For 20 years starting in 1972 at the age of 28, Phil Albert guided the then-Towson State football program up a steady successful climb as its proud head coach.
On his watch, the Tigers went from competing in the Division III Mason-Dixon Conference to Division II to the program’s current Division I Football Championship Subdivision status, with Albert winning what remains a program-best 117 games before stepping down in 1992.
When the news came that Albert died Tuesday from cancer at the age of 76 — surrounded by loved ones at Carroll Hospital in Westminster — the thoughts from his past players and colleagues weren’t about all the success his Tigers enjoyed on the field. Instead, the genuine and tough-to-get-out words were about the man himself.
For them, Albert was a fine football coach, but an even better mentor and friend. His impression will be a lasting one.
“He was the singular most positive influence in my adolescent and adult life and we maintained a friendship to this day,” said 1976 graduate Jim Sandusky, the program’s only three-year captain. “He was a great football guy and could have coached at any level. But football was a platform, it was his pulpit. He was a great mentor, a great teacher, a great friend and football gave him the opportunity to reach a lot of people.”
Said current Towson head coach Rob Ambrose in a statement: “Phil was revered by the players that played for him no matter what decade it was. He wanted to build better men — that was all he was about — football would take care of itself. He is a pillar of this program and this university. Who Phil Albert is, was and how he affected our lives resonates through the fabric of this program and will throughout it’s entirety.”
A native of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and resident of Hanover, Pennsylvania, Albert was a 1969 graduate of Arizona, where he was the starting quarterback for two years. He came to Towson when it began its football program in 1969, serving as an assistant for three years under coach Carl Runk.
When Albert took over as head coach in 1972, the Tigers went 1-9, but they soon hit their stride. In 1974, they went 10-0 in capturing the Mason-Dixon Conference title. Albert’s Tigers reached the DIII national title game in 1976 and made three appearances in the DII playoffs before moving up to DI-AA in 1987.
In his 20 seasons, Albert, who was inducted into the Towson Athletics Hall of Fame in 1994, owned a 117-91-3 mark, having coached 20 All-America players with three reaching the NFL.
Gordy Combs, a 1972 graduate who was the team captain in Albert’s first season, later became an assistant coach under Albert for nine years and took over the program in 1992. Albert returned to the Tigers as the offensive coordinator from 2003 to 2008.
For Combs, all the time the two spent together will always be cherished.
“It’s hard to put into words how I felt about him. To be his first captain is a tremendous honor looking on it now,” he said. “He taught me so many things that it got to the point where when I was the head coach I would say to myself ‘What would Coach Albert do in this situation?’ He was just so loved by everybody — his players and his coaches — because he treated everybody so well. This is such a loss for the Towson football program.”
One thing Albert constantly emphasized to his players and coaches was prioritizing what was most important in life. He remained content at Towson, largely because his wife of 54 years, Kay, and their three children — daughters Tracy and Rebecca, and son, Christian — always came first.
“Faith and family were his priorities and he lived it,” Sandusky said. “He didn’t move all over the country taking multiple jobs because Kay and the kids were the most important part of his life, period. And he also knew being part of a program, he could touch people. It didn’t have to be at the highest level, but his impact was at the highest level.”
Combs can attest.
“We were never one to stay late at the office, never slept in the office or anything like that. He would always say: ‘Clear your post, it’s time to go home,’” he said.
Christian Albert, now married with two children, savored his days growing up on the Towson sideline and sitting next to his father on bus rides heading to and from games. He said his father loved coaching, but loved the relationships he developed much more.
“It was an experience that I saw the competitor that he was and I saw how he loved his players, but I also saw how he loved our mom and how he loved our family. So I’m extremely blessed to be able to be his son and to have all those things he taught me and modeled for me every day,” he said.
In addition to his wife, formerly Kay Papuga, and children, Albert is survived by two sisters, Brenda Sweltz of Delaware and Patti Dolence of Johnstown; one brother, Jim, of Columbia, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.