Tigers striving to join CAA elite

Team ready to move on after last season's 3-8 record, works toward landing spot in playoffs


August 25, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.co

In the nearly four decades since he first arrived on campus, Gordy Combs has seen Towson football transform.

What was once the sleepy setting of Minnegan Field has become the high-tech experience of Johnny Unitas Stadium. No longer content to be among the elite of Division III, the Tigers' ambition has evolved, too, with dreams of doing the same in the Colonial Athletic Association - the equivalent of the Southeastern Conference of the Football Championship Subdivision.

Coming off a disappointing 3-8 season that unraveled because of injuries and concluded with five straight defeats, Towson forges into uncharted territory this season when it opens against Navy on Saturday in Annapolis. It marks the first meeting for the Tigers against a team from the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) but not the last, with trips planned to Northwestern, Indiana and Maryland the next three years.

"The exposure that we get from this game will help people understand that we're no longer Division III, we're no longer Division II, Towson has really stepped up their program," Combs said recently.

It is another step, perhaps the most significant, in a process that took shape when Towson left the Patriot League in 2004.

"This is our second year of having the full complement of scholarships [63] , so our goal is to be competitive in every game and make the I-AA [FCS] playoffs," said Combs, a 1972 Towson graduate who is starting his 17th season as head coach. "We were fortunate to have five of our [CAA] 12 teams get in [in 2007]. I was looking at the Gridiron Index the other day, and I think seven of our 12 teams are ranked in the top 25."

Terrance Brooks has been back on campus for only seven months, but he can see the same transformation.

Brooks, who played for the Tigers in the early 1980s, returned in January as the school's first strength and conditioning coach devoted strictly to football. Brooks sees the other upgrades, including the 48,000-square-foot field house and, most recently, a new pair of high-definition scoreboards similar to the ones used at Auburn.

"The school has shown the commitment as far as getting facilities, as far as getting more coaches here," he said. "When I was here, we didn't even have a strength coach. We used to have our meetings in the Towson Center. Those type of things will help make the program better. It will make the guys bigger, stronger and faster."

Brooks knows that some of the old-school principles will also be part of Towson's next growth spurt.

"You're [still] looking for character and hard work," Brooks said. "I think that's what got Towson on the map in football back in the Division III days, going to the Stagg Bowl, going to the Division II playoffs three times. Hopefully at this level, we can get up to that level."

If the immediate goal is to join the likes of Richmond, James Madison and Delaware in the upper half of the CAA's South Division, as well as Massachusetts and New Hampshire on a list of other CAA playoff contenders, the long-range plans seem more a fantasy for a team that hasn't been nationally ranked since 1994.

"The long-term goal is to win a national championship," said Combs, who came to Towson as a junior transfer from Dayton in 1971 and remained on Phil Albert's staff until being promoted to head coach in 1992. "Not only have we changed classifications in the 40 years going from III to II to I-AA, but in my tenure as head coach we have changed conference affiliations five times."

Combs is still realistic enough to see the difference between Towson and the powers in the CAA.

"We're not in the position yet to lose people to injuries on one side of the ball," Combs said. "That's what happened to us last year. ... I don't know a lot of programs that could take all those kind of hits."

Or quarterbacks, for that matter. Sean Schaefer, a senior who has been the team's starting quarterback since coming from Northern High in Calvert County, would like nothing better to forget a season that began with him completing 30 of 40 passes for 300 yards and a touchdown in a win over Central Connecticut State and ended with him being sacked nine times (while completing 40 of 59 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown) in a loss to James Madison.

"We lost five games in a row at the end of the year. It was the worst feeling every night going home, sitting there and thinking about it until you watched the film the next day," Schaefer said. "It was very frustrating. I don't want to ever have that feeling again."

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