For new Towson State football coach Gordy Combs, the realization that change for the better might be on the horizon came during a brief exchange with a player during spring practice.
"After the first two days of practice," Combs recalled, "[defensive tackle] Doug Irvin came up to me and said, 'This is the first time it's been fun here in a while.' "
There definitely wasn't much fun last season, at 1-10 the worst in the school's 23-year football history. In 1992, the Tigers will attempt to field a winning team for the first time since coming to Division I-AA in 1987. That the team is adapting to a new head coach for the first time in 20 years and being transformed into a non-scholarship program won't make that task any easier.
Combs is the new coach, replacing Phil Albert, who held the top spot for 20 years. Albert, the only person to attend every Towson game since football was started in 1969, resigned because he wasn't excited about the switch to non-scholarship football. That left the top job to Combs, a Towson assistant the past 19 years, whose goal during spring practice has been to instill a winning attitude in his players.
"We have to make them feel that it really hurts to lose," said Combs, a former Towson player who graduated in 1972. "We can't accept defeat as easily as we have in the past.
"The only thing that changes that is the winning," he added. "Our motto is 'bring it back, one at a time.' "
And Combs appears confident he has the personnel to do just that. The team's offense will be in the hands of quarterback Dan Crowley, who started five games as a freshman last season and completed 146 of 295 passes for 1,783 yards. Behind Crowley will be junior running back Tony Vinson, who gets to play after sitting out a season following his transfer from Purdue.
"Danny Crowley will be better with a spring under his belt," Combs said. "And with Tony we'll try to get the ball to him at least 20 times a game, whether it's running the ball or throwing to him.
"For the average person watching us, they won't see much change from us offensively," Combs said. "We're still going to throw the ball 40 times a game."
Although the style will remain the same, the question is whether the won-lost ledger will be different. The Tigers will attempt to improve while playing a difficult schedule that includes Division I-AA powers James Madison, William & Mary and Delaware.
That doesn't appear to faze Combs who, at 42, waited patiently for a head coaching opportunity to come his way.
"I was disappointed I didn't get a head coaching job earlier, but I don't think when I was 35 or in my early 30s I was prepared enough," Combs said. "I've prepared myself these last five to seven years. But I never thought I would get the job this way -- I thought Phil would get a big job and I would have to make a decision whether to go with Phil or stay."
Regardless of how he got the job, Combs is now the head man at Towson State and will lead the Tigers into the future of non-scholarship football.
"It's just great to be the head coach at your alma mater," Combs said, beaming. "Right now we feel we're just a couple of players away. It'll be important for us to get off to a good start because if we do, we'll believe."