Tragedy and apathy gang up on Temple Terrapins' foe tonight faces variety of woes


PHILADELPHIA -- If the heart that they wear near their sleeves at Temple was anatomically correct, it would be broken.

The Owls grieved with their most famous alum, Bill Cosby, when his son Ennis was murdered in Los Angeles. They mourned the loss of Marvin Webster, the son of the former Morgan State star of the same name, who was felled by a heart condition before he ever played a basketball game for the Owls.

Within days of Webster's death in August, Michael O'Brien, the 9-year-old son of Temple athletic director Dave O'Brien, was killed in an auto accident.

Near the left shoulder, there's a heart stitched on the uniform jerseys of Owls football players. It's in memory of the dead, but it is also a poignant reminder of the troubled status of a football program that meets winless Maryland in a non-conference game at Franklin Field at 6 o'clock tonight.

What worries the Owls? Well, the Big East wishes they would go away and their leader may get fired if his team doesn't turn a corner this season, but those shouldn't be the biggest concerns of coach Ron Dickerson, who had surgery to treat prostate cancer in June.

"It's been a rough year for everyone," Dickerson said. He has pretty much known nothing but misery since he left college towns behind and took Temple's challenge of major-college football in an urban atmosphere in November 1992.

Dickerson and Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden were on

the same staff at Colorado in 1983 and 1984. Dickerson said there "was some chaos" in Boulder when Bill McCartney began remaking the Buffaloes into a national champion, and the disorder was good preparation for what he discovered on Broad Street.

"I interviewed every player on the team after I was hired," Dickerson said. "When offensive linemen proudly told me that they were benching 240 pounds, I hit the roof. When I was an assistant at Clemson, we had 27 players benching 400 pounds. It was about the same when I was at Penn State.

"When I got here, we didn't have a 400-pound bencher on the squad. Now, 20 kids can do that."

The Owls went 8-58 from 1991-96, and won once in the Big East in those six seasons. Not that anyone noticed. When Temple beat Boston College three weeks ago, the announced crowd at Veterans Stadium was 5,085.

Dickerson, 49, has plugged on, through the lack of interest, wins and a 1996 blood test which is designed to detect prostate cancer. The result dictated action, but Dickerson held off seeing a specialist until the end of last season.

Actually, Dickerson's 1996 campaign nearly ended in week five. In their second and third games, the Owls suffered consecutive four-point losses. After they blew a 19-point lead in the last eight minutes at Pitt, Dickerson shocked a post-game news conference with the announcement he was quitting.

Was his health a factor in that decision?

"I can't say that was going through my mind at the time," Dickerson said. "It was more frustration with our situation. I just couldn't see us improving like we are now."

Dickerson and O'Brien, the athletic director, talked the decision over the next day, and the resignation was withdrawn.

Dickerson, who said he had taken one week's vacation in his first four years here, recuperated at home for four weeks after prostate surgery in June. He hired two coaches from his home, made some schematic changes and saw key players like quarterback Kevin Harvey and fullback Stacey Mack become academically eligible.

Like Maryland, Temple is coming off two losses to ranked teams. After taking No. 12 Virginia Tech down to the final minute last week, the 1-3 Owls are feeling good about themselves. Still, Dickerson's overall record is 6-42, and if Temple doesn't get two or three wins by the time it gets to Navy on Nov. 8, he may not get a sixth season.

"At this point," O'Brien said, "we need to see the progress that we're making manifest itself in some wins."

O'Brien has compassion for Dickerson, but concerns which go beyond the coach.

The Apollo of Temple, a 10,000-seat basketball arena, will open across the street from gritty McGonigle Hall on Dec. 9. The Owls will have one of the Atlantic 10's premier basketball programs as long as John Chaney hangs on, but football is a revenue-producing sport only because of its affiliation with the Big East.

"People ask why we don't drop to I-AA, but it's I-A or bust," O'Brien said. "Economically, it would cost Temple $2 million in net costs to drop down. Through the Big East [television and bowl revenue], ticket sales and some donations which are inextricably linked to us being I-A, that's what it would cost to drop to I-AA."

Temple has 31,000 students, but it doesn't have an on-campus stadium to call its own. O'Brien said that neither do Miami, UCLA and USC, but this is a long way from South Florida and Southern California. Temple played Tulane in the inaugural Sugar Bowl in 1935, but it has played in one bowl since, the 1979 Garden State Bowl.

All things considered, is it the most difficult coaching job in major-college football?

"I'd say that," Dickerson said. "Walk around campus. There's no college program in the country like Temple."

Pub Date: 9/27/97

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