In trying to sum up the past five years, Rob Ambrose thought back to his introductory press conference as Towson University's football coach.
"I said, 'If we hadn't won some ball games by year three, I hope they had [a] good furniture budget, because I was going to break something,'" he recalled.
By the time Ambrose was hired, the university and its boosters had become accustomed to such gung-ho talk from new coaches, few of whom delivered the winning programs Towson sought.
"He came off to me as maybe a little too optimistic about what he could do," former Towson president Robert L. Caret said with a chuckle.
Ambrose, the tough-talking Towson alumnus, has delivered on every promise, leading his program to three straight winning seasons and to Saturday's Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) national title game in Frisco, Texas.
The game represents a milestone in Towson's long quest for greater relevance in athletics, a journey that often traversed thorny paths.
"I knew we would win," Ambrose said. "I knew we would get back to the respectability of the past."
The coach sold his initial recruits on playing a punishing style and building a great team from the ground up. If they couldn't win right away, he told them, they could be pioneers.
"We wanted to be part of a change," said senior All-American tackle Eric Pike. "I know that a couple referred to us when we first came in as 'The New Era Boys.' We wanted to make sure that before we left at the end of our careers, we did something to change the program's history drastically, and I think so far, we're starting to do what we set our minds to do."
Winning has taken the Tigers to places they could hardly have imagined. The team has played multiple games on ESPN and been written up in the New York Times. Six busloads of students have made the 1,400-mile drive to Texas to watch the championship game. In just a few weeks, donors have ponied up almost $150,000 to cover the costs of charter flights, first-class hotel rooms and championship rings.
The dream started with Caret, who believed success in football and basketball could bring new vitality to campus and create recognition beyond the university's immediate region. College Park would always remain the university system's flagship, but Caret and his supporters spoke of Towson becoming a strong No. 2, akin to North Carolina State. Athletics would help the wider world see Towson's evolution from a commuter school for aspiring teachers to a more diverse, rigorous institution.
"I know others disagree with me, but I think it's an important tool in American higher education," Caret said of having a successful athletic program. "It's a huge marketing arm. Most people don't know a ton of details about an institution, so just a little bit of positive impression can change their opinions completely."
Ambrose bought into this vision of athletics as a "front porch" for Towson when Caret hired him.
"We told Rob, 'We want to be big time,'" recalled David Nevins, a Towson alumnus and former chairman of the state university system's Board of Regents. "We wanted to use the athletic department to knock people's socks off. And he got that."
Caret more than doubled the athletic budget during his eight-year tenure, offering competitive salaries to attract coaches like Ambrose. Even so, a 2010 report from an internal task force portrayed the athletic department as underfunded compared to its conference competitors and stuck with stagnant leadership and weak alumni support.
A succession of coaches failed to lift the university's programs. Caret left to become president of the University of Massachusetts in 2011, with his aspirations for Towson athletics unrealized.
From controversy to success
Caret's successor, Maravene Loeschke, stepped into an unexpected economic mess that consumed the athletic department for much of the 2012-2013 school year. On one hand, the football and men's basketball programs finally seemed on the rise under Ambrose and Pat Skerry, respectively. On the other, then-athletic director Mike Waddell told Loeschke he needed to cut baseball and men's soccer to balance the department's budget and bring it in compliance with federal gender equity laws.
Towson's plan to cut sports divided the university and drew criticism from the highest levels of state government. Some of the vitriol from baseball and soccer supporters spewed directly at the football program, which critics perceived as a major cause of the budget imbalance.
In the end, Loeschke cut men's soccer but kept baseball thanks to a financial intervention by Gov. Martin O'Malley. Waddell left to become a senior associate athletic director at the University of Arkansas.
Strangely, controversy set the stage for Towson's long-awaited rise to sporting success.
For the first time in recent memory, the university boasts one of the strongest all-around athletic programs in the state.
After fighting off oblivion, the baseball team went to the NCAA tournament last spring.
In November, the men's and women's basketball teams began playing in the new, $68-million SECU Arena on campus. The men are considered a strong contender to earn an NCAA tournament berth.
Then there's football, a program that went 3-19 in Ambrose's first two seasons after he returned to his alma mater from a job as offensive coordinator at the University of Connecticut. Those Tigers often lost by scores such as 57-7 and 48-0. Hardly anyone showed up to watch at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
It hadn't always been that way. Towson won regularly and made a Division III championship game under longtime coach Phil Albert. Despite a brief push to eliminate the program, the Tigers remained respectable for many years under Ambrose's predecessor, Gordy Combs. But the Tigers' fortunes gradually stagnated, then sharply declined.
The worm turned in 2011, as Ambrose's recruits took over, led by an unstoppable running back from Northwestern High named Terrance West. West woke in the middle of the night and took two buses from his West Baltimore home to make Ambrose's 5 a.m. practices. He quickly gave Towson the big-play threat it sorely needed.
The Tigers made the playoffs that season, posted another winning mark in 2012 and entered this year as a legitimate threat to the upper ranks of FCS football.
They stunned everyone by winning their season opener at higher-division Connecticut and spent most of the year ranked in the FCS' top 10. West racked up record rushing totals, joining former NFL stars Dave Meggett and Sean Landeta among the most decorated players in school history.
Crowds also improved, with the Tigers drawing more than 10,000 to the 11,198-seat Unitas Stadium for several games, though a disappointing 4,671 showed up for the team's lone home playoff contest on Dec. 7.
One bittersweet byproduct of Towson's ascent could be Ambrose's increased attractiveness as a coaching candidate for larger, Football Bowl Subdivision programs. Several of his peers have fled for such jobs, including Eastern Illinois coach Dino Babers, who jumped to Bowling Green shortly after Towson ended his team's playoff run
'The university has made it'
Despite all the good vibes, Towson entered the NCAA playoffs as a longshot to make the championship game in Texas. To do so, they would have to win road games on successive weekends at No. 2 Eastern Illinois and No. 3 Eastern Washington.
West took care of part one with his most remarkable performance in a remarkable season — a playoff-record 354 rushing yards and five touchdowns as the Tigers beat an Eastern Illinois team that had averaged 48 points per game for the season.
Part two looked hopeless, however, as Eastern Washington built a 10-point lead late in the fourth quarter. The Tigers, steam billowing from their facemasks due to frigid temperatures, responded with 75- and 71-yard touchdown drives in the last six minutes. Their back-up quarterback, Connor Frazier, had to steer the game-winner after starter Peter Athens was injured.
Loeschke watched that game with a pack of students at Bill Bateman's Bistro beside campus. "I think everyone thought it was lost," she said. "But when we scored that touchdown in the last minute, it was like the room was going to explode."
That's the kind of season it's been at Towson.
The excitement has reached many corners of the country. Though Caret is in Massachusetts, he has texted Ambrose after almost every game this season. Nevins will host an alumni viewing party Saturday in West Palm Beach, Fla. About 2,500 Towson fans are expected in Texas for the game.
The football challenge will only deepen in Frisco, where Towson faces North Dakota State, the ultimate bully of the FCS. The Bison have taken the last two national championships and have won each of their playoff games by at least 30 points.
"It's definitely surreal, and I don't think it's hit all of us yet that we're playing for the national championship," said Athens, the senior quarterback. "But I don't think we'll talk about it until after this season. We're focused on winning, and that's about it."
Ambrose and the players would never say so, but in many ways, they've already won. Just by appearing in a championship game on ESPN during one of the biggest football weekends of the year, they have fulfilled the dreams of Towson supporters.
"The football game will be over in three hours, but the lasting marketing halo will go on for years," said Nevins, who runs a marketing and public relations firm in Hunt Valley. "It exposes millions of people to a place called Towson University, and in a way, it shows the world that the university has made it."
Loeschke has spent most of her career at the university and said she's never seen such excitement around Towson athletics.
"It makes alumni interested in where they went to school, it brings out donors, it brings the university together around a school spirit you can't generate without something like this," she said. "If you're wearing a Towson sweatshirt now, anywhere around the state of Maryland, people stop and talk to you about this championship. That doesn't happen all the time. "
Towson football under Rob Ambrose
2011: 9-3 (Lost in second-round of FCS playoffs after earning a first-round bye)
2013: 13-2 (Will play in FCS title game Saturday)
Football Championship Subdivision national title game
Teams: Towson (13-2) vs. North Dakota State (14-0)
When: Saturday, 2 p.m.
Site: Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas
Radio: TowsonTigers.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun