Temple’s near national title miss

Musing about how rigged college football has become in this space last week makes you appreciate how fair it once was.

One such year was 1979.

Only two teams finished unbeaten that season, eventual national champion Alabama (12-0) and runnerup USC (11-0-1). Pitt was 11-1.

Had Wayne won another wrestling match with Paterno at Beaver Stadium and found two more points in a 10-9 loss to Pitt, the Owls would have probably played Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and maybe won the national title.

Temple, with any luck, could have played Alabama, maybe beat them, in the Sugar Bowl and hoisted that national title trophy instead of the Crimson Tide.

The Owls played a much-tougher schedule then, lost to Pitt only by one and led Penn State by a point at halftime before inexplicably going away from a run game that worked in the first half to a passing game that didn’t in the second half of an eventual 22-7 loss. The crowd at Beaver Stadium that day was the largest ever to watch a Penn State game to that point. (They would eventually expand the field from 82,986 to 100K plus shortly after that.)

Even to this day, a couple of the offensive linemen who played for Temple that day told them Penn State defenders came up to them and said, “Why did you guys stop running the ball?”

Water under the dam now but, if the Owls had scrounged up 17 more points they would have finished unbeaten and untied.

A couple of interesting scores that year indicate the Owls would have been more than competitive against the Tide had a game materialized.

Tennessee, a team that lost to Rutgers, 13-7, that year, gave Bama a relatively competitive game in a 27-17 loss. Temple smoked that same Rutgers team, 41-20, on the road.  Temple beat California, 28-17, by a greater score than that USC did (24-14).

You can take comparative scores with a grain of salt, but those scores indicate Temple’s 1979 team had nothing to fear from anyone.

Only the 1934 squad could put up an argument that it was better than the 1979 team but I will take the 1979 team all day long. First, the 1934 Sugar Bowl team lost. The 1979 bowl team won. Back then, everybody was Power 5 and Temple was in the elite of that group.


The 1979 Owls captained by Mark Bright and Steve Conjar not only beat every team they were favored to beat but pulled a couple of upsets in a big way. They were not favored to beat Syracuse–with future NFLers’ Art Monk, Joe Morris, and Bill Hurley–but they destroyed the Orange, 49-17. They were not favored to win the Garden State Bowl but beat California, 28-17.

Consider that: TEMPLE winning a National Championship in football. It was thisclose …

Those were the days in college football when there were no participation trophies. You had to be really good and not just one of the best 80 teams to earn a bowl bid. Only 30 teams were extended bowl invitations.

There are now 40 bowl games. In 1979, there were only 15. Temple won one of them. The Owls finished ranked No. 17 in both polls (then, UPI and AP).

Screenshot 2019-10-11 at 1.20.42 PM
That’s it. The entire list of bowl games in 1979

On a cold January afternoon in 2021, the mere thought of that 1979 team is a warm one. It might be as close as Temple ever gets to playing on an even field in this sport again.


13 thoughts on “Temple’s near national title miss

  1. Mike, wow great article. Food for thought.

    • 1979 team would have beat the 2016 team 48-7. Simple fact. The 1979 team played the 11th-toughest schedule in the country. The 2016 team played the 87th-ranked schedule in the country. The 2016 team lost to freaking Wake Forest, a mediocre 6-6 ballclub. Give me a break. Temple not only won a bowl game when there were only 15, it beat one of the other bowl-winning teams, 49-17. The 2016 team was five Solar Systems away from the 1979 team. The 1934 team? Yeah. A compelling argument can be made it was in the same neighborhood. Hell, the 1979 Rutgers team Temple beat 41-20 would have crushed both of Matt Rhule’s 10-win teams.

      • If the initial incarnation of the Big East existed in 1979, TU would have been a Gator Bowl team at worst with a chance at a Bowl Alliance/Bowl Coalition spot. I agree with you about there being no comparison between the schedules because there really wasn’t. A number of AAC teams are capable of okaying great football but overall the AAC just doesn’t hold up to the original or even ‘new’ Big East (’04-’12), and it doesn’t equal the gravitas of many of the teams on TU’s ’79 schedule.

        Joe P.

      • So much evidence out there to prove you are right. Someone would have to be blind to think that a non-power 5 10-win Temple team would be able to beat what was an essentially Power 5 Temple 10-2 team. Hell, especially when the later team lost to a 6-6 P5 team.

  2. Hardin sometimes was too smart for his own good. TU should have beaten PSU in 1978. In the second half he tried a couple of trick plays that crashed were blown up. Had he just continued running what was succeeding, TU likely would have won the game.

  3. Heard from good sources that the someone on the Board of trustees wants to explore cutting football. If that’s true there won’t be Bill Bradshaw and Katz to ride to the rescue.

    • I hope they heed the words of Peter Liacouras: Universities with football must invest to succeed.

    • Inevitable, and sooner is so much better $$$ than later. Carey failures are a blessing in disguise.

      Five Quick Facts:
      1. OCS will never happen, it is dead.
      2. Lurie will raise fees after the current agreement, the black hole deepens in Cherry red ink.
      3. TUFB is a major headache for the BOT.
      4. The P5 will expand in a few years or less. There are 3 AAC teams in the serious conversations. Temple is not one of them.
      5. Philly, TU student body, and the vast majority of alumni could care less.

  4. Our founder, Russell Conwell said “If a man would be great, he must first be great in his own Philadelphia.”
    We of Temple have to decide if we want to step boldly into the future or bow out politely into the past.
    I worry that our administration would prefer the latter.

    • Me, too. Look at the great pub the uni got on 12/5/15 and 10/31/15. Billions of dollars of advertising can’t buy that kind of goodwill toward Temple, certainly the minimal and poorly done advertising we’re putting out there now.

      • I say we have manufactured greatness at this university. Bernard Pierce only left to provide for his daughter and he earned a super bowl ring in his rookie year.
        Muhammad Wilkerson was a pro bowl guy? Am I wrong?
        Temple is the source of opportunity it was always meant to be
        But how do we communicate that fact to the able young men of America?

      • I would say by returning to our roots and recruiting pretty much exclusively in a four-to-six hour drive from Temple and having a player-friendly coach who is able to connect to both his players and those families. I can’t say we either a) that recruiting footprint now; or b) a coach who relates to the players. We have a Midwestern footprint and a coach who grates, not greats.

  5. Mike: I initially scoffed at your premise, but studied the Tide’s season and conclude your thoughts can’t be disputed as to the Owls “giving” Alabama a game had they been matched in a bowl. Alabama cruised through a four game stretch by a total score of 189-3 against Baylor, Vandy, Wichita St,, and Florida. The rest of their schedule wasn’t that difficult. Only two ranked teams (Tenn and Auburn), but they did pitch shut outs in five games. Toughest game was a 3-0 tilt with LSU (the same day, Tenn clobbered ranked ND).

    But the fact the Owls played Drake, Delaware, Villanova, and Akron that season really didn’t help their cause. Hawaii was a close game, but a 6000 miles road trip with the time adjustment can explain much of that.

    Had the Cherry and Crimson been matched, it would have been a better game than what came about between the Tide and Arkansas. But remember, Bear Bryant was not above telling bowl committees who he wanted to play. Unless he and Hardin were pals, would never have happened.

    I was “in the house” for that Penn State game. Recall the hush that fell over the crowd when Kevin Duckett broke the long run for the only Owl score. I was conspicuous in my seating area by being the only person cheering as he flew downfield.

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