When Al Golden became head coach at Temple in 2006, one could have made the case that his was not just the toughest job in college football; it might have been the toughest job in sports.
Consider that Temple had gone 15 straight years without a winning season, had been thrown out of the Big East Conference, was about to start its second of two seasons as an independent, and was very close to dropping football.
The Owls were 0-11 in 2005, 2-9 in 2004, and 1-11 in 2003. They were not just losing — they were often non-competitive.
Golden was the defensive coordinator at Virginia. It was a pretty stable job. Unstable would be far too mild a word for the Temple job. It was, said Bill Bradshaw, then the Temple athletic director, every bit as bad it seemed.
“You did not have to exaggerate or engage in hyperbole about how bad it was,” Bradshaw said.
Not only were the players not good enough to compete, but the program, without a league to call its own, had no chance to recruit good high school players who were thinking four or five years down the road. So it was junior college players who were more concerned with the near term.
“We literally couldn’t get prep school players,” Bradshaw said. “Literally, 90 percent of the recruits were junior college players so therein was a cause of a lot of problems personally, academically and athletically, so we were at an all-time low.”
The morning after Temple lost at Virginia, 51-3, on Nov. 5, 2005, Bradshaw interviewed Golden in a small hotel room.
“We couldn’t even get a conference room,” Bradshaw said.
A few minutes into the interview, Bradshaw wrote on a legal pad: “This is our guy.”
“I wrote it and then I underlined it,” Bradshaw recalled. “He not only had a plan. He knew the players. He knew the assistant coaches he was going to hire. He knew the recruits he was going to go after immediately. He wanted to be at Temple. It wasn’t like he was kicking the tires.”
In Bradshaw’s mind, Golden was saying, “My career is going to take off after I turn you around.”
He was just that confident, reassuring and knowledgeable.
“I did have a confidence,” said Golden, now the tight ends coach for the Detroit Lions. “I had recruited that area from Boston down to Richmond and west to State College. I just felt like there was enough talent that we could get 18, 20, 21 kids a year that could make a difference. I thought it was the right time at the university, because I saw the changes the university was making.”
Four years later in 2009, Temple went 9-4 and played UCLA in the EagleBank Bowl. It was not a straight line from 0-11 to that 9-4 to 10-4 the last two years under Matt Rhule, but it was a line that can be traced from the moment Golden came on campus to see what it was like.
“I remember walking out of the Liacouras Center and immediately looking to my right,” Golden said. “I could see the new apartment buildings going up and really see the infrastructure of the university changing. The Fox School, I could see that going up. I could see the new student center. I thought there was a commitment there from the university itself that could attract kids.”
All Golden heard, however, was that it was “career suicide; you can’t win there.”
“All we said from Day 1 was ‘just give us two acres and a ball in North Philadelphia,’ ” Golden remembered. “Just give us two acres and a ball and we’ll do it. That was the mantra that we lived by.”
His 1-11, first-year record was not a surprise to Golden. He knew better than anyone that it was not going to happen quickly. The miracle, really, was that it happened at all.
Not one NFL team showed up at Temple during Golden’s first spring. Going into its homecoming game against Bowling Green on Oct. 28, 2006, Temple had lost 20 straight. The Owls won that day and didn’t win again until midway through Golden’s second year. Bradshaw was not concerned. Neither was Golden. His job at that stage was about much more than football.
“I would say the first two years, I was probably 80 percent non-football,” Golden said. “It was just building the infrastructure of the program, recruiting, fundraising, implementation of the strength program, of course the systems on offense, defense and special teams. It was really an overhaul.”
Overhaul is a polite word for tear down and start over.
“He could have won more games if he had played some of those kids, but he just got them right off the team,” Bradshaw said. “He suspended kids for missing meetings. … Normally, young coaches want to take shortcuts, think where their career wants to go. There he was sacrificing his record to do things that were going in maybe three years or four years to pay off. That was what was special about Al Golden.”
Golden described the super supportive athletic administration at the time as an “all-star group,” and he remembers every one of the members’ names. He credits involved members from the board of trustees, other university administrators, his staff that has gone on to success at every level of football, and the early players who helped recruit the next generation of players.
Golden’s second year, Temple’s first in the Mid-American Conference, the Owls went 4-8 and 3-3 in the league. In 2008, it was 5-7, 4-4 in the MAC — not much for most programs but a huge leap for Temple.
Still, hardly anybody could have predicted what was going to go down in 2009 and what has gone down mostly since. Temple went 8-4 in 2010.
“By our last year, not only did we have every team there [in the spring] to see the likes of Muhammad Wilkerson, Tahir Whitehead, Bernard Pierce, Jaiquawn Jarrett,” Golden said. “We went from having nobody there to not only having every team there; Mike Mayock came and covered it. It was crazy.”
This Oct. 31, 2009, file photo shows Al Golden while he was the head coach at Temple.When Miami called after that 2010 season, Golden answered and took the Hurricanes job. What he did not know was that Miami was about to get hammered with NCAA sanctions that put him in an impossible situation, different from Temple, but, in some ways, analogous because of the impediments. Nobody could have won big under the circumstances.
Miami was 32-25 in his 4 1/2 years. The Canes were competitive even when they did not win, but a 58-0 loss in 2015 to Clemson was more than just a loss — it became an albatross. Golden was let go right after, that score more important than the reality of what he had been trying to overcome.
Even though Miami did not work out for Golden, what he started at Temple resonates still. If you say he saved the program, Bradshaw will not disagree.
“As the AD at Temple, I wasn’t thinking we need to keep a coach for 25 years,” said Bradshaw, now the La Salle AD. “We needed to turn that thing around. We needed the right person. We couldn’t get this one wrong. It wasn’t like, ‘Well, if he doesn’t work, it will be like any others.’ It was really in my mind, it could be the end of the program. Honestly, there were no more second chances. In my mind, it was, ‘We need to get this one right, right now.’ ”
After two down years in 2012 (the second and last under Steve Addazio and 2013, the first under Rhule), there were the 6-6 mark in 2014, the 7-0 start and prime-time Halloween game against Notre Dame in 2015, and the AAC championship in 2016.
Certainly, Rhule took Temple football to another level, but none of it happens without the foundation laid by Golden from 2006-10.
“I promised Temple we would build them a house of brick and not a house of straw,” Golden said. “I think that foundation has carried forward now for multiple years, which is great.”
Golden was very involved in scheduling and told Bradshaw they really needed to play the service academies and Villanova and keep the series with Penn State.
“We needed games that were interesting to Philadelphia,” Golden said. “We needed to bring energy back to the program.”
Rhule really wanted Golden to come back for the Notre Dame game. It was scheduled on a timeline when Temple might be good enough to compete or even win. And Golden would have come had the pain from the end at Miami not been so fresh.
“I told some media when we hired Al that I was so confident in what he was going to do that there are going to be years when we’re 7-5 and people are going to be disappointed,” Bradshaw said. “I meant it. Al was just so convincing and confident of how he was going to build it brick by brick. That was my feeling then. I would have been terribly disappointed if that hadn’t happened.”
Golden, a 1991 Penn State graduate, took a job with old PSU friend Jim Caldwell, the Lions’ head coach, last year. Golden, 48, was the second-youngest coach in Division I when he was hired by Temple. With time, the Miami situation will fade and some athletic director, looking for a head coach who has done his homework and understands just how critical Al Golden’s touch was to Temple then and now, will have him in for an interview and start writing on his legal pad: “This is our guy.”