Proud college football tradition stirs again
is the author of Deadlines and Overtimes: Collected Writings on Sports and Life
Once, they ruled.
Once, they were the big names in town. Once, it was theirs that were the big games in town. Once, it was them on which Philadelphia spent its sporting passion. Once, there were three - count 'em, three - college football programs, only miles apart, played by amateurs.
Once . . . ah, but that was once, and once was gone, and then . . . well, then the pro game caught on, and the amateurs slipped from view. Philly is a pro town, through and through, they say. And they are right.
But if you listen, there is an echo out there, an echo of past glory. A resurrection.
Temple: For a long, dismal stretch, there wasn't a sadder program anywhere. The Owls labored just to win one game a year. From time to time, impassioned voices were raised (ahem) imploring them to simply drop football. A lot of good men were sacrificed in that coaching shredder.
Finally, in 2006, after going 3 and 31 in the three preceding seasons, they brought in one Alfred James Golden, a Yankee Doodle Dandy, born on the Fourth of July, a pup out of one of those Joe Paterno litters. Al Golden had played tight end at Penn State, and then coached the linebackers. He was undeniably young, but he had the pedigree. Still, it's a long, long way from Happy Valley to Broad Street.
First, there had to be a purge. First, the culture of losing that had set in like dry rot had to be scrubbed away. When all you have known is losing, it's difficult to envision winning. In his fourth season, last year, Al Golden got the Owls to nine wins. Nine. That used to take half a decade. And he got them to a bowl besides. And now, for the second year in a row, they are bowl-eligible again - and the prospect of 10 wins, or more, lies shimmering on the horizon.
Temple's opponents used to line up to schedule the Owls for their homecoming. So now, payback, it turns out, really is sweet.
And when you are successful, envious eyes are cast your way. Other programs in need of resuscitation circle. Names of suitors are floated. UCLA. Cincinnati. Tennessee. So far, Al Golden has spurned them. But it is well to remember that in the college coaching game, the market for saviors never closes.
Villanova: Andy Talley came to Villanova as a coach without a team. The school, long removed from its glory days, had dropped football after the 1980 season. In almost all of those cases, the death is permanent. But 'Nova had a strong, resolute fan base that worked relentlessly to restore the program.
(I still remember one of those rallies to which they had invited the late Bob Hope, who began by saying what a pleasure it was to be here at "Vanilla-ova." He laughed. We all laughed. They passed the hat. Checks were written. A reversal of fortune was effected. It was an impressive display of the power of grassroots activism.)
And what of Andy Talley? Well, all he did was debut to perfection. And then improve. 'Nova went 5 and 0 his first year. Twenty-six years later, the onetime defensive back is still on the job, closing in on 200 wins, and the team he coaches now is the defending national champion of the Football Championship Subdivision, a.k.a. Division II.
The Wildcats came into this weekend ranked fifth in the polls and as the unabashed object of affection of the Big East conference, which began wooing 'Nova some months ago, extending an invitation to move on up to the penthouse and play Division I. Flattering, to be sure. But feasible? Doable?
It is all yet to be determined. But however it turns out, the school has come a long, long way from the days of "Vanilla-ova."
Penn: Penn played Princeton on Saturday. You'd think they'd pretty much gotten the hang of it by now, seeing as how they first did it back in '76. Eighteen seventy-six.
Helmets were little more than glorified earmuffs. The ball was plump as a Thanksgiving turkey because the forward pass had yet to be invented. The Flying Wedge was all the rage. And Penn - yes, that Penn - was deemed to be the best collegiate football team in all the country, and take that, Michigan, or Army, or Notre Dame, etc., etc., etc. It helped that anyone west of the Mississippi might as well have been playing on Mars, seeing as how the score service tended to bog down the farther away from the East you got.
Still, in 1884, '85, '87, and 1904, the Quakers were anointed No. 1, were whipping just about everyone set in front of them, and had players like John Heisman (yes, that Heisman).
Al Bagnoli has more than done his part to keep that torch lit. He is the current Penn coach, and this season he became the winningest one in that school's venerable history. In 18 years, he has produced three unbeaten teams and seven Ivy League champions, and the Quakers came into this weekend undefeated in Ancient Eight play. Again.
But of all Bagnoli's numbers, the most striking is this - the number of losing seasons. Which would be one. As in 1.
And thus is a legacy preserved.
E-mail Bill Lyon at email@example.com.