Nov. 18, 2012 will not be remembered fondly by Rob Ambrose.
That was the day the Towson football coach's worst fears were confirmed when the NCAA selection committee did not invite the program to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs despite the Tigers finishing with a 7-4 record and a share of the Colonial Athletic Association title.
"Professionally, it was the worst day of my life," Ambrose recalled. "I know I didn't handle it well. I was an emotional disaster. We dumped our hearts and souls to give these kids the best opportunity to win the national championship. … So I feel horrible for our players because they didn't get that opportunity when they should have."
"That leaves a bitter taste in our mouths, but we're going to use that as motivation," inside linebacker Monte Gaddis said. "We can't dwell on the past right now. We're just thinking about the future and what's ahead of us for the upcoming season."
If there is a silver lining to be gleaned from that snub, it galvanized the players and coaches. There is a concerted effort by everyone within the program to avoid a repeat of that scenario in 2013. In fact, it led to the adoption of a team-wide mantra.
"Last year, we weren't selected for the playoffs even though we beat Villanova and New Hampshire, two teams that were selected to go to the postseason," senior left tackle Eric Pike said. "The only way to make sure that you're in the playoffs is to finish No. 1 in your conference, and that's what our goal is. Leave no doubt to the point where we can't be denied."
The Tigers went 6-2 in the CAA last year, losing only to Old Dominion (11-2 overall and 7-1 in the conference) and James Madison (7-4, 5-3). But their overall record also included losses to SEC powerhouse LSU (38-22 on Sept. 29) and Kent State (41-21 on Aug. 30). Villanova coach Andy Talley speculated that those two setbacks damaged Towson's resume.
"I think when you schedule that way, you really put yourself in harm's way, and I think that's what happened to them," he said. "And when you take a look at the national picture, they're only going to take so many teams from the CAA in the playoffs. We know that our third or fourth team in our league is many times better than some of the picks from somewhere else. There's nothing fair about that. I think in this case, it was very unfortunate that a team like Towson was left out. But I would say don't schedule two [Football Bowl Subdivision] games."
While acknowledging that few FCS teams can lose to two FBS programs and still qualify for the postseason, Ambrose said he has no regrets about scheduling those contests against LSU and Kent State.
"Fifteen years from now, 20 years from now, the fact that we did what we did and we played those teams and played them as well as we did, it's not Towson State anymore, it's not Town-son, it's not Toe-son," he said. "Towson is Baltimore, and we've changed the way that people see Towson and Baltimore football-wise across the nation. So you've got to balance the good with the bad. If we hadn't played LSU, we would have made a run at the national championship. But even if we had made a run at the national championship, would people know who we are like they do today without that? No. So that's the fine line."
New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell empathizes with the Tigers, saying that the absence of an invitation to the playoffs must "kill them." But he also said he would know how to turn that insult into inspiration if he was in Ambrose's position.
"I would tell the boys, 'Hey, we've got to be better. They didn't believe we were good enough last year. Leave no doubt. Go after it,'" McDonnell said. "I'm sure Rob is telling them that right now."
High expectations surround Towson, which was picked to finish second in the conference behind Villanova. A third consecutive CAA title is the first priority, but Pike said the team harbors loftier goals.
"Last year was a disappointment for us," he said. "We won the conference once before, and when we were looking to grow, all we did was stay the same. If you're not growing, you're getting worse. We want to make sure that we're continuing to grow."
Ambrose sees the promise in this year's squad, but he said being good is not good enough.
"There's no question how good we are, how we should be perceived, and people should be a little bit afraid of us and how well we play," he said. "We're not playing just to win. We're playing so that nationally when people look at Towson, there is no doubt that we are a member of the elite, and that's how we're going to train and that's our goal every day."
Outlook: Despite a share of the conference regular-season title, the Tigers were left at home from the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs by the NCAA selection committee. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but it provided some foundation — and motivation — for the upcoming season. Unlike 2012 when the program faced two Football Bowl Subdivision opponents in the same season for the first time, Towson will meet just one FBS school in Connecticut in the season opener Aug. 29. The Tigers were picked to finish second in the CAA preseason poll and a significant reason has to do with the return of 15 of 22 starters on both sides of the ball. The offense boasts eight returning starters, including the entire offensive line anchored by two-time All-CAA left tackle Eric Pike. That unit could help the offense match its average of 33.4 points and 229.9 rushing yards should provide a level of comfort at the quarterback position, which appears to be the subject of a two-player race between senior Peter Athens and sophomore Connor Frazier. The defense welcomes back seven starters, including its linebacker corps led by senior middle linebacker Monte Gaddis. The biggest gaps will be on the defensive line, which bade farewell to three starters.