After a grueling preseason practice in the summer heat last Tuesday, Temple football players, their gear drenched with sweat, gathered at the Temple logo at midfield at Chodoff Field on campus and took a knee on the turf to listen to a familiar voice.
But it wasn’t that of head coach Matt Rhule or any other member of the Owls’ coaching staff.
It was the voice of former Eagles and Super Bowl-winning coach Dick Vermeil, whose message was simple yet effective: “Hard work is not a punishment.”
That’s a motto the Owls have to live by this season if they want to live up to the lofty goal they’ve collectively set for themselves.
As senior linebacker and defensive leader Avery Williams explained, the 2016 Owls are determined to be “the greatest Temple team ever.” The motivation and conviction for that goal comes from the nightmarish ending to last year’s dream season.
“Man, we ended the season with a losing record,” Williams said of last December’s losses to Houston in the AAC title game and Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl. “We lost those two games. That’s not good at all around here.
"We want to be the greatest Temple team ever, every year. When I leave, I want those dudes to focus on being the greatest Temple team that year. Nobody’s complacent around here. We want to get better each year and just keep getting better.”
It’s one thing to say you want to be the greatest at anything. It’s another animal to go out there and actually do it.
By now, most know the tale of Temple’s 10-3 campaign in 2015, which included landmark moments such as the first win over Penn State since 1941, the classic primetime showdown with Notre Dame and the first-ever AAC Eastern Division title, among other things.
Needless to say, topping those achievements will be a hefty task for a team that needs to replace plenty on the defensive side of the ball with three leaders who’ve moved on to the NFL.
But Rhule’s message to his team coming into camp was to forget all about last season because, as far as he wants his team to be concerned, last season is over and is just a figment of imagination.
And with just a few days left until Friday’s 2016 opener against Army at The Linc, it seems Rhule’s edict has gotten through to his players.
“Yeah, there is pressure, but that’s what athletes live for. They live for the pressure of being that same team or being better than last year’s team,” said senior quarterback Phillip Walker, who's coming off a record-breaking season in 2015 and remains one of the Owls’ key components. He’s looking to become the first quarterback in program history to lead the Owls to back-to-back bowl games.
“[This season] is an opportunity for us for to be great this year again and we’re looking forward to it," Walker said. "I think we have a great team that’s willing to go out there and put everything on the line each week just to have success at the end of the season.”
“We have a motto around here saying we want to be 1-0 every week,” said senior running back Jahad Thomas, who’s part of a deep and talented backfield. “We want to be undefeated once it’s all said and done and that’s the goal here. … What comes with that is great execution. We all gotta be in sync — offense, defense and special teams.”
The fact of the matter is that, after last season’s new heights of success, expectations for Temple’s program have risen. And, in all likelihood, they’ll continue to rise.
Williams feels the key to dealing with those rising expectations is not worrying about them and focusing only on what the players themselves can control.
“If the hat’s on your head, you’ve got to produce,” said Williams, a Baltimore native who amassed 49 tackles and an interception last season.
“We never pay attention to the opponent, it’s all how can we get ourselves better and what are we doing wrong? In life, you never getting beaten by another person, you’re really beating yourself. You messed up. If you’re not working as hard as you can in school, it’s your fault. It’s not the teacher’s fault for making the test. You never look at the opponent, you always look at yourself and see how you can get better.
“We don’t pay attention to nobody else but ourselves. We always look interior, never exterior. When you start looking on the outside world, then you’ll start letting the outside world affect you. So you have to look at what’s wrong with you and what’s great with you and how to perfect it.”
To achieve their goal this season, the Owls know they’ll likely have to go through Houston, the defending conference champion and heavy AAC favorite entering this season. No. 15 in the AP preseason poll, the Cougars demolished Florida State in last year’s Peach Bowl after vanquishing Temple in the AAC title game.
Houston (West) and Temple (East) will not meet during the regular season as both are in different divisions of the AAC. The two teams can only meet this season in a conference title game rematch.
The Cougars are on the minds of the Owls as the season gets ready to begin, but the Owls know there’s work to do first before any shot at Houston becomes a realistic option.
“We haven’t beaten Houston since I got here, so I really want to get after them,” said Williams, one of the Owls' most-trusted voices on defense. “But in order to beat Houston, we’ve got to go through all 12 games on our schedule. So we have to take it one day at time.”
It all begins again Friday night.