Towson at pivotal point for dreams of athletic glory

University officials say winning teams would boost national image, believe new basketball coach is the man to lead quest

  • New Towson men's basketball coach Pat Skerry is shown at the news conference announcing his hiring.
New Towson men's basketball coach Pat Skerry is shown… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
April 09, 2011|By Childs Walker and Ken Murray, The Baltimore Sun

The people who care about Towson University athletics wondered one thing as they watched conference rival Virginia Commonwealth shock mighty Kansas to earn a berth in the Final Four: Why can't that be us?

The question speaks to the hope Towson leaders harbor after securing $68 million for a new, on-campus arena and attracting a new men's basketball coach from the University of Pittsburgh. But it also speaks to their frustration that an athletic turnaround has not come more quickly.

The university's leaders have long dreamed of joining conference mates VCU and George Mason among mid-major programs capable of making surprise runs to the Final Four. Twenty-one years after a serious push to drop football, outgoing president Robert L. Caret has deemed athletic success a key piece in Towson's evolution from a modestly regarded commuter school to a selective, nationally known university with a lively campus. Caret more than doubled the athletic budget to almost $20 million during his tenure.

But in reality, Towson athletics have floundered as the rest of the university has risen. Under Caret, Towson added more than 2 million square feet of facilities, 2,000 beds and 1,500 parking spaces, quintupled research funding, added an MBA program and, after years of sluggish fundraising, completed a $40 million campaign in 2009.

As for athletics, few programs are consistent winners. The men's lacrosse program has suffered three straight losing seasons after years as a perennial NCAA tournament contender. And men's basketball, the department's would-be crown jewel, lost every game it played this season in the rugged Colonial Athletic Association.

"I'm jealous as can be that those schools have figured out a way to do it," says David Nevins, a Towson alumnus and former member of the state's Board of Regents, referring to VCU and George Mason. "In many ways, they're not very different from us. These are our peers, and yet, we haven't come close."

A report produced by an internal task force in October 2010 portrayed Towson athletics as underfunded, short of alumni support, devoid of tradition and stuck with stagnant leadership. Caret, who will leave this month to take over the University of Massachusetts system, counts athletics as his greatest disappointment from an otherwise lauded eight-year presidency.

If the athletic department is to reverse course, as university leaders say it must, the next few years will likely be pivotal.

In September, Caret hired a new athletic director, Mike Waddell, who has sweeping plans to overhaul the way Towson sports are marketed to donors, students and residents of neighboring communities. On Tuesday, Waddell announced his own biggest hire, new men's basketball coach Pat Skerry. At age 41, with experience assisting at a top-10 program and big ambitions to be the nation's next hot coach, Skerry seems to fit the profile Towson leaders said they wanted.

Next month, the university will break ground on its 5,000-seat arena, expected to open in spring 2013.

"This is our last, best time to get it right," says Nevins, who co-chaired the task force that examined Towson athletics.

Mike Gill, another Towson alumnus and former state regent, speaks even more bluntly about the imperative for success.

"We're not spending $65 million on an arena so families will have a nicer place to come for high school graduations," Gill says.

To understand why athletics are important to Towson's most powerful supporters, it is important to understand their ambitions for the university. They want Towson to be a strong No. 2 piece in the state university system, a school nationally known for its excellent undergraduate education and attractive campus life. They often use N.C. State as an example of what Towson could be.

The journey to such renown would be greatly hastened, these boosters argue, by a winning men's basketball team. They cite a study at George Mason, which found that the Virginia university's run to the 2006 Final Four drew more attention than could have been purchased with $1 billion in marketing.

At Butler, which made its second straight improbable run to the Final Four this year, applications went up 41 percent for 2010-2011 and enrollment went up after a decade of declines.

At VCU, visits to the school's admissions web site nearly tripled the day the basketball team beat Kansas, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"This is only important from the perspective that, in this day and age, athletics leads the way in the marketing of a university," says Nevins, who runs a public relations firm based in Hunt Valley. "It gets a school in the media much more and in a positive way. It gets the alumni interested and creates an esprit de corps among students and faculty that can't be achieved any other way."

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