For Tigers' Combs, it's fourth-and-long

Coach: Coming off a trying season in a difficult conference, the program's longtime leader enters the final year of his contract in need of a big gain.

College Football '05

Morgan State & Towson

September 01, 2005|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

As he enters his 14th season as the head coach at Towson University, the school at which he played football and earned a degree in physical education before beginning a career that has kept him there for 33 years, Gordy Combs says he has no hard feelings about his predicament.

The Tigers are heading into their second season in the powerful Atlantic 10 Football Conference after a painful year in which they failed to win a league game and suffered numerous blowouts.

And Combs finds himself under pressure to win - and win now - more than at any other time during his tenure. That was the clear message delivered by Robert Caret, the university's president, who extended Combs' contract by six months to Dec. 31. Combs completed a five-year deal in June.

Unless the Tigers show significant improvement from last year's 3-8 finish, Combs suspects he and his staff, which includes longtime Towson coaches Rich Bader and Phil Albert, will be gone. And that scenario does not sit well with many of the school's football alumni, who see Combs being forced into an unfair position.

They look at Combs' record, the way he has steered the program through tough transitions in the past, how he has had nine non-losing seasons. They see a program that restored scholarships two years ago after eight years without them, but is still two years from reaching the NCAA scholarship limit of 63. They see Combs being told to do the improbable.

"You set someone up to succeed, or you set someone up to fail. My read is Gordy is getting a gun with not enough bullets," said Jim Peterson, who played linebacker at Towson from 1980 to 1983. "He doesn't have a vote of confidence, and I don't think he's being equipped at the level he needs to succeed."

Added Tony Vinson, who rushed for a school-record 2,016 yards in 1993, then was drafted in the fifth round by the San Diego Chargers: "[Combs] has endured tough times and all of the transitions before and always adapted to them.

"I know they had a rough season last year, but that was to be expected. Now he's starting to get the scholarship guys in again who are going to make a difference. He's building a program. It's shocking to hear he might not be there anymore."

Combs is matter-of-fact about his immediate future. He wishes Caret - who declined to be interviewed for this article - had requested specific signs of acceptable progress. Must he win a certain number of games? Avoid any routs? How much improvement must Towson show in the A-10? The league includes James Madison and Delaware - the past two national I-AA champions - and has six of its 12 members ranked in The Sports Network preseason Top 25.

"I'm such a competitor that this [pressure] strikes my match," said Combs, who will earn $90,000 this season and draws the lowest salary among A-10 coaches.

"This is the situation, and we'll get out of it. I think we're going to do enough good things to get a contract extension. What was I going to do, say no [to the six-month offer]? I want to end my career here. Hopefully, I'll do that on my terms."

Sources said Towson athletic director Wayne Edwards tried to get Combs a lengthier contract, but could not convince Caret.

"My assessment will be whether or not we've made progress being competitive in the Atlantic 10, relative to the [40] scholarships Gordy is working with," said Edwards, who is retiring at the end of the school year. "I'll meet with Gordy when the season is over and I'll make the most intelligent recommendation to Dr. Caret and follow his direction."

A Baltimore native, Combs is a fixture at Towson, where he transferred a year after the program's birth in 1969, played for his final two years in college, then never left. While he served as a linebackers coach, then defensive coordinator over a combined 19 years, the Tigers went from Division III to II to I-AA. Combs replaced Albert in 1992.

Combs has dealt with continuous change since then. Towson narrowly missed the I-AA playoffs in 1993 and 1994 with 8-2 records, dropped scholarships, moved into the non-scholarship Patriot League in 1997, rebounded from his only back-to-back losing years with consecutive 7-4 seasons, then joined the Atlantic 10 after deciding in 2002 to bring back scholarships.

Combs, who went 36-40 in seven Patriot League seasons before last year's A-10 introduction, is 73-64 overall.

"Last year was very difficult. Those [A-10 opponents] came in bigger, stronger, smarter," said Towson sophomore linebacker Brian Bradford, noting the host of fifth-year seniors and juniors on scholarship who make up the league's rosters.

"We have to grow real fast and keep up with the pace. If we win a few big games and have a good season, it's going to show that [Combs] is doing something right. And if he's doing something right, why get rid of him?"

Season opener

Matchup: Morgan State at Towson

When: Tonight, 7

Radio: 88.9 FM, 89.7 FM

At a glance

Coach: Gordy Combs (14th season)

Last year: 3-8

Conference: Division I-AA Atlantic 10

Radio: 89.7 FM

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