TEMPLE'S president, Dr. Neil Theobald, who has been on the job for 10 months after coming to North Broad Street from Indiana University, is a sports kind of guy. And one of the missions in his new position will be taking Temple athletics, particularly football, forward in what has become a fluid landscape. The Daily News recently sat down with him to get some of his thoughts on a number of topics related to that charge.
Q: When you first got here, what did you think were the challenges facing Temple athletics? And has that perception changed since your arrival?
A: Well, when I was first contacted about the job, the Big East had already started to fall apart. But believe it or not, one of the first questions I had was about the unwieldy size of the Big East. So I went from May of 2012, with people asking me that, to the implosion and creating a new league American Athletic Conference that I think is a great place for us to be over the next several years. Clearly, a great basketball program and tradition was already in place. But the reality in college sports is that football drives the bus financially. So you have to come at it from that point of view.
Q: You bring a different perspective, coming from another part of the country. Do you think that's important, and a good thing?
A: I do. In the Big Ten, we were the first ones with a TV package. I remember when I went to the IU board to discuss the Big Ten Network, it was like, 'Who'd be interested in that?' $25 million later he laughs. ... The Big Ten found a way to reach out to alumni, market the university and get all the other sports involved. It isn't just about football, but it's football-driven. No doubt about it. Because of football we were able to have 24 sports. That's the 21st century. How do you use athletics as an arm of the university?
Q: Do you see any similarities with Indiana?
A: Both have tremendous basketball histories. Bob Knight is famous, but Indiana was winning national championships before he ever got there. Temple's the sixth-winningest program of all time. And we've had Hall of Fame football coaches here. But Penn State obviously casts a huge shadow in the state. At Indiana, it was the same way. We were surrounded by very good football programs. Notre Dame, Purdue, now Louisville, even Ohio State. So you had to reach beyond the area for players. For basketball, you only need so many to be good. Football's different ... Certainly attendance at IU has gone up, with a more open i.e., throwing brand of football. I think the same opportunity exists here. You don't need all the great linemen, if you're going to pass the ball more.
Q: When you look at attendance, which has been an issue, how do you address that?
A: When it comes to football, obviously Philadelphia's a pro town. So it's hard for a Temple or a Villanova or Penn to get much attention, if you listen to the radio or sit around the coffeepot. The overwhelming focus is on the NFL. So you've got to start with, OK, it's going to be hard to really change that. So you have to start inward. We're very focused on getting as many students to the game as possible, creating the experience of college football. We have more people here now, 5,200 students on campus, another 10,000 living within a couple of blocks. We had a record number of alumni come back for homecoming. So rather than market outward, as the program becomes more successful, if they've had a positive experience, then they'll come back. If you look at where our graduates are from the spring of 2012, 80 percent still live within the five-county region. With basketball, this program doesn't take second place to any. You want to have students, but you can market beyond that. And you don't have that shadow as you do with football.
Q: What do you think would be considered successful?
A: College football can be the front door for a lot of people to the university. There was something in the Wall Street Journal about three weeks ago that I loved reading. It had the most admirable programs in the country, and Temple was in the top 12, along with Stanford, Wisconsin, for graduation rates, not getting in trouble, for not spending a ton of money. Right now, there's a tremendous arms race going on. We're doing it the right way. You don't want to say, OK, we have to give that up to be more competitive. That's why I think football coach Matt Rhule is the exact right person. As Temple people become adults and bring their kids, that would be the pinnacle. If we have seven, eight consistently good seasons, crowds will increase over time, maybe average in the 30s. TV's a big part of this. If people are regularly following Temple, home and away ... Basketball's already there. We just have to market the program better. All the things that are hard to put together, we already have.
Q: Can that translate to the general public as well? Absolutely. It's not easy to get to Penn State from here. We understand Sundays belong to the Eagles. We have to make Saturdays an event. We have to get them in the habit. It's easier if they've done it as a student. It becomes part of them. In the end, you need to give people a reason to come into town.
Q: How do you see playing in an NFL stadium as opposed to building something on campus?
A: Every university in America would love to play on campus. You'd rather have the front door leading into the house. The subway runs to Lincoln Financial Field, but it's not the same. It benefits the university to have everyone coming back. We're looking into it, to see if it's feasible. Certainly, if we did it, we don't want to just use it six days a year. To justify it, you'd have to put an academic aspect in there, retail space, help North Philadelphia revitalize, maybe partner with high-school football teams. If you can do that, it really makes a difference.
Q: So where are you at with that?
A: Well, we have some time in the next couple of years to know whether to extend the contract with the Eagles. With all the things we're doing $800 million in on-campus projects, we have to look at what's cost-effective. What are the pluses? One is you're already paying rent to the Eagles about $1.5 million annually, through 2018. We've had a great partnership with them. But if we want to bring alumni back and enhance student involvement, we'd rather have our own place. When we renovated the stadium at Indiana, we put lecture halls in. We have a need for teaching space here. So there's that component. And it's yours. At the Linc, everything is temporary. We come in at 9 o'clock Saturday morning and I leave there at 4. You're renting a hall rather than holding it in your own place.
Q: Is it feasible? You have to look at a lot of things. What are your priorities?
A: That's why we're starting now, instead of waiting. While we've got some time, let's meet with a lot of different people. Can we partner with the community on this? It's something that would attract great jobs in North Philadelphia and development around this area. It would be a centerpiece for Temple and North Philadelphia. So you certainly have to look at it. If you want to be ready for the 2019 season, now's the time. If you wait till 2016, it's too late.
Q: Does Temple need to get into another conference, say, the ACC, at some point to make it really work?
A: If you look at what's best for your university, what we had in the MAC with the TV money as opposed to the America, there's no comparison. And our TV ratings have been quite good this fall. You always have to be considering what are your alternatives. We're very happy where we're at. But if an opportunity presents itself, you have to consider them. But we think the schools we're in with right now are a good fit for us. I'd like people to recognize what a good university this is. I have not seen better undergraduate teaching than what occurs here. So athletics is only a part of it. But that's what a lot of people see. We're moving in the right direction, in so many ways. Obviously, football isn't where basketball is. But if we're going to have 20 sports, and we have others that are doing great, it's really important that football is successful. That's the only way to approach it.