Towson hits targets

Colleges: Having joined the Colonial Athletic Association and expanded its stadium, Towson has one goal left - a football affiliation with the Atlantic 10.

Colleges

August 11, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

One more development is needed to complete Towson University's 21st century makeover.

More than a decade after they sought membership in the Colonial Athletic Association, the Tigers joined that conference last year. Near completion is a $31.5 million expansion of its stadium, a concept that has been considered since Minnegan Stadium opened in 1978.

The last point in the plan would be an invitation to play football in the Atlantic 10 Conference, the premier Division I-AA league on the East Coast, which could come any day. The A-10 would pose fiscal and physical challenges for the Tigers, whose commitment to that sport has changed as often as its all-sports affiliation, wanderings that have tested Towson's notions about niche and notoriety.

"Marketing has been a challenge," said Wayne Edwards, Towson's athletic director since 1995, "but I'm very optimistic about where we are, and where we are going."

Lewis and Clark would have had difficulty locating Baltimore's biggest college athletic program some seasons. At times, the explorers wouldn't have known what they were looking for, or where to look.

Over the past decade, Towson has been South (Big), North (Atlantic) and East (Coast and America). Now, the Tigers will try to find stability in the Colonial era. A move to the A-10 for football - and a commitment of some 60 scholarships - would represent a 180-degree swing in philosophy from 1990, when Towson nearly dropped the sport.

With almost 17,000 students, Towson has the state's second-largest campus after College Park. While Maryland is celebrating its 50th season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Tigers didn't embark on scholarship athletics until the 1970s, and they experienced growing pains.

In their adolescence, Towson's two major men's sports were flush with success. Basketball went to the NCAA tournament in 1990 and '91, but has had six straight losing seasons. The football team last went to the NCAAs in 1986, its last season in Division II. Can the Tigers regain some of that momentum, and finally become a mid-major power?

Phase 1

One thing is certain. When the grand opening is held in conjunction with the football opener against Morgan State on Sept. 5, the Tigers will have the best mid-sized stadium in the state. Kim McCalla of the Maryland Stadium Authority is the project director. She has also overseen construction of the Comcast Center, and the same architect, Ellerbe Becket, designed the Terps' new basketball arena.

Minnegan Stadium's capacity was 5,000. Now, Towson can accommodate 11,198. Adjacent to the south grandstand, a four-level, 48,000-square-foot field house should be completed by Christmas. It will house locker rooms and offices for lacrosse, football and field hockey.

The NCAA lacrosse quarterfinals will be held there the day after the 2003 Preakness. Once the track is resurfaced next summer, Edwards said that Towson will more actively pursue high school events and possibly the Bayhawks' pro lacrosse team as a tenant. The project was met by some community opposition, and it will not be a concert site.

What is currently known as Towson University Stadium was initially named for longtime teacher and soccer coach Doc Minnegan, who will turn 100 Aug. 26. The field will be renamed in his honor, but the naming rights to the stadium are for sale - the starting price is $3 million. Those negotiations will be crucial to a project that received $21.75 million in state funds.

Towson's athletic and auxiliary services departments will both pay $1.5 million. A good chunk of the remaining $6.75 million must come in the form of naming rights. The rest will be raised through a marketing campaign, which must combat negative publicity generated by the extravagant spending of Mark L. Perkins, who last April was forced out by the state Board of Regents after nine months on the job.

Phase 2

Despite a graduation rate that ranks among the top 10 percent in the nation, Tigers athletics was not an easy sell in the last decade, when major conferences like the Atlantic Coast Conference added a Florida State to their deck and mid-majors tried to strengthen their hand. One year, Towson was trying to forge a basketball rivalry with Charleston Southern, the next its fans were supposed to get hyped for Vermont.

By the late 1980s, Towson began to eye the CAA, where the bulk of the membership looked similar: public colleges, like James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., which experienced considerable growth in recent decades.

Towson didn't necessarily become more attractive; the CAA was wobbly after key members like Richmond bolted, so the league righted itself by expanding north and adding the Tigers and Delaware, Drexel and Hofstra from the America East.

The CAA recently was awarded an automatic bid for men's lacrosse, and Hofstra will be the biggest obstacle between Tony Seaman's team and the NCAA lacrosse tournament.

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