Proud to be a Tiger
This past April I wrote a rather nasty screed on this very blog about my alma mater, THE Towson University and the state of its athletic program, specifically football and basketball.
In that post, I let loose with about a decades-worth of frustration with Towson sports. As an alumnus, it ticked me off that my school was so consistently bad at sports. That Towson, a school in the Baltimore suburbs with a lot of potential to be good, had never tapped into that potential. That we’d never shed the label of a glorified commuter school.
Happily, Coach Rob Ambrose and the football team have allowed me to eat those words and give all us Tiger alumni something to be proud of, by winning the school’s first CAA championship in football and securing a home playoff game against Lehigh in the FCS playoffs.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think Towson, my Towson, would be hosting a playoff game.
This season, the Tigers have completed the greatest turnaround in FBS or FCS football, going from 1-10 to 9-2. Coach Ambrose is likely to have his name bandied about for FBS coaching jobs this offseason. He’s a shoo-in for CAA Coach of the Year and probably also a shoo-in for the Eddie Robinson Award as FCS Coach of the Year.
I had the chance to see the Tigers twice in Ambrose’s first year in 2009 – his first ever game against Northwestern and homecoming against Delaware – and I can tell you, this is a completely different program. The team I saw take the field against Delaware two years ago was hopeless. After that soggy homecoming debacle against UD, when the Tigers fell behind 42-0 at the half, if you had told me that two years later Towson would be champs of the CAA, probably the toughest conference in the FCS, I would have checked you into nearby Sheppard Pratt.
You have to truly appreciate the task Ambrose had in front of him: he didn’t have to just turn around a football program, he was charged with turning around the culture of an entire university. Towson has never been a ra-ra, school spirit kind of place. This ain’t Florida or Oregon or even UD. This was the kind of school where some alumni barely acknowledged they went there, treating Towson as just some place they went to because they couldn’t get into Maryland or North Carolina or some bigger school.
For 17 years, the football program was run by a good man named Gordy Combs, a TU alum. Gordy had some good years but by the end of his tenure the program had become stagnant. TU wasn’t ready for the tough CAA, a conference that traditionally has close to five teams in the FCS playoffs and occasionally beat big FBS schools, such as when James Madison beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. A losing culture set in. The Baltimore Sun didn’t even send reporters up the road to cover the team. Change was needed.
As an alumnus, and I’m sure others would agree, it hurt to see the school in that state. Hence my rant in April, written out of pure frustration. How come we couldn’t be like, say, UD, and have a successful football program? How come we couldn’t be like VCU or George Mason in basketball? We wanted to be proud to be called Towson Tigers. We wanted people from College Park, Md. to Ann Arbor, Mich. to know where Towson is.
The administration at Towson wanted to improve the athletics department but where did you start? The athletics department had been underfunded, understaffed and overlooked for years.
Enter Ambrose, who like I said, had a daunting task when he started. The team took some beatings in his first two years, winning only three games in that time.
This year, it became apparent early on that maybe this team was different. They destroyed Morgan State to open the season, but the real statement was a 31-10 beating of traditional power Villanova. Then came a homecoming rout of Colgate for a 3-0 start and you started to think, maybe we got something here.
I attended Towson’s fourth game against Maryland in College Park, a game many of us alums had been looking forward to, and dreading, for years. Every TU alum knows someone that went to UMD, so if we went there and got our clocks cleaned, we’d hear all about it. The Tigers lost that game, but what stood out was how far the program had come. TU, playing without star quarterback Grant Enders, gave the Terps a scare for a half before losing 28-3.
But just to show how the expectations for this program have changed, I left that Maryland game bemoaning what an excellent opportunity the Tigers blew. They dominated Maryland in the first half. TU just couldn’t get out of its own way with dropped passes, bad clock management and inopportune turnovers. The Tigers had a shot there. Not to mention, bragging rights over our friends from College Park. Believe me, we Towson alums would have never let our UMD pals hear the end of it if the Tigers had pulled off that win.
Upon further reflection though, it was an accomplishment in this respect: TU was right there with an FBS team. Granted, UMD is a bad FBS team. But the year before, the Tigers played a bad FBS team, Indiana, and lost 51-17. The year before that, they’d played a mediocre Big 10 team, Northwestern, led by current Eagles third-string QB Mike Kafka, and lost 47-14. The program was clearly in a better place.
The wins came fast and furious for the Tigers after that. Enders returned and led TU to wins over Richmond, Old Dominion and William & Mary. The Tigers only loss to an FCS team was to UD in a game that still kind of stings thinking about it. We finally had UD, who had beaten us like government mules for years, right where we wanted and still couldn’t get them.
To Ambrose’s credit, he refocused the team and Towson won their two toughest tests of the season against Maine and New Hampshire before clinching the CAA title against Rhode Island.
And now the Towson Tigers have a shot at a national title. Speaking on behalf of TU alums everywhere, I can’t tell you how proud I am of the team and the school for this season. I like that the athletic department has been aggressive in scheduling high-profile, out-of-conference games, particularly next year’s trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU. I like that there seems to be a growing sense of school spirit. Winning helps that, of course, but Ambrose has really started to build something with his “One Towson” mantra. Hopefully he sticks around to keep building that.
Before this season, the only real prideful moment we as TU alums had, football-wise, was this fact: Towson has produced four NFL players (Sean Landeta, Dave Meggett, Tony Vinson and Jermon Bushrod). Of those, three of them (Landeta, Meggett and Bushrod) had Super Bowl rings. The 2011 team has given us a new one: CAA Champions.
Here’s to this ride not ending anytime soon. Like Ambrose said, “Speeches come at the end. We ain’t done yet.”