Temple needed a coach to rejuvenate arguably the nation's worst FBS (then known as Division I-A) program. The Owls had just completed a winless season in 2005 and were delivering equally discouraging results in the classroom. Heck, they had been thrown out of the Big East for a lack of competitiveness.
"We needed a miracle worker," Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw recalled this week.
Instead of dwelling on the negatives about Temple's situation, Golden embraced the positives. Golden, who was Virginia's defensive coordinator at the time, made such an impression that 20 minutes into his interview, Bradshaw wrote "This is our guy" on his notepad.
Golden, 40, has lived up to Bradshaw's hopes.
Temple (7-2 overall, 5-0 in the MAC) has won seven consecutive games, which equals the Owls' victory total from the four years before Golden's arrival. The Owls lead the MAC East race and seem headed toward their first postseason appearance since a 28-17 victory over California in the 1979 Garden State Bowl. The only other bowl appearance in school history is the 1935 Sugar Bowl, when Glenn "Pop" Warner was the Owls' coach.
"I'm happy for our alumni," said Golden, whose team plays Friday night against Akron on ESPNU. "I'm happy for our employees. I'm most particularly happy for our student body. They really have been taking a lot of heat over their football team for a long time -- too long."
But the heat was deserved. Temple won two games or less a dozen times in a 16-season stretch from 1991-2006. When the Owls went 5-7 last year, it marked the first time since 1990 that they had won more than four games in a season. The Owls also lost scholarships as part of an NCAA penalty for their poor Academic Progress Report rates.
That didn't stop Golden from seeking the job. Golden, who was a tight end at Penn State from 1987-91, had spent his coaching career recruiting the Northeast for Penn State, Boston College and Virginia. He believed Temple's Philadelphia location gave its program plenty of untapped potential.
"I thought it was a great area to recruit," Golden said. "The biggest obstacle was the culture of losing. We had to change that from the inside out.
"It's an arduous process. You have to be methodical. You can't flinch. You have to implement your core values and be steadfast in your support and defense of those values. That's pretty much the way we operated."
Temple quietly had started putting the building blocks in place even before Golden's arrival. After debating whether Temple should drop down to FCS status, school officials decided in 2005 to remain in the FBS ranks. The Owls found a new home in the MAC in 2005. Temple also signed a 15-year contract in 2003 to play its home games at Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.
All they needed was a coach to speed up the rebuilding process. Golden wasted no time demonstrating that he was the ideal architect.
"A lot of other people were kicking the tires and asking, 'What's your budget? Do you have enough people to help with academics?' '' Bradshaw said. "They were asking questions about whether they could do it and trying to size it up. Al didn't come in with that attitude. He had done his homework and came in prepared to tell us what he was going to do as the next coach."
But Temple had only 54 scholarship players -- a staggering 31 fewer than the FBS maximum -- during Golden's first season on the job. In fact, this season is the first time in Golden's four-season tenure that the Owls are operating with the full complement of 85 scholarships.
Golden knew it would take at least a few seasons before Temple could expect to win consistently. Since he couldn't change the team's record immediately, he tried to change its attitude instead.
He offered recognition to the players who performed the best in the classroom, in the weight room and in the community each month. Once the players began making the right choices in their day-to-day lives, he figured it only was a matter of time before they also started making the correct decisions on the field.
"We wanted them to see the big picture on how their decisions impacted the community and university," Golden said. "Ultimately, it would lead to winning behavior. Winning behavior begets winning. We wanted to find some things we could be successful at because it certainly was going to be quite some time before we could be successful on the field."
Reversal of fortune
Temple is on track for its first bowl since 1979 and the first winning season since the 1990 team finished 7-4. Here's a look at the Owls' year-by-year record since their last winning season.
Temple went 1-11 in Golden's first season, with the losses coming by an average margin of 34 points. The Owls improved to 4-8 in 2007 and seemed poised for a breakthrough season in '08, but they settled for a 5-7 finish after losing five games by seven or fewer points.
The Owls led Connecticut in the fourth quarter before falling 12-9 in overtime. They lost 30-28 to eventual MAC champion Buffalo on a 35-yard touchdown pass as time expired. They blew a 20-point, fourth-quarter lead in a 33-27 overtime loss to Navy.
"We had too many issues and too many selfish players,'' Golden said. "Ultimately you suffer death by inches. That's the line we took in our offseason program. We weren't going to allow selfish players or distractions to our team. They cost us games in the end.
"We didn't really deserve to win a lot of those games because other teams played harder than we did. We went into the offseason saying we'd eliminate those distractions -- or the distracters. We took a hard line on that. That's why we're having more success, more unity and more poise. We're a smarter football team."
Temple seemed headed down a distressingly familiar path when it lost its first two games of the season -- including a 27-24 season-opening setback to FCS member Villanova -- but the Owls haven't lost since.
The Owls have won with a blue-collar approach that reflects the city in which they play. They run the ball on nearly two-thirds of their snaps while relying heavily on true freshman running back Bernard Pierce, who ranks third in the nation with 1,211 rushing yards.
Temple's most recent game underscored how much this team has grown. The Owls led Miami University 31-13 in the fourth quarter before the RedHawks staged a wild rally to take a 32-31 lead with 2:36 remaining.
It was the type of game Temple would have lost last season. But instead of wilting, Temple drove the ball down the field to set up Brandon McManus' 18-yard field goal with three seconds remaining.
"Winning programs have an absence of problems and the presence of wins," Golden said. "We didn't have the absence of problems [before this season], and in the end, we were our own worst enemy. We had penalties on the field and a lack of discipline off the field. There were bad decisions and selfish players. We had to grow up and move beyond that. We are."
Indeed, Temple improved its won-loss record only after it began upgrading its academic record. The Owls posted an Academic Progress Rate of 960 for the 2007-08 school year, which represented the program's highest single-year total since the NCAA began keeping track of this measurement in 2004.
"As far as grades, how we act in the community, how we represent Temple and our football program, we've done a complete turnaround," senior strong safety Dominique Harris said. "People definitely see a change, and we get a lot of comments about how we act and how the culture around here changed."
Temple now faces the type of challenge it rarely has encountered in the program's tortured history: The Owls must prove they can handle prosperity.
Now that the Owls have their first bowl bid in 30 years within their grasp, can they maintain the focus that got them this far? Temple has succeeded in relative anonymity for most of the season, but this story slowly is gaining more publicity. How will they handle the extra attention sure to come their way?
"If we finish the prescription and stay away from the poison, we'll have success," Golden said. "If we let outsiders, the media, girlfriends, the community and those things into our process and into our organization, then we're going to suffer the consequences. That's the biggest challenge. When a team struggles as we were, in a lot of ways, adversity is easier to handle as a head coach."
Golden's players look forward to the challenge. They waited so long for their first taste of success that they're hoping to feast on it through the holidays.
"It's a great feeling for the team, getting wins," senior nose tackle Andre Neblett said. "It's a different feeling in the locker room for a lot of guys. It's something we haven't felt here in a long time."
How long that feeling lasts could depend on how long Golden remains at Temple. Even before Temple began this breakthrough season, Golden had established himself as a rising star. He interviewed two years ago for the UCLA opening that eventually went to Rick Neuheisel. As soon as the coaching carousel starts spinning this year, Golden's name figures to come up quite often.
That doesn't come as a surprise to anyone at Temple. Bradshaw knew Golden would emerge as a hot commodity if he could turn around this program. He wants Golden to remain in Philadelphia for as long as possible.
"I'd love Al to be here for many years," Bradshaw said, "but whenever [the job's] handed over, it's going to be handed over in terrific shape."
And in much better shape than when Golden arrived.