Legendary Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas was three years removed from his 17-season NFL career that had ended sadly in San Diego.
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Johnny Unitas Stadium, Towson University, Towson, MD 21204, USA
It was Thanksgiving weekend 1976 and the campus was virtually empty. The Tigers, the bottom seed in an eight-team field, had upset top seed C.W. Post the previous weekend on Long Island.
"There weren't many people at the game, and there wasn't much interest in the community," Phil Albert, who coached the Tigers from 1972 through 1991, recalled of a semifinal victory over St. Lawrence at Burdick Field. "We kind of used it as motivation for our players, sort of an us-against-the-world kind of thing."
Though Towson would lose to St. John's (Minn.) the next weekend in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl national championship game in Phenix City, Ala., Albert and others figured that the Tigers would be hosting other playoff games in the future.
Who knew that it would take another 35 years, a majority of them losing seasons. Ambrose, now 41 and in his third season coaching his alma mater, will lead Towson (9-2) against Lehigh (10-1) in an NCAA Division I championship second-round game Saturday at Unitas Stadium. Both teams had byes in the opening round.
It will be the school's first football playoff game of any kind since moving up from Division II in 1987 to what was then called I-AA and is now called the Football Championship Subdivison. It comes a week after Towson hosted a U.S. president for the first time when Barack Obama and his family attended the men's basketball game against Oregon State.
"That the students went home for Thanksgiving with an excitement of, 'It's great to go home, but I can't wait to get back to go to a playoff game,' there are so many sentences and thoughts and phrases that have [never] been uttered here," said Ambrose, who was a backup quarterback and a wide receiver for the Tigers from 1989 through 1991. "It's what we've been building towards and what we're building to keep."
It could mark the first time that the Tigers have sold out Unitas Stadium since it was renamed in honor of a man many, at least in Baltimore, consider the greatest quarterback in the game's history. Unitas was working for less than a month as a fundraiser for the university when he died of a heart attack in 2002.
While attendance has improved more than 50 percent over Ambrose's three seasons — a feat in itself considering that the Tigers won three games his first two seasons — there has still not been a sellout in the 11,198-seat stadium.
Ambose is not disappointed that some of this year's big home games fell short.
"We've been only doing it for three years, and if you're raising your attendance 50 percent, something amazing is happening," Ambrose said. "I'm not going to use the number of butts in the stadium to quantify good or bad. I just know that it's getting better and it's going to keep getting better."
A sellout Saturday, which university officials expect after reaching about 9,000 tickets sold by Thursday afternoon, will be a statement in itself, perhaps as significant as the Tigers made this season when they had the biggest turnaround of any team in either FCS or the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Second-year athletic director Mike Waddell said Towson outbid Lehigh for the game. The NCAA requires a minimum bid of $30,000 for each of the first two rounds to host a playoff game. According to Waddell, Towson bid $60,000 for each of the next two rounds.
"It's huge," Waddell said of hosting a home game. "To get our team No. 1 the best chance to win. From the top down, the university was extremely supportive of that. They covered me in case we didn't make it, I always felt like we would. We're not going to make a great deal of profit on it. But they recognized the university's branding opportunity by playing at home. To play in a friendly environment, it's always better. For our students, it is to have that campus memory. This is the biggest game we've had here this year in a series of big games."
The atmosphere on campus leading into the game was different from in the past.
"I think it raises the spirit of the school and the reason for people to come and to be proud to be here," Staci Kohen, a freshman from Las Vegas, said as she walked through the student union Thursday afternoon.
Kohen, who had been to all but one of the home games this season, said "it's been huge talk around my group of friends", particularly on social media. Fan pages have been set up on Facebook surrounding the game. Even Waddell said the heavy traffic on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter "is almost as important as being 9-2."
Brett Glatman, a 2005 graduate who now works in Los Angeles, set up one of the fan pages and will be gathering with fellow alumni at a Hollywood bar Saturday to watch the game, which is being shown on ESPN3.
"Because of what the football team has done, it's become a place that you're proud to say where you went to school," Glatman said Friday.
Waiting in line at the ticket office inside the student union Thursday, senior Travis Turner acknowledged that this will be the first football game he attends in his two years at Towson. Turner, who lives in Baltimore and commutes, said, "Everybody is talking about it and asking, 'Are you going to the game?' "
Having a winning football program has long proved to be beneficial to the number of applicants a school attracts, as well as to the number of T-shirts and sweatshirts the university bookstore sells. Though the admissions office can only anticipate a bump come spring, the bookstore is already seeing one.
Tim Collins, the store's associate director who has worked at Towson since before he graduated in 1997, said there was an increase of around $40,000 in sales for November alone, a jump of more than 40 percent from last year.
Ambrose hopes this is the first of many home playoff games, the first of many sellouts. Who would have thought this was possible after the Tigers finished 1-10 last season after going 2-9 the year before?
"It's another step in the process of getting this done, in a way that should be the new standard," Ambrose said. "We're creating that new standard. Attendance as the new standard is going to have to happen, it's the next logical progression. If you build it, are they going to come? That's not true. If you win it, they're going to come. And if you keeping winning it, they're going to keep coming and even if you have a good year or an average year they'll come because they know what's coming after that."