Golden has the touch at Temple

When Al Golden was hired at Temple nearly five years ago, university officials cautioned him that the program was downtrodden.

He had grown up about an hour from the university in Colts Neck, N.J., but quickly discovered that arguably the worst job in college football was far worse than he could have ever imagined.

Forget that Temple had only one winning season in the previous 26 years and was an independent team still considering dropping football after having been kicked out of the Big East following the 2004 season.

There were more pressing matters to deal with. The team’s academic study lounge contained a pool table, on which a crafty janitor used to hustle players out of money before practice. The practice field had two different types of turf and a 3-foot drop-off at the back of one end zone that repeatedly caused injuries. Players had to dodge eggs aimed at them from a nearby high-rise public housing building.

On top of all that, syringes, crack vials and broken 40-ounce beer bottles littered the area around the football facility, which often reverberated with an orchestra of passing trains, sirens and gunshots.

“It was indescribable, to be honest with you,” Golden said. “It was that bad. This place was dead. We had to take the paddles out.”

Now four seasons later, Golden’s touch has Temple favored to win the Mid-American Conference and even receiving preseason Top 25 votes after it made its first bowl appearance last year since 1979. It’s prompted the Owls to put up “On The Hunt” billboards and promote sophomore running back Bernard Pierce as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Now, alumni such as university trustee Bill Cosby, who used to cringe at even asking the score of Temple’s games, are as proud as can be.

“There’s still many of us holding our breath,” Cosby said.

And for good reason, because the 41-year-old Golden has emerged as one of college football’s hottest coaching prospects. Often mentioned as a possible successor to legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno, he interviewed for the Notre Dame and Tennessee jobs last season.

Temple President Ann Weaver Hart considers the interest in Golden as flattering for the university. But she also knows that Golden is unlikely to remain with the Owls long-term.

“Whatever happens, we love him and we are proud of him,” Hart said. “I believe he has had a permanent impact on the Temple football program and what we have come to expect from it.”

Temple’s record has improved in each of Golden’s four seasons, but the program only got worse under him before becoming better.

In Golden’s first season, the line between coaches and players needed to be made clear. A fifth-year senior gave a piece of paper to defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio with his recommended starting lineups for both a 3-4 and 4-3 defensive scheme.

In 2007, a fullback quit days before the Owls were to play Connecticut. Why? He had been told he would start and was too nervous about his new role.

That same season, a player on the scout team became upset about his lack of touches in practice and argued with a coach before walking off the field.

The three were among the many casualities of Golden’s overhaul. Senior free safety Jaiquawn Jarrett still marvels at the team’s dysfunctional state when he arrived in 2007. He couldn’t believe the selfishness of players and was stunned by the team’s lack of support.

“It was like football didn’t exist at Temple,” Jarrett said. “No one even bothered to attend the games, the fan fest or any of the things that we did. It sometimes felt like we weren’t athletes.”

The apathy embarrassed Jarrett, as did the taunts of “You all will never win a game” and “You suck” from students at the inner-city campus. It took all the restraint the Brooklyn native had not to fight the hecklers.

“There were a lot of terrible words,” Jarrett said. “But I just trusted that coach Golden had a plan for us.”

He did. It began with Golden putting up inspirational quotations from author Og Mandino and explorer Ernest Shackleton in Temple’s football facility — as well as photographs of suit-clad seniors who had been successful on and off the field.

He put out motivational books such as Tony Dungy’s "Uncommon: Finding Your Path to Significance," as well as a Sports Illustrated issue with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the cover and an attached note, “Read About How Not To Act.”

Before Golden arrived, players used to brag about not attending class, said Travis Manger, a former player from 2005-07 who is now one of the team’s academic externs. Study halls were held across campus in the basement of the old basketball gymnasium and barely monitored.

Shortly after Golden was hired he removed the pool table from the study lounge and created an academic support office in the football facility. He arranged for tutors and learning specialists, and required players to sit in the first two rows of class and to visit professors during their office hours.

Now, after being stripped of nine scholarships in 2006 by the NCAA for poor academic performance, the team has a goal of a 3.0 grade-point average this year.

“It’s a whole new world,” Manger said.

Besides Temple being near his family, Golden was attracted to the job because of its proximity to fertile recruiting grounds. He has concentrated on an area from Hartford, Conn., to Washington, D.C., to Johnstown, Pa., a region that includes New York City, Baltimore and New Jersey.

It encompasses 45 percent of the nation’s population, Golden said.

“We don’t really take flights recruiting,” he said. “We don’t have to because it’s all in driving distance.”

And ever so gradually, Golden’s efforts have paid off. After going winless in its last season under former coach Bobby Wallace, Temple went 1-11 in Golden’s first year, 2006, when he had just 54 scholarship players.

The next season, Temple’s first in the MAC, the Owls were 4-8. They went 5-7 in 2008 before last season’s breakout 9-4 record and loss to UCLA in the EagleBank Bowl.

Now, instead of being laughed at, spit on and cursed at in the same neighborhood where a man once derisively challenged D’Onofrio to gather his best 12 players for a game of football, the Owls are embraced.

“It’s been a real change,” Hart said. “It’s just been a complete turnaround.”

And when Golden walks around campus checking whether players are in class, he’s mobbed by supporters, including a janitor who rushed out of the library last season to thank him for Temple’s success.

“It’s like if I’m walking around with Barack Obama, this is what it would be like,” Manger said. “He’s reaching that rare air.”

Golden has saved a team that was gasping to stay alive. At one point, Cosby said he begged university officials for the Owls to drop down to the Football Championship Subdivision.

“Temple was a L-O-S-T cause,” he said.

So much so that when Cosby used to call Philadelphia radio station KYW for Temple score updates, he was always warned, “Do you really want to hear this?”

Back then, Cosby said, the play-by-play of a Temple game often used to sound something like, “There are 42 seconds left to play and Temple has the ball. Oh no! They’ve dropped the ball and now the other team has the ball on Temple’s 9-yard line. Wait, somebody’s down. Yes, it’s the best player we’ve ever had in the world.”

But last season, Cosby said the play-by-play became, “And the pass is in the air and the Temple player’s open and he dropped — wait a second, he scored. Well, I’ll be darned. Where are the flags? No flags. I’ll be darned.”

“Coach Golden has become the I’ll-be-darned fellow of Philadelphia.”

During a sit-down interview in his cramped office (which includes an air mattress), Golden insists he’s content at Temple, which in May signed him to a new 5-year contract through 2014. He’s heard the questions about his future and points out that he’s been at the university long enough to have seen three different deans of students.

Golden does have a fondness for Penn State, where he played from 1987-1991 and was an assistant in 2000. He left after that year to become the youngest defensive coordinator in Div. I-A at Virginia, the job he had prior to being hired at Temple.

At Penn State, Golden was a team captain. There, he also met and married his wife, Kelly.

“There’s a lot of great memories and great friendships,” he said.

Golden is guarded with his comments and for good reason. No one wants to be the coach campaigning to replace a mentor and living legend.

But when Paterno does step down, Golden is sure to be a front-runner for the job. And in comparison to other possible candidates like Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley and Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, Golden will inevitably face the question of whether he’s ready for the job.

And those skeptics might want to listen to Temple players such as Jarrett, who have been part of Golden’s resurrection of the Owls.

“Some people would say it’s a miracle,” Jarrett said. “But I would just say it was trust in coach Golden.”

And that’s faith a lot of other teams would love to have.