Rebuilding the Temple U. Team

Ron Dickerson hurdled racial inertia to lead a Division I-A squad

FOR coach Ron Dickerson, the 1993 college football season has been a desert hike without a canteen. His Temple University Owls have been drilled week after week in a series of results that can fairly be described as grim. A few sample scores - 58-0, 62-0, 66-14 - help explain why Temple comes to its last game (against Pittsburgh Saturday) in a position to set a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I record for most points allowed in a season.

While obviously not pleased with these results, Temple's first-year coach is not shaken. ``I still believe to this day that I am an outstanding coach,'' he said during a phone interview with the Monitor earlier this season.

According to the Temple football media guide, Dickerson's ``goal is to become the first black head coach to win a national championship.''

That might seem a terribly dreamy objective, and perhaps unobtainable at Temple, but Dickerson is only beginning his head coaching career, after more than 20 years as a college assistant at Kansas State (his alma mater), Louisville, Pittsburgh, Colorado, Penn State, and Clemson.

``Ron has a great background, having worked with some of the top football programs in the country,'' says Dennis Green, one of the few African-Americans to coach a major-college program. After stints with Northwestern and Stanford Universities, Green now directs pro football's Minnesota Vikings.

When Dickerson was hired last November, he was the only African-American head coach among Division I-A's 107 football-playing institutions. Later, Wake Forest and Eastern Michigan named blacks to direct their programs. (Temple's only win this season was against Eastern Michigan.)

`THERE were many times when I began to wonder if I ever would get a head coaching job,'' says Dickerson, explaining that he was turned down when he applied for each of seven previous vacancies at other institutions. ``Now with Ron Cooper [at Eastern Michigan] and Jimmy Caldwell [at Wake Forest], there's some light at the end of the tunnel for other black coaches.''

Asked what accounts for the poor record in hiring blacks, Dickerson says the answer is bound up in the influence wielded by wealthy athletic boosters ``set in their ways and beliefs.'' Dickerson adds that the weight of successful results may eventually dissolve the resistance to black coaches just as it has to black quarterbacks.

To get a foot in the door, however, black coaches may have to avail themselves of opportunities that look like dead ends to others. ``I don't think anyone will be handed the keys to Notre Dame,'' Dickerson says.

Before the season, Dickerson said his freshman-laden team might be the country's weakest in the major-college ranks. This assessment, he says, may be the very cornerstone on which to build the Temple program, which has enjoyed only two winning season in the past 13.

In Dickerson's mind, honesty is the key to the process, especially when it comes to recruiting players.

``I've never shucked and jived, as they say, but always been straight up with the individuals I've recruited,'' he says, ``and they've appreciated it.''

Comedian Bill Cosby, Temple's most famous football alumnus, has discussed with Dickerson how to turn the challenges of recruiting at a city school into an advantage.

Dickerson has gone to Temple's successful women's fencing team for answers. He asked team members, many from suburbia, why they had enrolled at a downtown Philadelphia school that's ``a block from the ghetto.''

``They love Temple University because of its diversity, plus its academic strength,'' he says.

Dickerson is pleased with his first recruiting class and confident that his five-year contract gives him sufficient time to transform the Temple program.

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