If Towson State's transition to non-scholarship football is as painless as Gordy Combs' hiring, the Tigers new football coach could be smiling into the next century.
In February, athletic director Bill Hunter announced plans to eliminate scholarships from the program by 1995, and a week later Phil Albert resigned after 23 years with the Tigers. To salvage some stability in a troubled program, the customary national search lasted as long as it took to ring Combs' extension.
"I never had an inkling Phil was going to resign, and he told the staff at a 3:15 meeting [Feb. 24]," said Combs, a Towson State assistant since 1973. "After Phil told the players, he asked me to close the meeting. I walked down to Billy's office, but some players were there.
"After he was done with the players, he called my office and asked, 'Do you want the job?' When I said yes, he said, 'Come down right now.' It happened pretty quickly."
Albert has seen every Towson State game since the program began in 1969, but Combs has been a fixture on campus nearly as long, joining practice the following spring as a transfer from the University of Dayton. He played two years for the Tigers, was an assistant the past 19, and was eyed as Albert's successor since 1988, when the latter had several job interviews elsewhere.
"Gordy has no illusions," Hunter said. "He knows where the program is headed."
This year, Towson State, which opens its camp Sunday, has the equivalent of 40 scholarships and a Division I-AA schedule that ,, includes NCAA tournament regulars Delaware, William and Mary and James Madison. A continuing economic crunch is cited for a de-emphasis that in 1995 will leave the Tigers with no scholarships and a schedule of like-minded Eastern schools.
The Tigers went to the Division II playoffs three times in four years before moving to I-AA in 1987, and Combs had a painfully good view of the decline, which saw the program nearly be disbanded two years ago.
He worked the press-box phones as the Tigers' defensive coordinator the past nine years, and while his 1983 unit led the nation in fewest points allowed with a 5.8 average, the situation deteriorated from a 4-6 record and a 21.6 average in 1987 to all-time worsts last year of 1-10 and 34.4, respectively.
Underfinanced and outmanned, Combs saw schemes that worked a decade ago unravel. Damage control was a must in spring practice.
"We had to make the players feel good about themselves again," Combs said. "The first day last spring, we went after each other. We had never had a spring game before, but we had 400 people show up for the scrimmage on a Thursday afternoon. It's a start."
Rich Bader, in his 23rd year as a Tigers assistant, quickly saw Combs put his imprint on the program.
"He tried to bring back the sense to the players that we're all important to the university," Bader said. "He told the players to have fun, relax, and do the best they can. We've got the best athletic ability we've ever had here, but he had to change the gray matter.
"As an administrator, Gordy's learning to work within the system. Ten, fifteen years ago, he might have strangled some people by now, but he's changed. We all have."
Albert, who said Combs "deserves this opportunity," and Bader might have the edge in terms of service to Towson State football, but Combs has a longer involvement with the game inside the Beltway.
Raised in Northeast Baltimore, Combs continued to play sandlot ball for the Hamilton Optimists after he was cut as a ninth-grader at Calvert Hall. He put on some weight, lost the braces and two years later was playing for the Cardinal varsity. They shared the Maryland Scholastic Association title with City in 1966, and in their 20-20 tie, Combs played cornerback against Knights quarterback Kurt Schmoke.
His Calvert Hall teammates headed to Notre Dame, Clemson and Miami, and Combs gave scholarship football a try at Dayton. In over his head and homesick for his high school sweetheart, he left after three semesters and joined the new program at Towson State. He captained a 1-9 team in 1972.
"We had people from all over the state," Bader said, "and Gordy was able to bridge the gap to all of them."
Combs worked full-time hours as a part-time assistant from 1973-80, when he taught physical education at Glen Burnie Park Elementary and coached some basketball and lacrosse at Meade High. "I've missed the relationship with little kids," Combs said.
He and wife Diane, the high school sweetheart and another Towson State grad, have a son, Buggs, and two daughters, Meredith and Kendall Ann.
At 42, Combs already has two decades in the state retirement system, and any job searches didn't go far. When Division III head coaching vacancies opened at Frostburg State, Salisbury State and Western Maryland in the 1980s, Combs sent out resumes that never got a reply.
"I never got an interview at those places," said Combs, who didn't require much of one at Towson State, either.
Towson State 1992 schedule
(all times p.m.) Date Opponent Time
Sept. 12 at Rhode Island 1
Sept. 19 Bucknell 7
Sept. 26 Hofstra 7
Oct. 3 Liberty 7
Oct. 10 at Delaware State 1:30
Oct. 17 at William & Mary 1
Oct. 24 James Madison 1:30
Oct. 31 at Indiana, Pa. 1:30
Nov. 14 Northeastern 1:30
Nov. 21 at Delaware 1