Towson finishes hopeful, but football future in doubt

JOHN EISENBERG

November 18, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

The day was not entirely lacking in resolution. A season ended, a game was won, everyone went home happy. "Something good happened," said Phil Albert, the football coach at Towson State.

For every drop of resolution, however, there was a bucket of uncertainty. "Now we'll just sit and wait," said James Dutton, a Towson linebacker, after the Tigers' 21-14 victory over Northeastern.

They will wait to see whether they still have a team, a uniform, a place to play in 1991. Their program is in danger of being dropped, their future dependent on some parents and alumni who are trying to raise the necessary money.

A wise betting man would not wager on them. A team that can't support itself has little future, and the Tigers aren't close. The public-address announcer got ahead of himself yesterday when he said at the end of the game, "We look forward to seeing you again next year." He may. He may not.

The decision will be made in the coming weeks by Hoke Smith, the president of the school, and all you hear right now is second-hand information, gossip, rumors, educated guesses, polemics, innuendo, logic true and false.

"Everyone starts their sentences with 'I heard,' " said Dutton, a junior from Glenelg, "as in, 'I heard this,' or, 'I heard that.' There isn't a lot of hard information. You read stuff in the newspapers, hear from people, talk to the coaches. I don't want to get my hopes up. I'm just going to wait and see."

Certain truths are evident. One is that few people care. The crowd yesterday was strictly a family-and-friends proposition, small clumps of people scattered around the aluminum seats. That's after weeks of speculation that the program was going down. There was no show of support. None.

Yes, it was cold and windy, and Maryland-Virginia was on TV. But there is always an excuse. Let's face it. Towson football doesn't cause a ripple in this town. A small percentage of the football alumni have donated to the cause. Even the students don't come.

The Tigers were situated perfectly in Division II, where they were a playoff team, but they started thinking big and jumped to Division I-AA four years ago, and they've been over their heads from the first day. The coaches are up to it, but their opponents often have dozens more scholarships, and that's football suicide.

The move was a mistake, but, oddly enough, it is possible Towson would be making the same decision now, even if it had stayed in Division II. At the NCAA convention in January, legislation requiring schools to play in the same division in all sports will be put to a vote. If it passes, Towson, which went Division I in basketball a decade ago, either has to keep football at Division I-AA or drop it altogether.

It is possible that Smith, wanting to see the outcome of the vote, will postpone his decision a year. The Tigers would, in essence, get a stay of execution. Then again, he may not be impressed by the fund-raising efforts of the alumni and parents. He has said he doesn't just want a Band-aid answer, but a solid fund-raising mechanism that will sustain the team for years. There is, of course, a lot of gossip.

"I hear they have the money to keep us going," said sophomore defensive lineman Doug Irvin.

"I'm worried," said Steve Smigel, a sophomore tight end. "If the school wants to have a program, it will. I'm hopeful, but just that. I don't know what's going to happen."

Smith is being criticized as anti-sport, but he is not wrong. His school has money problems, and a Division I-AA football team -- especially one that sells few tickets -- is an enormous drain. If no one cares about it, and unless the parents and alumni find a permanent cash flow, there isn't much reason to keep it.

The school would be better off putting more money into its rising basketball program, or paying for better security -- there have been two rapes on campus in the past six months -- or keeping the library open longer. The players don't disagree with those ideas, but they want a place to play. You can't blame them.

"Football players pick schools because it's where they want to play football," Smigel said. "This is one of the biggest decisions in all of our lives. You're always hearing talk these days, especially from the younger kids, about what they're going to do if there's no team. They'd rather stay here. But they want to play."

They played yesterday, and the win gave them a 2-9 record for 1990. That's not much reason to cheer. But the players celebrated hard, caught in the spin of uncertainty and strange emotions.

"We seniors really wanted to go out with a win," said wide receiver Dewey Barnes. "And I guess we wanted the younger guys to go out with a win, too."

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