There’s a thin layer of snow on the practice field outside of the Temple University football offices. No one’s used it for some time— the Owls, despite going 6-6 in 2014 and achieving bowl eligibility for the first time in three seasons, were one of six eligible teams not selected for a bowl game. As such, the field hasn't been trod upon since early December, left to the mercy of a particularly cruel Philadelphia winter.
Head coach Matt Rhule is still there, though. He's sitting in his office when I walk in, chattering away on the phone as he beckons for me to sit down. There's no offseason for Rhule, and that extends to the few minutes before our scheduled meeting. As I sit and shuffle the papers of my notebook, he’s pitching the university to a recruit against an in-state rival: "Pitt won six games last season," he says into the mouthpiece. "So did we."
Rhule exudes Philadelphia, which is ironic since he didn’t grow up there. He was born in New York and moved to State College in high school, where he went on to attend Penn State under Joe Paterno. But Philly leaks out of his words— he speaks colloquially, often referring to his team as "the kids," and genuinely believes he coaches in the best city in America ("it’s a world-class city," he’s fond of repeating). More than anything, he's attempting to bring a blue-collar toughness back to a program that had lost its way before he arrived.
"I want us to go back to the days when we were the toughest team on the field," he says, referencing the 'Temple Tough' motto established by former Owls basketball coach John Chaney. "We're not there yet. We weren't there this year, otherwise we would've won more games."
Rhule's not one to beat around the bush. He's disappointed in how the 2014 season ended, with two one-possession losses in his team's last two home games that could've propelled the Owls to a decisive seventh win. The Owls aren't blaming anyone but themselves. The locker rooms are adorned with pictures of bowling pins with a large red 'X' over them, a constant and not-so-subtle reminder of the team's postseason fate.
Rhule can still vividly remember the day that he and his team found out they'd be home for the holidays: his seniors, who missed a bowl for the third consecutive season, spoke to the team about learning to take advantage of their opportunities. "This is the best thing for us, moving forward," he recalls his players saying. As he snaps back into the present day, he chuckles. "I wouldn't have been able to be that mature."
Maturity is something that Rhule stresses in his team, because he believes it's a vital quality for an underdog to have. Like so many in Philadelphia have before him, he's embraced the underdog role at Temple. The Owls know that they're working at a perceived disadvantage in the American Athletic Conference - the Owls finished sixth after being pegged eighth in the preseason - and even in their own city.
Rhule is well aware that he coaches in a professional sports town, and that Temple, even for its best crowd of the season in its home opener against Navy, drew less than half of Lincoln Financial Field’s capacity.
"Philadelphia is a pro sports town, but they’re a smart sports town," Rhule says. "They know good football. If we’re playing it, people will watch it."
More and more people have been tuning in. Despite operating on the wrong side of the Power Five split, the Owls averaged about a thousand more people per home game in 2014 than they did in 2013. Behind a stifling defense that finished fourth in the nation with 17.5 points allowed per game, Temple notched as many wins in Rhule's third season at the helm as they did in his first two seasons combined. With all but two players from last year's starting lineup slated to return for the 2015 campaign and the Owls a trendy AAC title pick, Rhule is understandably optimistic about his program's future.
* * * * *
When I bring up the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in college football, the mild-mannered coach starts to go on the offensive. "The whole concept of Power Five is utterly ridiculous," he says. "All that’s about is TV money."
Rhule is trying to flip the idea of a power conference team on its head. To him, a team isn't inherently powerful because of the league they play in; a team is powerful if they play consistently competitive and exciting football. He cares little for the hangers-on in big-money leagues that are getting by on the accomplishments of other schools-- success, in his mind, is earned on an individual level, which starts and ends on the field.
Temple hasn't met their coach's standards of success quite yet, but he believes they're very much on pace. He cites UCF, the 2013 AAC champions who trounced Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, as a power team from within the Group of Five conferences. When I press him further, he rattles off a list of draft picks from the first, second and third rounds over the past decade, all homegrown from Temple. There's talent here, and he wants prospective Owls to know it.
"I ask guys, ‘You wanna play for a Power Five team, or do you wanna play for a Top 25 team?’" Rhule says. "The teams in the American will have a chance to play on New Year’s Day way before some of those teams in the Big Ten, ACC or SEC."
It's a bold statement, but he's not necessarily wrong. The American has had three teams earn at least a share of the conference title in the past two seasons, something no Power Five conference can claim. The Group of Five conferences are playing at a disadvantage as far as money and playoff access are concerned-- Rhule doesn't deny this-- but they allow for a level of parity that the blue blood-laden power conferences can't match.
It's a small victory, but it's something that Rhule can pitch to high school athletes looking at Temple along with teams from the ACC or Big Ten. He sees potential in Temple that no one has seen before: a perennial Top 25 team, and a team that competes for New Year's Day bowls.
If the Owls can reach that point ("and we're not there yet!" Rhule warns), would they really be more appealing to recruits than a mid-level power conference team? It's a fascinating question, and one that hasn't been answered due to the simple lack of any Group of Five team playing at such a high level. But Rhule truly believes the Owls can fill that void, and the 2015 season-- with over 90 percent of the team's starters returning-- is a pivotal step in his vision.
"I'll say this," he begins, with the air of a man preparing a knockout punch. "We were 6-6 this year and we were all bitterly disappointed. There are a lot of teams across the country that were 6-6 and were high-fiving and hugging."
For the Owls, the celebration will have to wait until they've achieved a few of Rhule's lofty goals.