Towson making one last I-AA run

KEN ROSENTHAL

November 18, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Gordy Combs stays up at night thinking of ways to sell his football team to the Division I-AA playoff committee. He'll have plenty of time to sleep later. This is Towson State's last chance.

The opponents are getting weaker. The scholarships will be gone by 1995. Even if Combs keeps winning, the strength-of-schedule argument probably will doom Towson's playoff chances forever.

So here's Combs, talking up his 7-2 Tigers. The high-scoring offense. The record-breaking Tony Vinson. The win over No. 19 Delaware, the loss to No. 8 Howard, both in the final seconds.

Towson is celebrating its 25th anniversary of football, celebrating it with a wildly entertaining team. But instead of a first step toward I-AA prominence, this is the Tigers' last hurrah.

That's why Saturday's season finale at Morgan State is so important, and why Combs and his players will be fiddling with a satellite dish on Sunday, when the I-AA playoff pairings are announced.

It doesn't look good for No. 25 Towson. Only 16 teams make the I-AA playoffs. The two ranked Ivy League teams can't accept bids. So, Towson needs to jump seven places -- mission impossible.

The sad part is, Towson could become the first school to make the playoffs in Divisions III, II and I-AA. But the committee isn't interested in sentiment, just the facts.

Ditto for Towson president Hoke Smith. It would seem that the football team's revival might persuade the school to reconsider its decision to drop scholarships. But such is not the case.

"The next couple of years are going to decide who can keep football and who can't," Smith said Monday. "But at this point, there's no consideration about bringing back scholarships to football."

Gender-based equity is coming, and at a school where 60 percent of the student body is female, Towson wouldn't be able to grant football scholarships unless it was willing to cut several men's sports.

Towson nearly dropped football due to financial problems three years ago, but decided to scale back by eliminating the team's 40 scholarships instead.

Smith said the scholarships were worth approximately $500,000, and the savings help fund women's sports. The football team will remain in I-AA, but move to a non-scholarship conference in 1995.

"There's always the hope and dream we can bring scholarships back, and I hold onto that," Combs said. "But I also would understand if we don't. I understood all the circumstances when I took the job."

That was two years ago. Towson won only five games from 1989 to '91, but matched that total in Combs' first season. A victory over Morgan would give the Tigers their most wins since 1986.

This isn't just a good team, it's a fun team, too. In five of Towson's last 12 games, the outcome has been in doubt until the final minute -- and the Tigers have prevailed four times.

Towson won after trailing Indiana (Pa.) 20-0 last season -- and lost after leading Howard 21-0 on Oct. 16. The Howard score was 44-41. The teams combined for 12 touchdowns and 1,057 yards.

Three weeks later, the Tigers staged their own last-minute comeback, beating Delaware, 32-30. If not for a 40-12 loss at Hofstra, they'd be one play shy from a perfect season, and a certain playoff bid.

Combs knows the I-AA committee won't reward exciting finishes, but he points to victories over Yankee Conference opponents Connecticut and Delaware and another over Delaware State, the team facing Howard for the MEAC title.

He points to Dan Crowley, fifth in I-AA in passing efficiency, and tackle Karl Nieberlein, an NFL prospect at 287 pounds. And he points to Vinson, who needs 195 yards against Morgan to break the I-AA single-season rushing record of 1,883 yards set by Colgate's Rich Erenberg in 1983.

"I'm always thinking of ammunition to try to get in front of the people and present our case," Combs said, smiling.

He knows this is it. Of the 55 players on a recent traveling squad, 15 were on full scholarship and 24 were on partial scholarship. All were juniors and seniors. Towson hasn't awarded scholarships to its past two freshman classes.

Combs has been at Towson 24 years -- three as a player, 19 as an assistant, two as head coach. He remembers the low-budget years in Division II and III. "It's something we've always done," he said, shrugging. "We realize the parameters we've had to work in."

But next season, Delaware, Connecticut and Central Connecticut will be dropped from the schedule. The season after, Towson moves to its non-scholarship conference.

This should be the start of something big.

Instead, it's the last hurrah.

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