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Towson's road to FCS playoffs featured decades of twists and turns

The dramatic turnaround for the Towson University football team this season will be punctuated by the school's first playoff appearance since becoming a I-AA program in 1987. While many not familiar with the program's history look at it as if the Tigers have come from nowhere, those who were part of the their early days as a small-college Eastern power wonder if the current success can be sustained.

When Towson (9-2) hosts Lehigh (10-1) in the second round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs Saturday at Johnny Unitas Stadium, it will bring back faded snapshots for those who remember when the Tigers were a perennial playoff team. It will also revive discussions about how Towson literally fumbled away any chance of continued success.

Sean Murphy, an All-American receiver on a string of nationally ranked Division II teams in the early 1980s, recalled how university administators believed it was simply a matter of the players strapping on their helmets and tucking in their shoulder pads for the team's dominance to continue. After all, many of the team's victories had come against I-AA teams.

"In those days, half of our schedule was against I-AA teams, and we won 70 percent of those games," Murphy, now the football coach at Archbishop Curley, said Wednesday. "Everybody in the university decided we could play I-AA, but they never made the commitment. They had fewer scholarships [than most I-AA teams]. Our facilities for Division II were very good; our facilities for I-AA were substandard.

"That kind of really hurt the program, to the point where in 1990 or 1991, they were on the verge of dropping the program. I'd rather have been a big dog in Division II. We would have continued to get exposure in the area. It was a disaster. We just didn't have the financial support, we didn't have the facilities and you can't compete."

What followed was sporadic success — if that.

Towson didn't have a winning record its first six years in I-AA, averaging a little over three wins a season before coach Phil Albert retired. Gordy Combs, who had been an assistant coach, had seven winning seasons in an 11-year stretch during his 17 seasons as head coach, but finished off with his teams winning only three games in each of his last two years.

"There are very few schools that ever went from Division III to Division II to Division I-AA. Most schools stay for 25, 30, 40, 50 years in one division, maybe they move up one," said Sean Landeta, who played for the Tigers as they were transitioning from Division II to Division I-AA, and spent nearly a quarter of a century in the NFL as a punter. "If they had stayed in Division II with the success they were having, they probably would have been a perennnial playoff team."

But the former Tigers — as well as Albert, who spent 40 years at Towson as a football coach and educator — believe that the infrastructure is in place for the Tigers to become a force in the Colonial Athletic Association, considered by many to be the toughest FCS conference in the country, and possibly a national power.

Albert, who still lives in the area and regularly goes to games, said that the hiring of third-year coach Rob Ambrose, and the subsequent hiring of athletic director Mike Waddell last year, puts Towson "in great position to have perennial success. We have the coaching, we have the players, we have the location, the facility and the conference. I couldn't be more delighted with the success they're having."

Said Murphy, "I don't know if they've got everything in place, but they are moving in that direction, far more than when Phil Albert and Gordy were there. From coaches' salary, the marketing, the athletic director is excellent and he's played a big role in the excitement. It obviously starts at the top, when we had [president] Robert Caret. Our facilities are as good as anybody in I-AA football."

Murphy said that it is crucial for the university to lock up Ambrose long-term. Ambrose, who played at Towson from 1989 to 1992 and returned after spending six years as quarterbacks coach and later offensive coordinator under Randy Edsall at Connecticut, will have two years left on a five-year contract after this season.

"I really believe that Rob is going to have some offers based on what he has done this year at Towson," Murphy said.

Ambrose has often said that he believed he could revive the football program, which won a total of three games his first two years, including 1-10 last season. Much of Ambrose's optimism stemmed from his familiarty with the program's history. Towson is now the first school in college football history to make the playoffs at each of those three levels.

"Anybody who has ever been here and paid attention to football at Towson knows it can get done," Ambrose said. "The one thing that we have not had is consistent support and we did not stay the course. Whenever we got to a certain degree of success, we either changed divisions or we pulled scholarships or we didn't commit to it. I'm going to tell you, we're kind of there again."

Ambrose is optimistic that this wave of enthusiasm will continue, but he knows that beyond the talent he recruits is the foundation that comes from the financial and moral support from an administration that is in the midst of change at the top, with Maravene Loeschke starting in January as the school's new president.

"The true test is the ability to sustain a course and make a commitment," Ambrose said. "It's not an injection, it's a daily vitamin. It's not a one-time deal. As we move forward in this conversation in a year and two years and three years from now, it's going to be our commitment to the path we've gotten ourselves back on. That is going to make a difference in our national recognition forever."

Landeta, who came back for the team's Homecoming victory over Colgate and will return Saturday for its first home playoff game since 1976, hopes that the Tigers can take advantage of the exposure they will receive from being on national television in terms of recruiting to ensure that this is not a one-season wonder.

"To have a season like this, let's hope they're able to win their playoff game Saturday and advance," Landeta said. "With the visibility they get from this in this day and age, all the ESPN networks, college football networks and social media, they should try to build on this and try to recruit and further build the program."

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