No. 21 Temple follows Golden Rhule into high profile battle vs. Notre Dame
PHILADELPHIA — Temple coach Matt Rhule was only 11 the first time he left a stadium drenched in beer and responsible for an amazin' win.
Long before Rhule drew up X's and O's, he called the shots in favor of his beloved New York Mets.
World Series. 1986. Game 6. With the Mets down to their last out and the tying run on third, Rhule ordered up one more curse on the Boston Red Sox.
"How about a wild pitch!" he shouted from the concourse.
Sure enough, Bob Stanley's next pitch scooted toward the backstop and sent Kevin Mitchell scurrying home with the tying run.
"The fans picked me up and they're throwing beer all over me," Rhule said, laughing. "It was my first drink! And I ended up getting a chance to go to Game 7."
The Mets won the World Series and 29 years later they're back in it, though Rhule won't make any side trips this weekend to Citi Field.
He's kind of busy the night of Game 4.
The Temple Owls program that Rhule helped resurrect from the brink of extinction — first as an assistant, now in his third season as head coach — is perched as the top birds on the Philadelphia football scene.
No. 21 Temple is ranked for the first time since 1979 and 7-0 for the first time in history headed into Saturday's nationally televised primetime game against No. 9 Notre Dame (6-1).
Nearly 70,000 fans are expected at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL's Eagles. Temple lined up 50 buses leaving at 4:45 a.m. from campus to shuttle students to Independence Hall for ESPN's "GameDay" program.
Win or lose, the Owls are ready for their close-up.
"We embrace the moment. We don't pretend it's not here," Rhule said. "We don't pretend 'GameDay's' not coming. We don't pretend we're not playing Notre Dame. All those things are great. But they don't help us play better."
The Owls hardly need any help playing better as they ready for the biggest game — and there's not even a close second — in the program's 85-year history.
Take a walk in downtown Philadelphia and city street vendors hawk football gear, bellowing, "We have Temple Owl shirts! Best team in town!"
Rhule has led the charge, as at ease at local watering holes as he is challenging his players in gassers at practice. The 40-year-old former Penn State linebacker under Joe Paterno has become one of the hottest coaching prospects in the game.
"This is too fun of a time," he said.
Rhule broke down the season over lunch at his favorite spot, the South Philadelphia Tap Room, with a "Rocky" figurine peering over his shoulder from atop a shelf behind a bar. With "Creed" opening next month, Sylvester Stallone as Philadelphia's ultimate underdog character seems a natural fit as the "GameDay" celebrity picker.
Rhule has his own ideas: former Temple basketball coach John Chaney, musicians Hall and Oates or comedian Kevin Hart.
Rhule considers himself one these days after nine years of city life.
He's far removed from his days bouncing around as an assistant at Buffalo, UCLA and Western Carolina and cold-calling former Temple coach Al Golden, pitching himself for a job.
After a 30-minute talk, he didn't hear from Golden for some time, until he called with one question.
"Can you be here Monday?" Rhule said. "He never asked me a football question."
The Owls went 1-11 in 2006 playing as an independent — they had been booted from the Big East — and lost 62-0 in consecutive games. But then came four wins, then five and finally 9-4 in 2009, earning the Owls their first bowl game since 1979.
Rhule interviewed for the job in 2010 when Golden left for Miami but was passed over for Steve Addazio. Rhule left in 2012 and joined the New York Giants as assistant offensive line coach.
"My wife was just bawling," Rhule said. "The players had to come up and console her. But it wasn't just the NFL. It was the Giants. I wanted to do it forever."
When Addazio left for Boston College, Rhule got his shot. He went 2-10 in 2013 and felt the sting of missing out on the postseason last season with a bowl-eligible mark of 6-6.
Rhule has fans in high places, texting with Eagles coach Chip Kelly. Former Eagles coach Andy Reid, Giants coach Tom Coughlin and Jets coach Todd Bowles are all Temple supporters. Already linked to potential openings at Maryland and Virginia Tech, Rhule laughs at rumors he could be up for the same jobs as Kelly.
"I'd go with Chip!" he said, laughing.
Temple — which once voted to consider dropping football and is now considering building an on-campus stadium — is faced with the idea of a power conference trying to pluck its coach.
"Why would I be looking anywhere else," he said. "Now if something came along ... but that doesn't mean I'm looking for a job. It doesn't mean I'm going to leave. This is a special place to me."
His concern this week is blocking out the hype — even from inside Temple's practice facility.
Much like he tagged along with his dad to baseball games at 11 years old, Rhule has a son the same age who loves hanging around the team.
"He shows up at practice and is like, 'We're raaanked. We're raaanked,"' Rhule said in a sing-song voice. "I was like, bro, I'm going to fire you."
Just wait what happens if they beat the Irish.