Without scholarships, Towson intent on changing Tigers to forage for I-AA leftovers

February 02, 1993|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Staff Writer

The phone will not be ringing at the Towson State football offices tomorrow. The fax machine downstairs won't be whirring with news of the Tigers' latest recruits.

The national letter of intent signing period begins tomorrow, and while the other 300-plus NCAA institutions in the business of scholarship football wait to see if oral commitments become the real thing, the Towson State staff instead will find out which recruits are left over.

The second year of non-scholarship recruiting -- the first under head coach Gordy Combs -- is the latest step in a delicate high-wire act that began when Towson State decided a year ago to de-emphasize football.

Towson State used to have the equivalent of more than 10 football scholarships to award each year. Now the Tigers have none, although Combs said the adjustment won't be that difficult. For one thing, he was at Towson State when it was in Division III with no scholarships. Second, the Tigers never had a fully funded program even when they did give scholarships.

"I've always recruited non-scholarship kids," Combs said. "This isn't new to us. It's not like we ever had 70 scholarships [the current I-AA limit] to begin with. Through 1986, the most we ever had was 20. You build a team out of what you get."

Towson State is funding the equivalent of approximately 40 scholarships this year -- they go to players who were signed before the switch to non-scholarship football. But several of those players will graduate, and by next fall, the Tigers' roster will tip in favor of non-scholarship players.

The caliber of Towson State recruits began to change last year. It was the first year the Tigers didn't have any athletic scholarships to offer since the 1970s. In recent years, the Tigers were recruiting against Delaware and James Madison, but now Combs is after a player with lesser aspirations.

"It would be a waste of our time and [the player's] to go after someone who has two I-AA scholarship offers," Combs said. "I told kids, 'If you've got a I-AA scholarship offer, take it."

"Some of the players we want are being recruited by bigger I-AA programs that won't offer them a scholarship. We're still up against Yankee Conference schools for players, but a lot of the kids we're talking to are also looking into the [Division II] Pennsylvania Conference and an assortment of Division IIIs."

Combs estimates that last December he and five assistant coaches talked to 600 to 800 high school seniors from the Virginia tidewater area to Long Island, N.Y. Thirty-two visited Towson State last weekend, and 20 to 24 will be on campus next weekend. Combs would like to know who is planning to come to Towson State by April 13, when spring practice starts.

With no athletic scholarships available, Towson State has to find other ways to lessen the cost for incoming players.

"It all comes down to: How much is it going to cost the parents?" Combs said. "We tell our recruits to apply for financial aid as soon as possible. The economy has made competition for that aid great, and that money gets eaten up quickly."

Combs said that Towson State gives need-based grants that are no greater than 50 percent of a student's room, board, tuition, and fees. In 1993-94, he expects the total cost to be approximately $8,000 for in-state students and $10,000 for out-of-state students. Football recruits also can apply for loans.

Combs' sales pitch stresses the Tigers' facilities and support system, and the opportunity to participate with scholarship players such as tailback Tony Vinson, a candidate for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the top player in Division I-AA.

Next year's recruits eventually will participate in a non-scholarship group operating under the ECAC umbrella, but they have to be willing to watch and learn while Towson State takes one last shot at Division I-AA glory.

"Our next two classes will have the advantage of spring practice, and playing against some great players," Combs said. "Next year, we'll have 20 seniors and 18 juniors, most receiving some kind of scholarship aid, and they'll get the bulk of the playing time. It's two very talented classes."

In 1992, Towson State went 5-5, matching its victory total of the three previous seasons.

"With the players we have back, our goal in 1993 is to make the I-AA playoffs," Combs said. "It's not that far-fetched. In I-AA circles, people realize we're going to be good. The word is out that Vinson's a great player. We've regained some of the respect we lost in the late 1980s."

The de-emphasis is only the latest change that Combs has seen in Towson State football.

"We're going to celebrate 25 years of football here next year, and we've been in transition the whole time," Combs said. "We can still be the only school ever to make the NCAA playoffs in Division III, II and I-AA, but time's running out."

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