With win over Villanova, Towson shows signs of a turnaround

Rob Ambrose could see it coming.

As much as everyone outside the Towson University football program was shocked two weeks ago when the host Tigers upset Villanova, then No. 20 in the Football Championship Subdivision rankings, Ambrose and his team were not.

A year ago, Ambrose could see the foundation for the school's first victory over a ranked opponent since 2007. A dropped pass in the back of the end zone prevented Towson from beating a No. 5 James Madison team that had crushed the Tigers by five touchdowns the year before.

His players could see it coming together in January, when Ambrose split the team up in a program they called "Tiger Accountability" to compete in everything from classroom attendance and performance to clearing their trays in the dining hall and keeping their locker room clean.

But those who weren't with Ambrose and his players couldn't fathom how it happened. Not after the Tigers had won two games in 2009, Ambrose's first season back at his alma mater, and only one in his second. If anything, it had looked after last season as if Towson were returning to the abyss.

"To the normal eye, it looks like nothing is getting done," Ambrose, 41, said in his office earlier this week. "It's like building a house. When there's the foundation and everything's not finished, it just looks like a mess."

Ambrose knew better, and now with a pair of one-sided victories over Morgan State (42-3) and Villanova (31-10), the Tigers will try to take another significant step in their turnaround when they play Colgate (1-2) in Saturday's 7 p.m. homecoming game.

"There's no question that this is a huge game," Ambrose said of a game against a school Towson has never beaten in nine tries, the most recent in 2007. "You have alums who are hungry for an excuse to come home, and now they have one."

With the school's first game against Maryland looming next Saturday in College Park, Ambrose knows how important it is to keep the good vibes building, the fan interest growing, the confidence of his players bubbling.

So does longtime assistant coach John Donatelli, now in his 15th season. As much as Ambrose saw the stops and starts the program had under former coach Gordy Combs, Donatelli was a part of it as a member of the coaching staff.

"It was always taking one step forward, two steps back," Donatelli said.

A former Towson player and assistant under Combs, Ambrose understood why the Tigers couldn't sustain that success against the likes of Delaware and James Madison. Ambrose, who was the former offensive coordinator under Randy Edsall at Connecticut, knew how various administrations debated about playing with or without scholarships.

It all came back to the players.

"We did a lot of things not to take care of our kids," Ambrose said.

Aside from not being given as many scholarships as the competition until finally becoming fully funded with 63 scholarships five years ago, Ambrose and others say Towson took shortcuts such as not paying for its players' books, as allowed under NCAA rules. Schools such as James Madison, which started its football program the same year as Towson, did not and wound up winning a national championship.

Donatelli said the best example came in the way the Tigers fed players on road trips. If Towson was playing a night game on the road, the pre-game meal was not exactly a source for energy.

"Apples and Snickers bars," Donatelli said.

That culture has finally changed, with former president Robert Caret the first to understand how important the football program was to the growth of the university, but also realizing that the Tigers needed more of a tough-love approach than Combs was willing to give.

"Rob has changed everything, from expectations to accountability to changing the way we think, we act, we dress, we talk and we treat each other," Donatelli said. "It has taken two years to begin to get it done. Everyone associated with the program understands it's about the little things on a daily basis. It's about the details."

It hasn't been easy. Trying to have players buy into a program that demands respect and accountability is difficult when they have nothing to show for it, when the record is getting worse instead of better.

"If you're going to change the culture, you're going to have to break some stuff and we're doing it now," Ambrose said. "When we looked at film from last season, we could have won seven of the games we lost if we had done some of the little things."

A significant change among the players took place last winter when they broke into seven teams for Tiger Accountability.

The program had been implemented shortly after Ambrose arrived, "but it took them until that time for them to actually see what it meant," Ambrose said, adding that he could always tell by looking at the faces of his players "to see who gets the message and who truly doesn't."

Senior defensive tackle Marcus Valentine, whose "Roc Boyz" team won the competition and got to eat dinner with Ambrose, said last winter's Tiger Accountability was the turning point. The victory over Morgan State was expected, the more impressive win over Villanova was not.

"Us beating Villanova just put the cap on it and made us work even harder," he said.

Donatelli said he could see the difference in practice when a walk-on, whom he declined to name, was moving faster and playing with more purpose than he had before.

"That game and the Morgan game validated our concepts and what we're teaching them. Instead of it being a total grind, and having the kids say, 'My god, these guys don't let anything go, there's no wiggle room.' Now they're saying, 'Boy, this is worth it,' " Donatelli said.

As Ambrose gets his team ready for Saturday's game, there's talk in the locker room of winning enough games to make the FCS playoffs and there's talk on campus of having the biggest crowd ever at Johnny Unitas Stadium.

Ambrose thinks about the house he is building, how the frame is now up and a light can be seen shining from the inside.

"This is by no means a finished product," he said.

But after two games, it looks like it's no longer a mess.

Saturday's game

Colgate (1-2, 0-1 in the Patriot League) @ Towson (2-0, 1-0 in CAA)

Time: 7 p.m.

Site: Johnny Unitas Stadium

Radio: WNST (1570-AM)

Series: Colgate leads 9-0

What's at stake: Towson is looking to start 3-0 and equal its win total for the first two years under Rob Ambrose. Colgate, which beat Albany in overtime after losing its first two games, has never lost to the Tigers and is looking to ruin Homecoming for what could be a record crowd at Johnny Unitas Stadium.

Key matchup: Towson's defense has completely shut down its first two opponents, but should be tested against Colgate quarterback Gavin McCarthy, who can run and pass, as well as tailback Nate Eachus, who after missing the first game rushed for 264 yards on 61 carries the past two.

Players to Watch: Quarterback Grant Enders has completed 35 of 45 passes for 390 yards and four touchdowns (two interceptions) his first two games and has picked up a team-high 109 yards rushing on 13 carrries. McCarthy is even more of a run-pass guy, with 347 yards and five TDs on 60 carries and 535 yards on 59 of 84 passing, with two TDs and two interceptions.