TWO YEARS AGO, a Towson-Morgan State football game drew a record crowd of 8,800 at Towson's Minnegan Stadium. Towson officials expect another sellout crowd tomorrow at home (1 p.m.) in their annual clash with the Bears, but there is the potential to triple that figure in five to six years.
Both schools could develop that kind of interest not just in this game, but in their programs as well.
Morgan State (0-1) has a new athletic director with fresh ideas for a program that wants to become established in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Towson (2-0) is the favorite to win the 2000 Patriot League title in some preseason publications, a vast improvement for a program that was picked to finish last a season ago.
But more importantly, both schools are in the middle stages of pouring millions of dollars into renovations of their athletic facilities. Towson's $31.5 million project should be completed by September 2002 while Morgan's new $14 million facelift is scheduled to be unveiled for the 2001 season.
Morgan recently had $5 million in renovations on its athletic field house.
"We renewed this series two years ago, and when I saw all the Morgan fans at Towson, I said, 'Wow, we got something good going on here,' " said David Thomas, athletic director at Morgan State, whose school trails in the series, 9-4. "It's a great cross-town rivalry against another Division I-AA school. Financially, it's beneficial to both teams and easy travel for our fans and the players. We plan to keep this going for quite a while."
"When you look at what is happening at Morgan and then at Towson with the expansion of facilities, you can see the excitement shared by both universities," said Wayne Edwards, athletic director at Towson. "This is a game that could have an effect on football in the state and how it's viewed. The game draws a lot of interest and three or four years from now I can see the crowd growing to 15- to 20,000, and then 20- to 25,000 in five or six years."
Whoa, hold on there. Won-lost records play a big part, too.
Towson seems to be headed in the right direction. The Tigers' new plans will increase the seating capacity from 5,000 to 12,000 to 14,000. The university will also have a new field house with classrooms, locker rooms and training facilities for football, field hockey and men's and women's lacrosse teams.
But the biggest improvement for Towson is that university officials decided on a permanent plan for the program. Finally. In the late 1970s, the Tigers were going Division I, then II, then independent. Then there was going to be no scholarships and at one time no football at all.
The Tigers ended the madness by joining the Patriot League in 1997. Now, they are upgrading, adding Yale next season and then beginning home-and-home series with Brown and Cornell in 2002.
Stadium crowds are now near 4,500 after dropping to about 2,000 in the early 1990s.
"Back in 1995, when I first got here, we were de-emphasizing football," said Edwards, whose Tigers had their first winning season in three years last season. "We were independent at that time and phasing out scholarships. But now, we have a lot more community support and more student interest. Ever since we've entered the Patriot League, football has gone into an upward spiral. Last year, we were in the championship picture until the last week of the season."
Morgan is stuck in a 20-year quagmire. The university hasn't had a winning season since 1979, and has had eight coaches since 1980. There have been good and bad reasons for the demise. Like a lot of black colleges, Morgan's football team struggled with integration. There have also been problems with funding.
But the school has also lacked foresight. Due to construction, Morgan has and will play only one game at home in the 1999 and 2000 seasons. It took the school eight months to hire Thomas. Current head football coach Stanley Mitchell has only a one-year contract.
A coach couldn't even recruit his own son with that deal.
Thomas doesn't run from the questions. He is looking to find the right answers.
"Stanley came into the 1999 season without an opportunity to recruit," said Thomas. "But he has brought to this program a sense of renewal. I don't look forward to this year in terms of wins and losses, but as a process. We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores who have to grow. There will be an assessment at the end of this season, and once it is completed, there may be an opportunity to do some long-term things. I've only been here four months, I'm still learning. I know where we need to be, but in terms of how to get there, I'm still learning."
Thomas knows this for sure: Facilities are a great selling point. There is a buzz around Morgan that Thomas, a Morgan alumnus, hasn't felt or heard in years. Some of the old players are calling. Not just in football, but from the past great track, basketball and lacrosse teams.
The football program needs a spark, and the facilities could be the catalyst. Over at Towson, facilities and some wins could also push the program to a higher level, too.
"We have a lot of respect for them and their coaching staff, and we believe the respect is mutual," said Edwards. "They have a quality coach and person in Stanley Mitchell who will turn that program around. That will only help us develop this game. With what is going on at both schools, this could develop into something real big."