When I first saw Temple University's 1986 schedule printed on a glossy magazine page, it brought back memories. Above the list of games was a motto, something to the effect that Temple Is For Real! I thought of my mother, who liked to say, "If you have to say something is genuine, it probably isn't."
Of course I understood what the "for real" meant. Temple was going big time. Over the past few years the Owls have played an increasingly difficult schedule, one that has included Georgia, West Virginia, Pitt, Syracuse, Boston College, and Florida A & M. More than once Temple has given top-notch teams a rough time. Though I didn't see the games, friends told me that Temple had even outplayed Penn State several times over the past few seasons. Last year, when Penn State was pushing toward what looked like a national championship, the Owls almost beat them early in the season.
Temple did beat Pitt 13-12 on Sept. 22, 1984, for an important victory—important partly because Temple recruits in some of the same regions as Pitt and Penn State. The game also marked a new age for Owls football. Temple had at last defeated a major eastern rival, and all of its plans to go big time were finally about to come to fruition.
The "for real" slogan made me smile because I was a player for Temple at the very beginning of the surge. The move couldn't have come at a more difficult time. It was the fall of 1972, and football was held in dubious esteem by my dorm mates, my girlfriend and my teachers. I once had to sit in a class and listen to a history professor lecture about the imperialistic overtones of football, which he likened to the Vietnam War. Football was considered too brutal, too violent, too obvious. There were more serious issues at hand. My girlfriend, for example, marched in Washington to protest the war. And she waved peace signs at police cars as they cruised past Temple's Philadelphia campus.
In contrast, the Owls practiced on Geasey Field, in the heart of a tough neighborhood. On my very first day of practice a kid rode by on his bike and, screaming epithets, grabbed a player's chin strap, snapping it off as he sped by. I was more stunned than anything else. Later the same week I learned that students were protesting the presence of football at Temple. They demanded, without success, that football go the way of ROTC: off the campus. It was another expression of American imperialism—the catchword that semester—and some students even drew up a statement that claimed football was invented only after the frontiers of the West had been settled. Football, they said, satisfied our national need to conquer new lands.
In the face of this antagonism, head coach Wayne Hardin mounted a campaign to improve Temple's football image. Hardin was a man of some prominence. He had been the coach at Navy when Roger Staubach led the Middies to the Cotton Bowl and had the rare distinction of coaching two Heisman Trophy winners—Staubach and Joe Bellino. The coach was a small, blond man with invisible eyebrows and pale white skin. He smoked cigars continually, and they often flaked and floated ash over his cherry-red Owls blazer. His whiteness, his transparency, produced a color almost too elegant for a football coach. He reminded me of a tired bed of barbecue coals.
I was a sophomore on the varsity when I first became aware of the meaning of the "big time" campaign. Temple was a school that had spent the last 10 years scrapping with Rhode Island and Xavier, but suddenly, with the arrival of Hardin in 1970, that period was history. "We're going to Japan to play an exhibition game that will be televised worldwide," he told the team. "We've got Penn State on the schedule, and Pitt is just about signed...maybe even Notre Dame. We're going big time."
We went big time in our locker room first. Our equipment became more extravagant; our training facilities, whirlpools and weight room suddenly had a new, impressive look. Coach Hardin had our uniform redesigned—I have never seen another uniform quite like it—adding odd stripes on the shoulder pads and checked stripes up the outside seam of the pants. Without the pads, the Owls looked as though they were distinctively dressed for a round of golf.
Those of us who made the traveling squad were also issued red blazers, just like the coach's, which sported the cursive legend TEMPLE OWLS over the pocket. Since only a football team would have 50 or 60 men dressed in red, I always felt the TEMPLE OWLS over the pocket was redundant. But Coach Hardin and his assistants liked our look and were fond of saying, "If you look like a team, you'll play like a team."
We did play like a team that season, but other teams played like bigger, better, more brutal teams. I was a second-string quarterback, so the weight of the losses did not fall as heavily on me as they might have, but it still bothered me to know that not only were we imperialists, we were bad football players as well.