For as long as Gordy Combs has worked at Towson State, the Tigers' football program seemingly has been changing course.
During Combs' 19-year stint as an assistant coach, he watched Towson State rise as a Division III, non-scholarship power, follow that with a successful run in Division II and eventually wind up at its current, Division I-AA status.
This season, Towson State's 25th, the Tigers are going through more changes. When the school administration decided early last year to eliminate football scholarships by 1995, that pointed Towson State in yet another direction. Unless the school changes its mind before then, in two years the Tigers will compete as a Division I-AA, non-scholarship program.
All of which doesn't concern Combs in the least.
"I've been here for three years as a player, 19 as an assistant and two as a head coach. In all that time, there's always been some sort of transition," said Combs, who already has begun to adjust Towson State's schedule to reflect its dwindling number of scholarship players. Only three 1993 opponents -- Delaware, Hofstra and Delaware State -- return from last season.
"We've been there [with no scholarships] before," Combs added. "I remember in 1983, we went 10-1 and beat Delaware with a minimum number of scholarships. This schedule reminds me a lot of that '83 schedule. None of this has affected the players. The morale on our team is good."
Why shouldn't it be? The Tigers return 14 starters from a 5-5 team that gave Towson State fans their share of excitement.
Dramatic, late-season victories over Indiana (Pa.) and Northeastern prevented the Tigers from suffering their fourth straight losing season. Bolstered by strong junior and senior classes -- which contain what's left of Towson State's scholarships -- the Tigers are aiming to become the first NCAA school to make the playoffs at three levels of competition. They last qualified for postseason in their final year of Division II in 1986. That was also their last winning season.
"I wouldn't put those [playoff] expectations on these kids if I didn't think they could do it," Combs said. "They have a chance to be the best collection of juniors and seniors that has ever played here. For the first time in quite some time, we've had a real veteran camp, in terms of not having any questions. I'm not concerned with our depth."
The Tigers should be difficult to contain offensively. They return seven players from a unit that averaged 438 yards and 24.5 points.
"You just rattle off the names, and you realize that we have a lot of weapons," said senior tailback Tony Vinson, who is weapon No. 1.
After transferring from Purdue, Vinson, 6 feet 2, 230 pounds, had a breakthrough season last year, before a knee injury cut his season three weeks short. He needed only seven games to rush 1,000 yards and finished with a school-record 1,042. Last week, in a scrimmage at Salisbury State, Vinson showed his rehabilitation was a success by gaining 154 yards. He is drawing the attention of NFL scouts.
"He [Vinson] strikes fear into you as a defensive coordinator," Combs said. "He makes the coaches and the players better around here. You can't miss him."
Vinson is the wrapping paper on an impressive offensive package. Junior quarterback Dan Crowley has thrown for 4,150 yards and 30 touchdowns in fewer than three seasons. The Tigers' three-wideout set features junior Mark Orlando (eight touchdowns, 20.9 yards per catch) and senior Tony Hill (22 receptions, 315 yards). Junior backup running back Brian McCarty (703 yards, eight touchdowns) adds depth in the backfield.
The offensive line should keep Towson State's production consistent. The line, which allowed nine sacks last year, is led by senior left tackle Karl Nieberlein, 6-5, 287, who is another bona fide NFL prospect. Nieberlein and right tackle John Loch, 6-4, 280, are four-year starters. Senior guard Andy Rehkemper is also back. Towson State is counting on first-year starters Jeff Law (center) and Allan Brown (guard).
"We know we're going to be able to run the ball, control the clock and buy time for our defense," Combs said.
Defense is where the Tigers have room for improvement. Despite returning seven starters, Towson State still surrendered 30.2 points a game last fall. Combs is hoping that experience, coupled with a weaker schedule, will lower that average.
"We did a better job last year of eliminating the big play, but we still gave up way too many points," Combs said. "We have to improve our consistency."
That task will be more pressing, because sophomore cornerback Dedin Witherspoon, scheduled to start, injured his knee during preseason and is out for the year. Senior John Robb will take over his spot. The Tigers are counting heavily on senior free safety Aaron Bates, who was third on the team with 66 tackles.