Kern: Temple eyes first conference crown since 1967

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Phillip Walker will lead Temple against Navy in Saturday's AAC title game.

SO, WHAT were you doing in 1967?

That was three years before Wayne Hardin became Temple's football coach and the program moved up to Division I-A. And eight years before current coach Matt Rhule came into this world. Those Owls, under George Makris, finished 7-2, winning the Middle Atlantic Conference by beating Hofstra, Delaware, Bucknell and Gettysburg. West Catholic's Tom DeFelice was their quarterback. They received consideration for a spot in the Tangerine Bowl, but 10-0 West Chester was taken instead and went to Orlando, Fla., to play Tennessee-Martin.

It remains the only championship hardware in their trophy case to show for 34 combined on-and-off seasons of affilations with the MAC, two configurations of the Big East, Mid-American and now American Athletic.

These Owls (9-3) finally could add a bookend on Saturday (noon, ABC) at Navy (9-2) in the AAC final, 12 months after they lost the title game at Houston.

"To be able to give ourselves a second opportunity, that doesn't happen too often," said senior running back Jahad Thomas, who's scored 18 touchdowns despite missing the opening two games. "We have to take advantage of it."

Getting back is usually harder than getting there the first time, just because. Unless maybe you're Alabama. The Owls weren't picked to win the East Division in the preseason poll either year. They're a slight underdog to the 20th-ranked Midshipmen, who've won 15 straight at home, the longest streak in FBS. It seems as if the Owls are underdogs much of the time anyway. It's almost part of their accumulated DNA.

"You have to get back first, but once you get there you have to win it," said four-year starting quarterback Phillip Walker, who was wearing a boot on his injured right ankle Tuesday but will almost certainly be ready to play. "Last year at times, we were just happy to be there. This time, it's more of we have no choice but to win this game."

They've already established a legacy. A ring could only enhance it. Because 49 years constitute more than a generation gap. Besides, the last two years have mostly been about firsts. Or at least first-time-in-a whiles.

So what would it mean, other than a possible trip to the Cotton Bowl as your Group of Five representative should unbeaten Western Michigan lose to 8-4 Ohio in Friday night's MAC final?

"To these kids, it would be everything," Rhule said. "They already have other things, but this is something tangible to look back on. And for the ones who came before, to feel like they're part of this. I need to have things happen for me first, before I can kind of get perspective after the fact . . .

"Winning the game does not signify anything about where the program's been built to. We've come a long way. That's a credit to many, many people that have sacrificed for all this. Now we're playing on national TV for a championship. They can be really proud of that. But we're going to come back next year and try to do the same thing.

"It's a never-ending process. You have to enjoy the process to enjoy the results."

Thomas and Walker were also classmates at Elizabeth (N.J.) High School. As freshmen, they won once. As sophomores, they finished 5-6. As juniors, they lost in the state final. Their final season, they were the champions.

At Temple, they've gone from 2-10 to .500 to 10-4 to this.

There's only one part of the progression left to mirror.

"It's crazy, when you think about the two paths, how things have gone," Walker said. "Just the experience of having another opportunity is pretty cool. We already know what it took to play in the state championship game again. We learned a lot against Houston. We know what we have to do to be successful in this game."

Added Thomas: "We would definitely come full circle with a win, It is a bit ironic, for us to be in the situation we are now. We just want to be the greatest Temple team ever, whatever defines that or however we define it here. And we can be."

One of Rhule's favorite stories is about his trip to recruit those two. It's come to define what he wants the program to represent.

"We went to a restaurant, with, like, three families from the same town," he recalled. "We're eating, and they're just talking. They're not talking to me, they're talking to each other. And they were still talking about the (final) they'd lost, and how they should have won that one and had two rings. And I said to myself, 'Here's a quarterback and tailback, they had a 98-yard drive with under two minutes to go to win the state championship, and they're talking about the win they didn't get.' To me that said, 'Boy, these guys are winners.' They were thinking about what they could have done better. These were my kind of guys.

"They're change agents, people that make the place around them better. The greatest thing you can do is leave a place better than you found it. They did it in high school, and they're doing it again here. The thing that's unique is they just went to places that weren't very good when they were young. They're just winners. You're always looking for players that refuse to go down without a fight. That's why we always had hope."

When they were 2-10. When they were 3-3 this season and losing at Central Florida by five with 70 yards and 32 seconds to go. And here they are.

Think 1967.


kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn

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