By Tim Casey
PHILADELPHIA -- Each Thursday during the school year, Peter Chodoff travels a half hour from his home in New Jersey to Temple University to meet with and offer free advice to students interested in medical school, dental school and other healthcare-related graduate programs. Chodoff, an anesthesiologist and 1947 Temple alum, enjoys helping his alma mater anyway he can.
His passion extends to athletics, particularly football. He is one of the team's most generous donors. Its practice field is named after him. His longtime devotion to the program is admirable, if not a bit hard to fathom considering the team's lousy history.
"I have an older brother who's a psychiatrist," Chodoff said. "He used to think I was crazy to follow them."
Chodoff, 88, never wavered, though, and his loyalty comes with perks. On Saturday, he will be in South Bend, Ind., sitting in the stands as Temple begins its season hoping for a stunning upset over Notre Dame, the defending BCS runner-up. Millions of fans will watch on NBC, and 80,000-plus will fill Notre Dame Stadium. For longtime Owls fans, it will be a scene they couldn't have envisioned a few years ago when the sport's future at the school was in limbo.
In early March 2001, the Big East's presidents unanimously voted to kick Temple's football team out of the conference because of poor records and attendance figures and for not meeting requirements with regards to issues such as non-conference scheduling. The Owls remained in the Big East until 2004, but they ended with their 14th consecutive losing record, a period during which they never won more than four games in a season.
During the summer of 2004, then-University president David Adamany convened a 12-person task force headed by Board of Trustees member Patrick O'Connor to examine the athletics programs. The discussion mainly concerned whether to stop playing football or drop down a level or two.
Asked by the Philadelphia Inquirer in July 2006 if he would have dropped football if he had the sole discretion, Adamany replied "that's a very tough question" but admitted he "might very well have closed the program" in 2003 or 2004. Adamany, who is now a professor at Temple, refused comment for this story.
"I can tell you -- [Adamany] was not very well thought of," said Bill Rinck, 85, a 1951 Temple graduate and founder of the Owl Club, the school's athletics fundraising club. "It was devastating."
The argument against football didn't only involve on-field performance. The program annually had one of the worst home attendances in the country, dealt with a large number of players transferring and having academic issues and lost millions of dollars every year. Even O'Connor, a football supporter, now admits the program was "broken." However, by a slight margin, the task force announced in January 2005 that Temple would continue fielding a team, albeit it one without a conference affiliation for the next two years.
"It was a very close vote," said O'Connor, the chairman of the Board of Trustees since July 2009. "There were some people that said it was a money losing program, it was broken in many ways, and why do we sustain it? The majority of the members of that committee and the majority of the board believed that football is a key focus of a major University. It can help with alumni support. It can bring disparate groups together as one. It can create a new spirit with the student body -- give them reasons to cheer for their school. And it kind of gives us an opportunity to bring in people who have these athletic skills to come to a unique urban institution and get a great education. It was a win-win. We're not disappointed with the decision."
Still, the Owls' turnaround didn't occur overnight. Sitting on a couch in his home earlier this month, Chodoff brought up the woeful 0-11 season in 2005 that included a 65-0 loss at Wisconsin and a 70-7 defeat at Bowling Green. That December, Temple replaced coach Bobby Wallace with Virginia defensive coordinator Al Golden, a 36-year old New Jersey native.
Under Golden, the Owls improved from 1-11 in 2006 to 9-4 in 2009, when they made their first bowl appearance in 30 years and only their third bowl game in the program's 111-year history. After leading Temple to an 8-4 record in 2010, Golden accepted the job as head coach of Miami. Few people had a problem with Golden taking a better-paying, more prestigious position.
"He was a wonderful young man who did a great job for us," O'Connor said.
Steve Addazio, Florida's offensive coordinator, took over and led the Owls to a 9-4 record and bowl victory in 2011. Last December, following a 4-7 season, Addazio left for Boston College.
As soon as Addazio announced his departure, Matt Rhule started contacting everyone he knew connected to the program. Rhule, a popular assistant under Golden, had been passed over for the head coaching position during the search for Golden's successor. He spent a year with Addazio before serving last season as the New York Giants' assistant offensive line coach. When the Temple job opened again, Rhule wasn't about to let his previous disappointment stop him from pursuing the opportunity. His supporters included defensive tackle Levi Brown and quarterback Clinton "Juice" Grainger, both of whom vouched for Rhule during a team meeting with then-athletics director Bill Bradshaw. Rhule's hire became official on Dec. 17.
"I knew he would come back here and just want to get it the way that it used to be," Brown said. "He would want to change it back to being a tough-nosed team, playing great defense. I know that coach Rhule loves the atmosphere at Temple. He's a Temple guy."
Rhule, a State College, Pa. native, proved his devotion to the program shortly after Golden's hire. Rhule, a Western Carolina assistant at the time, contacted Jeff Nixon, a good friend and former Penn State teammate who had been hired as Temple's running backs coach. Rhule drove to Philadelphia on his own dime to introduce himself to Golden, who also played at Penn State but before Rhule and Nixon. Although there were no spots available on the staff, Rhule's initiative paid off a month later when Golden called and offered him a job coaching the defensive linemen after a Temple assistant departed. Even when he was with the Giants last year, Rhule returned to campus several times.
"I love this University and love living in Philadelphia," Rhule said. "For me, it was just a chance to come back home. The minute I heard [Addazio left], my heart started beating. I said, 'Oh, let me go try to get this thing'. Luckily for me it worked out."
Challenges remain, though. Even now, the football team continues to lose money, although O'Connor said the deficits are narrowing. He was encouraged by a recent television rights deal. As a member of the American Athletic Conference, Temple's athletics department will receive an average of $1.8 million per year from 2014 through 2020 from ESPN and CBS.
It doesn't help that Temple pays more than $1 million annually through 2017 to play its home games at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles and around six miles from campus. O'Connor said "the Eagles could treat us much better than they have" and added that Temple may consider building a 30,000- to 45,000-seat on-campus stadium for football and other sports if it's economically feasible and the program continues to improve.
Despite the on-field improvement, fan interest remains low in a city that loves its professional teams and college basketball but has never embraced college football. In 2012, Temple had an average home attendance of 26,580, ranking 85th among the 127 teams in the Division 1 football bowl subdivision.
Still, O'Connor, Temple president Neil Theobald and other influential leaders are committed to the program. The school recently opened an on-campus, 32,000 square foot indoor practice facility for football and other sports and spent $10 million for a 15,000-square foot expansion to a football-only facility next to the outdoor practice field.
"We're stepping up," O'Connor said. "If you're going to play in the big leagues, you have to provide the resources to play in the big leagues. I think we've done that as a board and as a University."
Said Rinck: "People such as myself are very upbeat…You can't nickel and dime your way to stardom. But time will tell."
The Rhule era begins with low expectations, at least from the outside. The American Athletic Conference's preseason media poll had Temple ninth in the 10-team league. Last Thursday, Rhule announced junior quarterback Connor Reilly would make his first career start on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, a difficult setting for a player who has never thrown a pass in a college game.
Rhule, 38, has told the Owls to embrace the season opener as a chance to show the nation Temple can play with the best teams. It will be Rhule's first game as a head coach. It will also be another unlikely step for a program that was once close to extinction.
"Think about six or seven years ago -- did any of us really think, could have imagined Temple being on national TV playing Notre Dame on NBC in front of that many millions of households?" Rhule said. "Now that we're here, let's not be nervous about it. Let's go have fun and play."
Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.