WASHINGTON - None of us knows where they are headed, including the people themselves, the people who constitute the Temple football program. Some hold a grandiose vision that is mocked. Others embrace more modest goals. The destination will be debated for as long as the Owls play football. The debate is ingrained in the institution at this point.
Still, on a frigid field in a half-full stadium on the third-to-last night of the decade, it was impossible not to see that Temple football is headed someplace. Even the most cynical, even after a numbing defeat, could not help but say that this is no longer a road to nowhere.
Yes, history will record the score: UCLA 30, Temple 21. And, yes, it was not a classic college-football atmosphere: wind chill in the teens, ice on the field, 23,072 in old RFK Stadium at the EagleBank Bowl. And, yes, eight of the nine wins this season came against teams with losing records. These are just facts, and they will work to keep the conversation and the expectations from getting too loud.
But to deny the place where Temple football stands today is to ignore a history of wandering around in the wilderness. To pretend that this isn't different is to mock what now is reality, and what this group of players and coaches has put forth.
"A lot of hard work," said defensive back Dominique Harris, who has seen plenty since 2005, when he was a redshirt freshman.
"Blood, sweat and tears," Harris said, reaching for a cliche to try to explain a phenomenon, a transformation. Because that is what has happened here. There is no reason to believe that this is a fluke, or a blip. After starting only six seniors against UCLA, there is every reason to believe that Temple is only going to get better.
Al Golden, who made his own personal meteorological/fashion statement by coaching the game in a white dress shirt and a necktie, was asked at one point to try to take a long view of the proceedings. He had already said he didn't want the loss to detract from what the seniors on his team accomplished, and that was right. He also had said that the direction of the program was positive, and that was right, too.
But the rest of the long view would have to wait. "It's going to take some time, because this was tough," he said.
It was tough because the Owls held a 21-7 lead late in the second quarter and lost the game. They butchered a possession at the end of the half - "a disaster," Golden called it, accurately - and that led to a UCLA field goal. Later, they went for a fourth-and-1 in the third quarter instead of taking a field goal and didn't get it.
And then they lost the lead for good with 6 minutes to go in the game when UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers fell down, got up and shocked Temple quarterback Vaughn Charlton by being right there when he turned and threw a pass. Ayers intercepted the pass - really, he kind of engulfed it - and returned it 2 yards for a touchdown.
Golden's accurate summation: "Unimaginable."
All of which means, well, what? At this point, we are talking about perspective. Because there are people who will say that, despite the names on their jerseys, the UCLA Bruins are a nothing team right now and that Temple just got worn down by that level of athletes. There are other people, though, who will say that Temple just slugged it out with a representative team from a BCS conference - and, if running back Bernard Pierce had not reinjured his shoulder in the second quarter, the Owls might have been able to throw the one additional punch that might have been enough.
That argument is not going to be settled tonight. It is a debate that has surrounded the Temple football program for decades, and the changing of minds was not going to happen in one game, or in one season.
But watching Golden hectoring on the sideline . . . and seeing his players lock arms behind him as a sign of unity before every kickoff . . . and watching the 10,000 Temple fans in the stands, sharing a bowl experience for the first time . . . and looking at so many young players on the roster . . . and knowing that the MAC will perennially be a league in which Temple will be able to compete . . .
It is different. It just is. Even in a cold and hollow defeat, it just is.
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