Towson football has time to continue building program

If you want to see how the football culture of Towson University has changed, just visit the office of Tigers coach Rob Ambrose and look behind the door.

There, gathering dust on the floor, is a framed collage of newspaper clippings celebrating Towson's gutty performance against mighty LSU in September.

A friend gave it to Ambrose. Hang it in a prominent spot, the guy said.

"He was all jacked up about it," Ambrose recalled the other day. "But I said: 'I can't hang it in the hallway and celebrate a loss.'"

Talking about that David-vs-Goliath matchup in Baton Rouge, La. , in which his team eventually wore down and lost 38-22, Ambrose looked at the framed clippings and shook his head.

"I still get the text messages every week: 'You still scored more points than anybody who's played LSU,'" he said. "Which is all fine and dandy. But . . . I can't hang that."

The larger theme of all this, Ambrose says, is that this is a new era of Towson football.

It's no longer the kind of sad-sack program where just staying on the field with the big boys without hyperventilating is cause for a keg party. Or the kind of team where the unspoken philosophy is: Sure, winning is nice. But, hey, let's not get carried away and expect it on a regular basis.

No, one year after the Tigers shocked college football by rebounding from a 1-10 season to go 9-2 and win the Colonial Athletic Association championship, they're quietly showing that 2011 was no fluke.

Going into Saturday's game against Rhode Island, they're 5-4 and coming off back-to-back impressive road wins over Villanova and Delaware. And if they win their final two games against the league-doormat Rams and first-place New Hampshire, they'll probably end up in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the second year in a row.

What a ride it's been for the Tigers. Even though the 2011 season ended with a heart-breaking 40-38 loss to Lehigh, it was a magical four months. For the first time in years, the campus buzzed about football. Crowds filled Johnny Unitas Stadium. Ambrose won CAA Coach of the Year. Electrifying running back Terrance West (Northwestern) was named the top freshman in the FCS.

But as much fun as it was, winning also created a different set of challenges for the Tigers this season. For one thing — not exactly a shocker — it dulled their motivation.

"For the kids and school, there was no previous success to draw from," Ambrose said. "They had a decade of really not winning. So when we won, everyone was happy about it, but they didn't know what to do about it.

"It was hardest for the (players). . . . What do you do when they tell you you're great? There's no history with learning how to deal with (that) here. When you're losing and they tell you you stink, you don't listen. But interestingly enough, when they tell you you're great, you listen. And that really throws the focus off."

In their season opener against Kent State, reality set in. The Tigers were soundly thrashed, 41-21. Sure, Kent State was a tough Football Bowl Subdivision team, like LSU. But for a lot of Towson's players, the light came on.

Last year was over, they realized. Nothing was going to be handed to them, just because they were CAA champs. It was going to be another long, hard slog if they wanted to be great again.

"We all talked about it," senior quarterback Grant Enders said. "It wasn't quite the same hunger as we had last year. Last year, in the opening game against Morgan State, we were dying to get a win, dying to turn things around.

"Each week we were trying to do that. We just felt we had so much to prove . . ."

After committing to work harder, the Tigers beat William and Mary and St. Francis (Pa.). And they played tough against No. 3 LSU after a calming speech from Ambrose that was more Deepak Chopra than Knute Rockne.

"I told them: 'They got guys that bench 400 pounds, we got guys that bench 400 pounds,'" Ambrose said. "'They got guys that squat 500 pounds, we got guys that squat 500 pounds.'"

And of the 92,000 rabid fans expected to fill Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Ambrose told his players: "Those 92,000 people don't play football. Only 11 guys play football."

But even with the season turned around, there have been bumps in the road.

Last month, Ambrose was accused by a disgruntled former player of breaking NCAA rules by having the Tigers practice too long this past summer. The player, Trevor Walker, also accused Ambrose of using inappropriate language, including during a fiery speech to pump up his players before the St. Francis game.

Ambrose denied he worked his players too long. A school investigation sided with him. But it also found "issues" with profane language used by the coaching staff.

Ambrose wore a pained expression when he talked to me about the cursing, which he feels was overblown.

"I don't want to defend it," he said. "It's combat, not cooking. There's not a bunch of choir boys who survive on Saturdays in a very physical football game. What was said, was said for effect."

But that's behind the Tigers now. Now the season comes down to this: two more games. Run the table and go to the playoffs.

Show that this new era of Towson football isn't ending, it's only beginning.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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