Towson seniors take parting shots

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They sat in a circle, reflecting on four football seasons that have been exhilarating and disheartening. Four seasons that saw them crawl out from underneath a pile of losses to become national playoff contenders. Four seasons, during which they persevered in the face of their program's downgrading.

Towson State winds up its season today against visiting Morgan State. And for the seniors who have transformed the Tigers from a Division I-AA doormat into a formidable team, it promises to be emotional.

Today marks the end of an era for Towson State, which will bid goodbye to its last scholarship players. Next year, the Tigers move into the ECAC Intercollegiate Football Conference, a nonscholarship league of Division I-AA and II schools.

The seniors -- like quarterback Dan Crowley, wide receiver Mark Orlando, cornerback Marcellus Campbell, linebacker Mike Arbutina and running backs John Swigart and Brian McCarty -- leave some admirable work behind. They have helped Towson State erase five years of Division I futility -- the Tigers were 14-38 during that span -- by paving the way to 15 wins the past two seasons.

Crowley and Orlando own virtually all of the school's passing and receiving records. McCarty could become the school's all-time leading scorer today, and is second in career rushing yards only to Tony Vinson, now with the San Diego Chargers. Swigart is the team's most underrated player. Campbell and Arbutina, the second-leading tackler in school history, have been keys to an excellent defense this year.

The seniors weren't all smiles, though. Besides feeling sad about the breakup of their close group, they took some parting shots at the school's administration over its decision four years ago to phase out football scholarships.

"It feels good, when I think back to the year [1991] when we were 1-10. Everybody expected to lose," Campbell said. "Now, we expect nothing less but to win. Now, we talk about playoffs. That's amazing. But now that they're taking away scholarships, it's kind of disappointing."

The seniors went beyond the loss of scholarships. They said they have grown tired of playing good football on a campus where few seem to care. They routinely play before crowds of around 1,500. That's less than a third of capacity at Minnegan Stadium, where the school has banned tailgating, a restriction that has not helped attendance.

"And it's not just the administration. It's fund-raising. It's the alumni. There's no support," Swigart said.

Orlando, one of the nation's top I-AA receivers this year, said, "They blame the football program as the cause for their economic problems," he said. "Not yet have I heard anyone look inward and take any blame."

Athletic director Billy Hunter said the players' anger is based on faulty perceptions.

Towson State maintains a 21-sport athletic program on an annual $4 million budget, half of which goes toward salaries and 100 scholarships. Several years after going to Division I in football, Hunter said football scholarships topped out at 50 -- at a cost of $350,000 -- and the school ran into budget deficits in the $250,000 range.

The school froze athletic department salaries, then discussed eliminating football. They decided to keep the football program, but only by taking its scholarships and gradually redistributing them throughout the department.

Today, Hunter said that the athletic program operates with an annual surplus of about $400,000. The football team still costs the athletic department $330,000 per year.

"Economics was the overriding factor," Hunter said. "It's not that anybody here wants to do away with football. We decided to go the nonscholarship route, in lieu of not going with football at all. . . . They are appreciated."

Many of the seniors considered transferring in 1991, after the administration announced its football plans and Phil Albert stepped down as coach after the 1-10 season.

"We were at the point where we wanted to take the T's off our helmets," McCarty said. "We didn't want to play for the school anymore. We just wanted to play for each other."

After Gordy Combs was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach, they decided to rally around him and use the perceived snub by the administration as motivation.

And as the scholarship players diminished, the team pulled off more startling achievements. In 1992, Combs' first season, Vinson carried them to a memorable homecoming victory over James Madison and a 5-5 record. Last year, the Tigers went 8-2. This year, with 19 scholarship players, Towson State won on the road at Hofstra, then ranked 20th in Division I-AA.

The Tigers will try to finish with another 8-2 record today. The seniors are determined to punctuate their achievements with one more victory.

"The bottom line is, you can't dwell on what other people think about you," Crowley said. "I take my hat off to these seniors. They made the team what it is today. We've come a long way."

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