Another Temple season had crashed and burned, and ended in the same unsatisfying middle the Owls had inhabited since the ’30s. By the end of 1986 they were 6-5. No bowl game. The young coach at the time took it hard, breaking out an expression to describe his feelings that was as philosophical as it was depressing.
“If you dream about things,” he told Sports Illustrated then, “you get broken dreams.”
That coach was Bruce Arians. He’s now regarded as one of the most-respected minds in the NFL, having won at least 10 games in all three of his seasons as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals play the Eagles at the Linc on Sunday and while the Birds are hanging on for life the Cardinals have wrapped up a playoff berth, probably as the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Two things are surprising here. The first: One of the NFL’s best coaches got his start at Temple, where coaching careers went to die in the 80s and 90s. The second: Temple forced him out. Arians didn’t leave for a better situation. But all of the above is true. Bruce Arians was once in charge of Temple’s program.
“Most people,” said former Temple defensive back Frank Bongivengo, “don’t realize it.”
Temple hired Arians in 1983 after the retirement of Wayne Hardin. Hardin had coached for 11 years and steered Temple toward something resembling respectability. The Owls made just one bowl game in that period and never beat Pitt or Penn State, but they finished with six winning records. Arians was pegged to build some consistency and get Temple closer to the level of the other top teams in the east.
He was one of the top coaching prospects in the entire country (Temple president Peter Liacouras called him the “most promising”), having worked as an assistant under the legendary Bear Bryant at Alabama. When Temple hired him in 1983, Arians was 30. That made him the youngest head coach in college football.
These days, the hire of a 30-year-old top Alabama assistant would’ve been all over Sportscenter and Twitter. College sports weren’t as big of a deal in the 80s, though. Paul Darragh, a linebacker, didn’t even hear about the hire from Temple. He first learned Arians would be his new coach when he read it in the newspaper at home during Winter Break in Pittsburgh. When the team arrived back at school, Arians and his staff met the team in an auditorium. They spoke with Southern accents and looked nearly the same age as the players they addressed.
But if the stereotype of a young coach is the “players coach” who goes a little softer on his team, Arians didn’t fit it.
“You’d screw up and you’d think BA would hate you,” said Todd McNair, a Temple running back who went on to play and coach in the NFL, referring to Arians by his nickname. “But then 10 minutes later he’s got his arm around you and he’s kidding and joking.”
Sometimes, it took longer than 10 minutes for Arians to make up with his players. In 1984, Temple lost on the road at Delaware in a game it should have easily won. At halftime, Darragh remembers Arians telling the team they’d be in big trouble if they lost. He promised he’d force them to scrimmage at 6 on Sunday morning. The final score was 34-19 Delaware, and the Temple players arrived back in town, slept for a few hours and then met on the practice.
“The next morning we had a full blown scrimmage, and it was brutal,” said Darragh, now the coach at Bloomsburg. “It was tough. But I will say this. There was some method to the madness.”
Temple won three of its next four games and finished the year 6-5. In Arians’ six years, they finished 6-5 twice and beat Pitt a total of three times, but finished with losing records in four seasons, playing schedules that were among the toughest in the nation. His overall record was 27-39, later changed to 21-45 because Temple forfeited those six victories in 1986 because running back Paul Palmer was associated with an agent.
But Temple thrived at developing talent. Palmer finished as the Heisman runner-up in 1986, and 12 players coached by Arians were drafted into the NFL. Only 15 players have been drafted into the NFL from Temple since.
“We never really could get all the way over the hump,” McNair said. “If they had kept him, we’d have been balling. They should’ve kept him. He definitely got us more respectability.”
Temple deserves blame, too. The administration wanted its football program to match Penn State and Pitt without putting forward the commensurate investment in facilities and equipment. Arians had asked for an indoor practice facility, for instance, and been turned down. In a Sports Illustrated interview shortly after his dismissal he put it this way: “When I started here, I was asking for buildings. Pretty soon I was only asking for pants and jerseys.”
It’s been nearly 30 years since Arians left. His time at Temple may be mostly forgotten by general sports fans but not his players. Bongivengo says he is in an email group with many former Temple teammates who have been talking plenty about Arians during the Cardinals’ 11-2 run. Terry Wright, a defensive back in the 80s, lives in the Phoenix area and still drops by the practice facility to chat from time to time. Darragh used to do the same when Arians was an assistant for the Steelers.
Arizona’s coaching staff features former Temple player Kevin Ross. Todd Bowles, head coach of the New York Jets, also played for Arians at Temple. Darragh got his first job as a graduate assistant under Arians, and McNair worked with Arians for the Cleveland Browns. Their roots to success all trace back to Temple and Arians.
“We didn’t have the best team in the world,” says McNair, “but we had a great group of people that were involved in the program.”