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Temple of bloom: How a historically bad team produced two elite college coaches

The sign over the locker room when Al Golden took the head coaching job at Temple summed up the journey facing the worst program in college football back in 2006. Golden hung a quote from British explorer Ernest Shackleton that will never be mistaken for a warm-and-fuzzy recruiting pitch: “Men wanted for a hazardous journey, small wage, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

Golden arrived at a Temple program so depleted that none of the 32 NFL franchises attended the school’s pro day that spring. He recalls playing the 2006 season with 54 scholarship players, and it wasn’t uncommon for broken glass or stray bullets to need to be cleared from the practice field.

Temple football in 2006 lost back-to-back games 62-0 and finished 1-11, the kind of season that typically doesn’t merit a 30-for-30. The school had narrowly voted to keep playing major college football, but the notion remained more theoretic than realistic. The program’s academics were in such bad shape that the NCAA ruled Temple would lose nine scholarships. When Golden gave his coaching staff a reading list that included “Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” they joked they were prepared to write the foreword and add three more.

More than a decade after one of the worst seasons of football this century, that 2006 Temple staff has crafted an unlikely legacy. It has produced two of the sport’s most promising young coaches, Baylor’s Matt Rhule and Ohio State’s Ryan Day, both of whom are undefeated this season and in the thick of contention for the College Football Playoff. Five members of Baylor’s staff have ties to that forgettable Temple season, which has served as a blueprint for the Bears in overhauling their program from 1-11 to Big 12 title contention in just two years.

That the 2006 Temple team would be remembered for anything other than ineptitude didn’t seem likely at the time. Rhule recalled a Friday night scrimmage in the spring where gunshot fire opened up near the practice fields. The entire roster hit the ground and quickly retreated to the locker room. “You’ve heard of a lightning delay,” Rhule said in a recent phone interview. “We had a shooting delay.”

Few could foresee the recognition that would come to the staff, which along with the Baylor crew boasts New York Giants assistant Ryan Roeder, Bengals wide receiver coach Bob Bicknell and longtime college defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. Day has No. 2 Ohio State 9-0 and is favored to reach the College Football Playoff, while Rhule has resuscitated Baylor from the depths of scandal. Most importantly, the “Temple Tough” foundation Golden poured into North Philadelphia can still be felt today in a high-functioning program. 

Baylor's Matt Rhule (L) and Ohio State's Ryan Day remain undefeated this college football season. (Getty)

“Temple made such a brilliant transformation,” said Golden, now an assistant coach with the Detroit Lions. “At the time, it was hard to find a crew willing to do it. From that little two-acre patch in Philadelphia, a lot of coaches came from there. It was a lot of fun.”

With ESPN’s “College GameDay” in Waco this weekend for No. 13 Baylor’s game against No. 10 Oklahoma, it will highlight the job Rhule has done guiding Baylor to 9-0. Along the way, the lessons learned from that 2006 Temple season will be on display. 

How Matt Rhule landed at Temple

Julie Rhule pulled off of Route 1 in North Philadelphia in December of 2005 and immediately blew a stop sign while turning onto Broad Street. Matt Rhule screamed, “STOP” and the black Nissan Maxima jerked to a halt. The car filled with plumes of powdered sugar, flying fudge and a mess of other scattered Christmas cookies.

Julie and Matt Rhule had taken a three-hour detour to go to Philadelphia on their way to visit their families in Pennsylvania for Christmas. Their 1-year-old son, Bryant, was in his car seat and two dogs and a cat crammed the Maxima.

The Rhules had driven up from Cullowhee, North Carolina, where Matt worked as the assistant head coach at Western Carolina. Julie Rhule worked in staffing at the time and encouraged Matt to drop by Temple to attempt to meet Golden. “You need to just drive there,” Julie Rhule recalled in a phone interview this week. “Go in the building. Meet this guy face to face and tell him it’s a mistake if he doesn’t hire you.”

The story of Baylor’s miraculous turnaround really begins at that stop sign, as that forced meeting proved the most critical juncture of Matt Rhule’s career. While it sounds romantic in retrospect, it was a pinch more awkward in reality. Rhule walked in the building and introduced himself to Nadia Harvin, the executive assistant to Golden. “I thought he was a little bit crazy just coming in off the street,” Harvin said with a laugh. Harvin later served the same role for Rhule when he became head coach at Temple, getting daily reminders of her initial impression.

Golden and Rhule knew of each other, as both played at Penn State. Amid trying to get together his first recruiting class, build a staff and the typical daily chaos of taking over a rebuild, Golden was a bit startled. “Here’s this guy,” he said with a laugh, “sitting outside my office.”

The two met, but Golden didn’t have any jobs. The Rhules went on with their Christmas break. When a job opened a few months later, Rhule happily became Temple’s defensive line coach. The three-hour detour changed the roadmap of his career, as Rhule suddenly found himself making around $65,000 a year – “quite a jump,” he recalls – and recruiting familiar territory in the Northeast. (To this day, Rhule will meet with any coach who stops by the Baylor football office.)

Rhule separated himself at Temple with his relentless energy and creativity. To fire up defensive linemen back in 2006, he’d splash coffee on his face at the end of a meeting. “All the time,” he said. “I would drink coffee in a unit meeting and then throw the rest of it on my face and say, ‘Let’s Go!’ at the end.”  

Rhule switched jobs from defensive line coach to quarterback coach in his second year and later became offensive coordinator. Rhule’s resourcefulness to motivate has stayed with his former players. When Temple rushed for a meager 72 yards against Kent State in 2008, Golden was irate at the impotence.

Then-Temple coach Matt Rhule yells to his team prior to a game against South Florida in 2016. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Rhule responded by setting up the offensive meeting room like a nightclub, with velvet ropes, a red carpet and wearing full doorman attire. He led the players to their seats with a flashlight and had everything but bottle service. When asked why, Rhule responded that they were in Club 72, mocking the run total. The next week, Temple scored 55 points and the club closed.

“Matt set a great standard as an assistant of how to get involved in your players’ lives to help develop them at a high level,” said Baylor assistant Mike Siravo, who was on the 2006 staff. “It’s the energy he puts into his players that separates him, then and now.”

Rhule still chuckles at having team operations staff clear an abandoned lot in North Philadelphia – including removing used needles – near the facility to help prepare for a game at Central Michigan in 2008. That was the heyday of coach Butch Jones and prolific quarterback Dan LeFevour. Temple wanted its toughness to travel, so Rhule challenged all the Temple defensive starters to a one-on-one Bull In the Ring hitting drill. Rhule wore a Central Michigan helmet, shoulder pads and a mouthpiece. He recalls 355-pound lineman Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton among those who pummeled him. “I had a crick in my neck for the next week,” Rhule says, adding that he brought the DVD of the drill with him to his head coach interview at Temple after the 2010 season.

Golden eventually completed one of the great turnarounds in college football history, as they took that ragtag 1-11 team to a 9-4 season three years later. Temple earned a bid to what’s now known as the Military Bowl.

It marked a fitting coda of one of the signs Rhule recalls Golden putting on the locker room wall. There was a picture from the 1979 Temple team celebrating its win in the Garden State Bowl with the message: “Start with the end in mind.”

To those who endured the dark seasons, that vision stayed the same. “The one thing that I can promise you and vividly remember,” said former Temple quarterback Adam DiMichele, who is an analyst there. “The way they coached and had us prepared and pushed us, that never wavered.”

What Ryan Day took from rough Temple season

Al Golden decided to interview Ryan Day, then a graduate assistant at Florida, after a strong recommendation from Urban Meyer. Golden kept hearing Day’s name from mutual friends, as both had worked previously at Boston College.

So when Golden flew Day up for the interview, he knew there was a good chance he’d be immediately sending the 26-year old Day on the road. “Pack heavy,” Golden recalls telling him, and Day showed up in North Philadelphia with an overstuffed duffel bag.

Day and his wife, Nina, were newlyweds at the time, with Nina taking the bus to work at a marketing job over by the Liberty Bell. The Days bought a row house in the Fairmount area. “You had to walk sideways to get into it,” Day said.

It wasn’t uncommon for the young staff members to grab wings and pints of Yuengling over at The Bishop’s Collar, a bar not far from the Days’ home. The Days did three stints in Philadelphia, as Day returned as offensive coordinator at Temple in 2015 and joined Chip Kelly’s staff with the Eagles in 2015. Still, 2006 stands out. “It was a fun experience,” Day said. “It was really city living before kids and all that, coming home and having dinner around the corner.”

The description of a young Ryan Day doesn’t vary much from the way his peers and players describe him now, as Golden recalls a “nothing-gets-in-the-way mentality.” Day wasn’t as outgoing as Rhule, but still communicated and motivated effectively.

“He had an aura about him, he was intense,” DiMichele said. “He could piss you off because of how he pushed you and motivated you, wanting you to be perfect.”

Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day reacts during the second half against the Maryland Terrapins at Ohio Stadium. (USA Today)

What Day recalls from that season was how much Golden focused on recruiting, knowing the talent upgrades needed. Instead of watching opponent film the Friday night before a game, the staff would watch recruiting tape.

Day and Rhule have remained in touch, with mutual respect from shared experiences. Day recalls identifying Rhule as someone who would be a head coach because he “had a wider vision than just his own players.” Rhule recalls Day having a high coaching ceiling because he not only knew what to run, but the “why” and “how” of offensive football. 

Both coaches have endured challenging seasons since that time. It’s easy to forget that in 2016, Day was the San Francisco 49ers quarterback coach when they went 2-14. Rhule went 2-10 in his first season as head coach at Temple, including losses to Fordham and at Idaho. Baylor went 1-11 in 2017, his first year there.

Siravo summed up that 2006 season at Temple by joking: “Every day was an episode of ‘24.’” But Day perked up when asked what he learned as a coach from attempting to scheme with an undermanned team.

“Just that you have to figure out ways to win,” he said. “When you don’t have as good of players, you have to be creative and figure out ways to move the ball. You have to find an edge. If you’ve never had to do that before, it’s a challenge.”

That’s why Day’s favorite memory from 2006 Temple came from their 28-14 upset of Bowling Green, as Day still recalls Travis Shelton’s 96-yard kickoff return. “That was like Christmas, the greatest day of my life,” said Evan Cooper, a Baylor assistant who played on that team.

Day’s voice still puffs with pride, thinking back. “We had no right winning that game with that cast of characters,” he said.

How Rhule approached rebuilding Baylor

In the next month, Rhule’s ability to turn around Baylor will be on full display. No. 10 Oklahoma and No. 19 Texas both come to Waco, and there’s a strong chance the Bears will end up playing for the Big-12 title in December.

Rhule inherited a dire situation at Baylor, taking over a program with one committed recruit in December of 2016. The interim staff Rhule was in the process of replacing was still needed for their bowl game, and they were openly fighting with the university. This all came in the wake of a searing wave of sexual assault allegations from the tenure of former coach Art Briles. Simply put, it was one of this generation’s biggest messes.  

Rhule had nothing to do with the scandal and channeled Golden’s early mantra: Start with the end in mind. Siravo, co-offensive coordinator Jeff Nixon, Cooper and offensive consultant George DeLeone all flashed back to 2006 during that first year. “Coach’s message stayed constant,” Nixon said of Rhule. “We were laying the foundation. When we were ready to win, we’ll win.”

Rhule took a lot from Golden, as the organizational fundamentals of this Baylor rebuild mirror what Golden did at Temple. That’s everything from documents that players sign before the season to Rhule flipping out if there are boxes in the hallway. “Al had a blueprint and vision for the way he wanted it to be,” Rhule said.

Four Temple coaches later, that foundation has held up in Philadelphia, including Rhule’s tenure from 2013-16. Golden takes pride that Temple has remained on the ascent, while pieces of his blueprint can be found everywhere from Columbus to Waco.

“The thing that makes us most proud to this day is that we built a culture and structure that could endure and has endured,” Golden said.

The hazardous journey of 2006 Temple ended long ago. But the honor and recognition from its lessons still reverberate.

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