Golden enjoying the journey with Temple

Al Golden was a tight end at Penn State . After watching the Nittany Lions beat Georgia to win the national title in 1983, he made his college choice. On Saturday, the Temple coach will go up against his former coach and mentor, Joe Paterno.
Al Golden was a tight end at Penn State . After watching the Nittany Lions beat Georgia to win the national title in 1983, he made his college choice. On Saturday, the Temple coach will go up against his former coach and mentor, Joe Paterno.
Posted: September 24, 2010

Alfred Golden stood over the boy he had just knocked out. "Get up," he screamed. "Get up! My father's going to kill me."

Golden was 12 years old, playing in a football game dubbed the Friendship Bowl. It was supposed to be a friendly game between teams in Central Jersey. Nothing at stake, not even bragging rights. Just fun.

But Golden didn't have an off button. He was an intense, competitive kid. As the youngest of Al and Toni Golden's three sons, he had to be that way to keep up.

So even though his father had warned him to "take it easy" because the game was called the Friendship Bowl for a reason, young Alfred couldn't play at half speed. He leveled his opponent, then immediately feared the repercussions.

"I just shook my head and said, 'Aw, man,' " Al Sr. said.

That boy is now the man who has brought Temple football back from the dead. In five years, Al Golden - his mother routinely calls him Alfred, everyone else just calls him Al - has turned the Temple Owls from a national joke into a contender that is 3-0 heading into a pivotal matchup Saturday with Penn State, Golden's alma mater.

Once synonymous with losing, Temple entered this season as the favorite to win the Mid-American Conference title and make a repeat appearance in a bowl game. After losing 16 of their first 17 games under Golden, the Owls have gone 18-14. The players' academics, discipline, and self esteem are up, and the program's brand image as a renegade loser has been wiped away.

"To call him a savior might not be too strong," Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw said.

Sure. Call Golden Temple's savior. Just don't ask him how long he is going to stay.

Opportunity knocks

Al Golden was not happy. It was the Tuesday before last Saturday's game against Connecticut, and the first-team offense was getting embarrassed by the scout-team defense. Wearing black shorts, a black long-sleeved T-shirt, and a cherry visor, Golden was overseeing an 11-on-11 drill, and he abruptly yelled for junior tight end Evan Rodriguez to go to the sideline.

"I want the guys who are tough," Golden yelled at Rodriguez. "No toughness, no title. I'm not talking to the sky. I'm talking to you. No toughness, no title."

Golden peppered his players with sayings about work ethic and focus throughout the two-hour practice. He has a reservoir of them. Some are his own. Others are borrowed from the library of books he has read penned by politicians, business leaders, and coaches. In conversation, he might quote Bill Gates or Bill Walsh, depending on his purpose.

Golden, 41, didn't always want to be a coach. Hardly. He wanted to be the governor of New Jersey.

His parents preached patience and the value of hard work to all three of their sons. Golden's mother Toni immigrated to the United States from Italy at the age of 13 after spending five years in an Italian refugee camp. His father Al grew up in Jersey City one of five boys whose father died when he was 8. Toni and Al met at the Jersey Shore over Memorial Day weekend in 1957, married in 1960, and raised their family in Matawan, N.J., while Al worked as director of operations for Dean Witter at the World Trade Center.

"I was strict," said Toni, sitting with her husband at the kitchen table in their shore home in Mantoloking, N.J. "I had to be. He was always working. The boys, they were good, always busy."

The Golden boys grew up playing hockey, football, and baseball with a slew of neighborhood kids. Al was big for his age, and he competed with both of his brothers, but particularly with Greg, who is six years older.

"I used to tell my oldest son that he should be careful of Al, because Al's going to kill him," Al Sr. said. "I said, 'He's going to hit you with a baseball bat, you keep teasing him and teasing him.' "

After watching Penn State beat Georgia to win its first national title on New Year's Day 1983, Golden promptly told his parents that he was going to go to State College to play football and study pre-law. And that's exactly what he did.

Golden was a two-year starter at tight end for the Nittany Lions. As a junior in 1990, he caught a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter to help beat Notre Dame, and he was the team's offensive captain as a senior in 1991, the season Penn State beat Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl to finish 11-2 and third in the nation.

Golden completed his undergraduate degree in four years and got halfway through a master's degree in political science before trying to make a career in the NFL. He made the New England Patriots in 1992, but was cut in 1993. On Golden's way out the door, Bill Parcells, then the Patriots coach, offered him unsolicited advice.

"He said, 'Look, guys like you can play in the league. You can bounce around and make it in the league. But you can do other things,' " Golden said.

Golden bounced to the San Diego Chargers, but was cut after a couple of weeks. On the flight home to Newark, N.J., he decided he wanted to be a college football coach. When he stepped off the plane, Golden had his plan: Be a coordinator by 30, and a head coach by 35.

He missed each goal by one year. After three years as a graduate assistant at Virginia and stops as a position coach at Boston College and Penn State, Golden became defensive coordinator at Virginia, where he stayed for five years before Temple came calling.

When he got the call, Golden was ready, in part because he had learned the game at the feet of Joe Paterno, Bill Parcells, George Welsh, Tom O'Brien, and Al Groh.

"I was always fortunate to be in a values-based environment," Golden said. "To hear Coach Paterno talk or be a part of Virginia . . . it was never about winning. It was about doing the right thing, making good decisions, and taking care of the process."

Said Paterno about his former tight end: "I think overall, Al may have learned some things from us. I don't know, but he's pretty much his own man."

Golden is one of a select few people even being theorized about succeeding the 83-year-old Paterno.

Bradshaw interviewed Golden on Nov. 6, 2005, the morning after Virginia clubbed Temple, 51-3.

Bradshaw had talked to other coaches about replacing Bobby Wallace, who had resigned. All of the candidates asked about Temple's problems. The Big East had kicked Temple out of the conference, so it had no conference affiliation, and the roster was packed with mostly junior-college transfers with low grades and a lower work ethic.

The Owls were 3-31 in the previous three seasons, and had experienced just one winning season in the previous 25 years.

"Temple was like a death march," Bradshaw said.

The AD had three things to sell. The board of trustees was committed to keeping the program on the Division I-A level. The university had just signed a 15-year lease with the Eagles to use Lincoln Financial Field. And Temple had agreed to join the MAC for football.

"Most coaches asked about the problems of Temple football - how it got there, how bad it was," Bradshaw said. "A rare couple of coaches looked at it as a challenge. Al was the only coach that got by those two stages and looked at it as an opportunity. The only one."

On Dec. 6, Temple introduced Al Golden as the 24th head football coach in school history.

Enjoying the moment

Al Golden is that guy. He has a blowup mattress in his office, and although he swears he hasn't slept there since before the season started, there are two pillows and a crumpled quilt on top.

Nearby sits Golden's personal bible, a three-ring binder that is six inches thick and filled with his organizational plan for his program. He started working on it during his graduate assistant days at Virginia, and it outlines everything from how to run practice to what core values to teach.

It's not an accident that Golden has Temple back in the national discussion, albeit for positive, rather than negative, reasons.

Golden describes himself and his staff as "throwback" in their approach to running a college football program. It took him 18 to 20 months just to get the players "to understand what winning organizations do."

"Good teams," Golden said, "don't have distractions."

Now in his fifth year at Temple, Golden, who last season started wearing a white dress shirt and tie on the sideline because his mother told him he looked sloppy wearing a sweatshirt, is working with a team of players he recruited. He has had time to mold this team, and it started by building a strong defense and then working on the offense.

This season, Temple has beaten Villanova and notched its first-ever overtime win, over Central Michigan. After beating Connecticut last Saturday, the Owls are 3-0 for the first time since 1979 and have won a school-record eight consecutive home games.

The success, however, breeds a distraction Golden doesn't want. He has earned the reputation as one of the nation's hottest up-and-coming coaches, and in the last couple of years interviewed for vacancies at UCLA, Tennessee, and Notre Dame. (Some say the UCLA job was Golden's for the taking in 2007.)

But Golden doesn't want to talk about any of that.

"Everybody's always talking about tomorrow. Nobody enjoys today," Golden said. "I keep telling the kids, 'Today matters. Enjoy it. Enjoy the journey.'

"Maybe I'm weird. Maybe it's my parents. I've always believed the future will take care of itself. I don't know what that means. Does that mean Temple is going to build a stadium, and I'm going to stay here 30 years? I don't know."

Golden rattles off a laundry list of positives Temple has going for it, and gets testy when pushed about how long he will stay.

"It's easy for people to say, 'He's going to leave,' because they're not the one blazing the trail," Golden said. "They're not the pioneer. They're not the one sleeping here or giving up time with their family. There's a lot of us in this building every day that say, 'We get a stadium here, this would be unbelievable. We could kill people.' There's a lot of people in this building that go to work every day that have given up a big part of the last 41/2 years to turn the program around and are like, 'Why are they pushing us out the door?' "

There are no plans to build an on-campus stadium at Temple, but Bradshaw said, "I wouldn't deny it's a point of discussion, because it is." He added, "We're playing in the nicest football arena on the planet, and we use that to recruit, and the kids love playing there."

While others worry about how long Golden will stay, the Temple coach will focus on the task at hand, which this week is to win his first game in his fifth try against Penn State. The rest will come in due time.

"I hope you understand what I'm saying," Golden said. "Before Boise was Boise, they were Temple. Before Texas Christian was Texas Christian, they were Temple. Before Utah went to the Pac-10, they were Temple. And I guess I just need some of the Temple people to realize that.

"If there's any frustration, it's probably that. All those alums that want to push me out the door, how about getting on board? How about getting on board, because we're kind of enjoying this right now."


Contact staff writer Ashley Fox at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.

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