo. Since then, the 6-foot, 2-inch signal-caller has made two additional starts, compiling 871 yards and 8 touchdowns in the process while leading the Owls to a 3-0 record in games he started.
While Gerardi’s misfortune was the result of an unfortunate situation, Brown’s lack of recruitment came as a result of his small size. Coaches questioned whether Brown, a 5-foot, 5-inch Baltimore native, would be able to withstand Division-I hits, Geoff Harlan, Brown’s coach at Peddie High School, said.
“[College football] is a business,” Harlan said. “Coaches have to make decisions about the personnel they’re offering scholarships to. I just wasn’t sure that Matt could crack into the numbers game of the business because of his size, but I felt he had the talent to perform at that level if someone gave him the opportunity.”
Like Gerardi, Brown found himself without a team after high school. With limited options, he enrolled at Milford Academy, a prep school in New York. Brown helped lead the Falcons to a 9-3 record in the 2008 season. Despite his success, Brown found himself without a scholarship offer again.
“It used to make me so angry, like, losing-sleep angry,” Brown said. “That was probably the worst time of my life, when I couldn’t figure out where I’m going to go to school. If I wasn’t going to play Division I-A football, I just wasn’t going to go to school.”
In addition to Temple, Florida International, Rhode Island and others made Brown offers to walk on. He chose the Owls because of Main Campus’ proximity to his home and his relationship with the coaching staff. While on North Broad Street, Brown immediately impressed the coaching staff and earned a scholarship before his freshman season even started.
Once the season did start, Brown established himself as a reliable offensive weapon and rushed for 529 yards and five touchdowns on 89 carries.
Despite his height and his position as backup for then-freshman running back Bernard Pierce, Brown’s rushing total was the third-most ever by a Temple freshman.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t want short running backs,” Golden said. “That was never an issue or a breaking point with us, so we told him if you come here and you earn your way on the field, it won’t be because of your height that you’re not playing.”
Through their treatment of walk-ons and creation of the occasional star, Golden and his staff have managed to develop a bit of a reputation for the Local 215. At most programs, walk-ons are rarely given opportunities to play.
“You could walk on to a D-I school, but you might never play,” Albano said. “So I try to steer my players in another direction, whether it be through Division I, Division II or Division III.”
In Temple’s program, however, the old mantra of “competition is king” holds true.
“If a walk-on is better than a scholarship player, he’s going to play,” Golden said. “We have success because that’s how we treat our kids, and certainly that begets more success in that area because those kids are recruiting future walk-ons, saying, ‘Hey, come here because what they’re saying is true.’”
“To walk on to a Division-I program is a challenging thing to do because … the coaching staff wants to give that young man who they invested a scholarship in every opportunity to prove himself before they’re going to give [the walk-on] the opportunity to prove himself,” Harlan said.
“To the credit of Temple’s staff, it looks like they’re evaluating every player and giving them an opportunity to get on the field,” Harlan added.
The Local 215 is a key piece to Temple’s turnaround on the gridiron. For all the benefits Golden and his staff provide players, the Owls would not be in the position they are without the Local 215.
“There’s an old story about [former NFL coach] Bill Parcells being in the draft room on draft day, and everybody is starting to relax and light up their cigars and get ready to party because the draft is over,” Golden said. “And [Parcells] says, ‘No, that’s when it’s the real time to work.’ It’s about Round 6, Round 7 and free agency and getting value there, and that’s something that we’ve prided ourselves on – doing the extra work and taking it seriously.”
“We don’t turn this program around without our walk-on program,” Golden added.
Brian Dzenis and Kyle Gauss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Al Golden Interview
Click to listen to The Temple News’ interview with coach Al Golden in its entirety.