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People Are Finally Starting to Give a Hoot About Temple's Owls

January 22, 1987|JOHN VALENTI | Newsday

PHILADELPHIA — For years, it seemed no one knew or even cared that the basketball team at Temple University won games. It lacked the ingredients necessary to attain success in a high-visibility world.

It used a patterned, straight-laced offense run by patient, straight-faced players. And it wasn't on television, unless you count the times it served as the butt of jokes by the school's most famous graduate, Bill Cosby.

Without a television contract, which helped make that other college team from Philadelphia famous, Temple is as popular as a cheese steak sandwich and soft pretzels with mustard -- no one seemed to notice outside of Philly. Not the pollsters. Not a nation of potential fans.

Mention the Owls and the response was inevitable. Whooooo?

A commuter school located on Broad Street in a historic but rough-and-tumble North Philadelphia neighborhood, Temple even failed to attract enough fans from its 33,000-member student body to fill 4,500-seat McGonigle Hall, its home court.

"The problem has always been visibility," Temple coach John Chaney said. "There was this perception of what Temple was and, without a big television contract, there was no way to counter it. There was a stretch when a great deal of change took place. There was the birth of the Big East, the advent of big-time basketball. It was like a horse coming through town. You got to jump on that horse or you'll be left in the dust. Temple was left behind."

So while a Philadelphia school such as Villanova reaped the benefits of the television age -- Who can ever forget Rollie Massamino, arms raised in triumph, after the Wildcats beat Georgetown for the National Collegiate Athletic Association title? -- Temple became known simply as "the best team nobody saw."

"I know I got a lot of flak from people in school when I signed with Temple," Nate Blackwell said. "They asked me, 'Didn't you have a chance to go anywhere else?' " And Blackwell, now a starting guard for the Owls, is from Philadelphia. "Heck, when I watched basketball on television," he said, "I was a Villanova man."

But things change. Even in this day and age, it is hard to corner the television market, as well as the recognition it brings, forever. What Penn State did despite vanilla football, Temple has also managed to do despite its knack for keeping a low profile. It put itself in a position where it no longer could be ignored, because it never stopped winning games.

After years of trying, Temple, not ranked in a single preseason poll, has convinced the skeptics it deserves to be considered among the elite of college basketball. The Owls are 16-2 and ranked No. 11. They even sold out McGonigle Hall -- a Dec. 15 game against UCLA -- for the first time in the 18-year history of the gym. And Temple will appear on national television when its game at Alabama-Birmingham is broadcast Saturday on CBS.

"For so long we went unnoticed, but finally we're gaining respect for the records we've had," Blackwell said. "Coach always said, 'It doesn't matter what other people think.' But it is nice to see we are starting to get the respect we deserve. Used to be, we would get on a plane and people would say, 'Temple? Where is that?' Now it's, 'Hey, I see you guys are having a good year.' "

But Temple, which has lost only a three-point decision at Kansas and a last-second decision to No. 1 Nevada-Las Vegas at the Garden in the semifinals of the preseason Big Apple NIT, has always had good years. It just never had anyone pay attention before.

It was Temple that won the first National Invitation Tournament, back when winning it meant you really were national champion. But how many can remember 1938? And though Temple always has been a power in the Big 5 -- a city battle waged between the five major Philadelphia colleges since 1955-56 -- it always was overshadowed. The Owls have won the Big 5 title 10 times. Second-best, of course, to St. Joseph's 13 titles. They have shared the title more often -- nine of those 10 times -- than any school. Of course.

Since the 1955-56 season, Temple has won 20 games a season 15 times, been to the Final Four twice in nine NCAA Tournament appearances, been to the NIT 10 times -- it won the championship in 1968-69 -- and had a losing record just four times. The Owl without a vowel, Bill Mlkvy, won the NCAA scoring title in 1950-51, when he averaged 29.2 points.

Yet, think of basketball in Philadelphia and you think of Villanova, Pennsylvania, La Salle and even St. Joseph's. But Temple?

Yes, Temple, which entered this season ninth on the all-time list for victories with 1,230. Of course, Penn was sixth. Temple has averaged about 25 wins the past three seasons -- "By the time I get out of here," Blackwell said, "I'll have a hundred wins" -- against an average of six losses. The Owls have made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament the past three seasons, only to be stopped by North Carolina, Georgetown and Kansas.

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