Big Ten expansion is the only topic that the college football media and blogosphere seems to care about right now in the pre-summer dregs. If Rutgers does end up jumping to the Big Ten, how would the Big East respond? The smart money is probably on C-USA upstart. Central Florida. Another option could be to go back to an old familiar face, one who is sitting just down the Turnpike and waiting an opportunity.
I'm talking about Philadelphia's Temple Owls. One point of contention between me and Sean from Troy Nunes is that he thinks the Big East should encourage Villanova to upgrade its FCS football program, and I think Temple is the better bet. They have a bigger alumni base/enrollment, and more importantly already play on the FBS level.
Indeed, for Rutgers fans it's easy to see the parallels between the two football programs. Earlier in the decade, it looked like both teams would never get out of the conference basement. In fact, for a few years Temple was even better than Rutgers. However, Rutgers had been admitted as a full member of the Big East in the mid-90's, and had already began the process of upgrading its program, while Temple had yet to start getting their act together. With lagging attendance and stadium issues, the seven other Big East schools infamously voted out Temple in 2001, and they left the conference following the 2004 season.
Having hit bottom, both programs were reinvigorated by hiring hotshot New Jersey coaches (in Greg Schiano and Al Golden, respectively) that were former Joe Paterno assistants. They've both proved the collective doubters wrong, turning around perennially disappointing programs in impressive fashion. Last year Temple finished with a 9-4 record, their best season in decades. Like with Rutgers, they should only get better going forward.
That's why I think Temple is the best expansion candidate for the Big East right now. Regardless of what happens with the conference lineups going forward, I'd be more than happy to have them back. Sure, that could hurt Rutgers in the Philadelphia market, but, and this is not at all a consideration with most of the expansion scenarios out there, it's the right thing to do. Take a short term hit for the long term prize of trying to get Philadelphia and the surrounding region more interested in the game, and help build a viable long term rival. Better Philadelphia have a good team than a Penn State located in the middle of nowhere.
Now, one of the most irksome aspects of Big Ten Expansion speculation is that it's almost as if all the teams mentioned aren't given any say in the matter; mere pawns in a larger, Big Ten Network-driven chess game. That may be true in a broader sense, but it's also incredibly frustrating to lack that agency. Yes, money trumps all other factors, but that doesn't mean that any membership candidate from outside of their mid-western footprint wouldn't have significant misgivings about joining. There's geography, non-football sports, and the general sentiment that college football is spiraling towards an armageddon of greed.
It sure seems like Temple is a natural fit in the Big East, especially as a ninth member if the conference split along football lines, but it'd be best to check in with their side to see what they actually think about the matter. To that end, I recently spoke with Mike from Temple Football Forever to get his take on a couple issues at play here.
On the Banks: Was that decision fair for the Big East football conference to rescind Temple's membership fair, both on its own merits, and in comparison to Rutgers?
Temple Football Forever: No, because they mentioned "competitiveness" as a reason and it was only a few months after Temple beat Rutgers for the third straight time on the way to four straight wins. A lot of Temple fans thought that was disengenious.
OtB: Ultimately, did being forced out of the conference end up being a wake up call for Temple?
TFF: Absolutely, because it forced the university to hire a dynamic young coach, who like Bruce Arians 20 years prior, proved that winning football could be achieved at Temple University. Bobby Wallace, a part-time coach who lived several months of the year in Alabama, wasn't providing the kind of commitment and oversight the program needed.
OtB: Is Temple a better bet than Villanova to join the Big East in football, and if so, why? Do Temple fans particularly want to rejoin the Big East in some form? What kind of conference setup would they like to see?
TFF: I don't know where Villanova would play. Temple has an ironclad lease for exclusivity on Saturdays in the fall at Lincoln Financial Field. The wording is written in the contract, part of the state's deal with the Eagles to fund one-third of the stadium. Not even can the Eagles play on Saturdays at LFF until the end of the college season. That lease last another eight years. Temple would not allow Villanova to play at the Linc, period, end of story. Temple would, of course, accept an all-sports invite to the Big East. The conference as currently constituted includes large schools, like Temple and Rutgers, who are traditional rivals. Like schools with like groups of fans.
OtB: One of the things Rutgers fans see in New Jersey/New York City is that there's only relatively limited interest in college athletics in a pro-centric Northeastern market. What could Temple sports realistically accomplish in the Philadelphia market and Eastern Pennsylvania?
TFF: Realistically, we saw what a Temple team could do, ratings-wise, in its bowl game - deliver the Philadelphia TV market in a big way. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Temple-UCLA drew the largest bowl ratings on ESPN in the Philadelphia market since the Penn State appearance in the Alamo Bowl in 2007. That's at 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. A winning Temple team in 1986 with a Heisman Trophy candidate named Paul Palmer consistently out-rated Penn State on Philadelphia-area TV sets.
By all accounts, Temple should be a winning team with a Heisman Trophy candidate (Bernard Pierce) this season. Should be interesting checking the Neilsens after each game. That indicates there is a latent interest in following football fortunes of the largest school in the market. It translates immediately to TV sets. How it translates in fannies in the seats (already on the upswing) will be determined over a 2-3 year period.
OtB: I think most Rutgers fans have empathy towards Temple as a program that has been through similar challenges. Is that sentiment mutual, or is there still some residual hostility? Should the two teams play each other regularly?
TFF: I think Rutgers was our biggest rival, geographically, since the Temple-Delaware series ended. It's not quite the same getting up for Kent State and Buffalo.
OtB: Temple has a great coach in Al Golden. Media speculation about his future is a compliment, but it has to be annoying with everyone presuming he'll leave, despite turning down other opportunities over the past few years. Isn't it possible the lesson Golden and Schiano learned from Joe Paterno was to build their own programs? Are we mutually fortunate to have two of the more decent coaches in the game?
TFF: Both are incredibly similar. Great recruiters, great program CEOs, who have both been questioned wtih game-day decisions. On game day, Greg Schiano may be no Frank Burns and Golden is certainly no Wayne Hardin. But both programs needed strong CEO/recruiters to get on their feet and both coaches delivered against long odds. There was a lot more anxiety about losing Al two years ago. Since then, East Carolina, Tennessee and Cincy came after him strong and he declined interest, THEN signed a reported $1.2 million contract extension (with a huge buyout for Temple) and those two factors have lessened the anxiety level..
OtB: I'm trying to get a feel for the program's history as an outsider. What's the narrative of Temple Football? Any iconic coaches or signature players?
TFF: Arians is not an iconic figure, but most fans feel he was treated unfairly by the administration by being fired after going 6-5 in two of his last three seasons. His final 6-5 came against the 10th-toughest schedule in the country. He lost at Penn State (27-23), to defending national champion BYU (25-23). He had the team competitive. Hardin, on the other hand, is an iconic figure. Tremendous game coach with a 152 IQ who used his brain to outwit almost all other foes. Temple fans are still talking about some of the great plays and schemes Hardin had, trick and regular, to beat opponents.
An ideal coach would be Hardin on game day and a recruiter of Golden's prowess. Those seem to be employed only in the SEC these days. Since Arians, Temple hired a coach coming off an 0-11 season at Rice (Jerry Berndt) and a great defensive coordinator (Ron Dickerson) who didn't have a clue on game day and a guy, Bobby Wallace, who had no feel for the Northeast. This is Golden's turf. He gets the vibe.
Thanks again to Mike for agreeing to answer these questions, and be sure to visit Temple Football Forever.