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Sports views: Over before it began

Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2005

Their season was over before it began. Not literally, of course. Even after losing their first two games by a combined 128-16 score, the Temple Owls still get to play the remaining nine, though why they'd want to might not be fully explained until Disney makes an after-school TV special about their season someday.

The Owls have enjoyed two winning seasons in the last 25 years, and the only way they'll be able to measure progress after this one is by counting bruises. Because of what athletic director Bill Bradshaw ruefully calls ''a perfect storm,'' Temple was forced to schedule eight opponents who went to bowl games last season, including five that ended it ranked among The Associated Press' Top 25.

It's an itinerary that only John Chaney, the combative basketball coach-sage who put the Philly school on the sporting map, could love. In college football, though, it looks suspiciously like a casting call for extras to appear in other teams' highlight reels.

On Saturday, for instance, the Owls are four-touchdown underdogs against Toledo — at home. Homecoming brings the Miami Hurricanes to town on Oct. 15, which should get the alumni parties off to a rollicking start.

''I didn't choose that,'' Temple coach Bobby Wallace noted over the phone Tuesday afternoon, just before heading over to practice.

''To be honest,'' he added, ''I didn't choose any of this.''

But Wallace and his boys will play them one at a time, no matter how hopeless or how bad a shellacking they take in each. If there's a redeeming side to this story, that's it.

A year ago, as Temple was beginning its final season as the designated patsy in the Big East Conference, a university task force was studying whether Division I-A football was worth the expense. In the past half-dozen years, the school shelled out big bucks for a new practice facility and field and signed a 15-year lease to play home games at Lincoln Financial Field. The question was whether they were throwing good money after bad.

Dropping down into Division I-AA was cheaper, and dropping football altogether the cheapest option of all. And by the time Bradshaw received his marching orders in January — keep Temple in Division I-A, prepare to become a full member of the Mid-American Conference by the 2007 season — the ''perfect storm'' was already brewing.

He needed to come up with 11 games, five of them at home, to retain I-A status, and find four MAC games to qualify as an affiliate member. His brethren in athletic departments around the country were sympathetic — up to a point.

So he wound up dropping two games the Owls had a chance to win, against middling North Carolina State and Middle Tennessee State, and picking up mighty Wisconsin. The one consolation is that taking Wisconsin off Western Michigan's hands cleared the Broncos to visit Philly on Sept. 24. It's the one time Temple might be favored all season, but overconfidence shouldn't be a problem; even Western Michigan is 3-0 all-time against the Owls. As far as breaks, that was it.

The game against the Hurricanes — who've won 12 straight over Temple by an average of 34 points — was a leftover contract from the Big East days. The opening week sojourn to Arizona State was the result of a commitment made in 1998, Wallace's first season as head coach.

''When I got here,'' Wallace recalled, ''it didn't look bad all by itself.''

But he knows better now. Wallace had to recruit the last three years knowing the Owls were being kicked out of the Big East and unable to promise where they would land. As a result, his squad is long on transfer students and short on size and talent. When he finally had a 2005 schedule to hand his kids, he had to decide how to break the news.

He could have told them Temple will be a great fit in the MAC three years down the road, finally matched against schools with similar budgets and expectations. And he could have told them it was going to require some big-time sacrifices until then. But Wallace didn't have to.

''They all understood,'' he recalled. ''Look, we played people like that in the Big East all the time, so it wasn't like it was a shock.''

Besides, precious few of the kids Wallace collected came expecting to play for anything more than respectability. They knew the odds before they signed. Many came because it was their only I-A offer, others because being a longshot to continue the Owls' tradition of sending players to the NFL every so often was better than no shot at all.

''I worry about the things I can control,'' said Mike Mendenhall, who played high school football across the river in New Jersey and turned himself into a second-team All-Big East pick at defensive end as a junior last year.

''I came here knowing Temple was building a program. Now, we've got all the pieces in place, and soon, we'll be playing teams on an equal footing,'' he added.

Mendenhall just won't be around long enough to see that day. His only chance at payback is an upset, and a look at the rest of the schedule offers little encouragement.

''Hey,'' Mendenhall said finally, cheered by the thought, ''I always wanted to play the best, anyway.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org.



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