Towson football does its work before the sun rises

Third-year coach Rob Ambrose has forced his players to practice during 'farm hours' to bring them closer together

April 29, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

Rob Ambrose is the son of a football man, but he is also the son of a farmer.

Though vastly different, both professions helped shape the life of Towson University's head football coach. They also offer the best explanation for why, twice a week this spring, you can find Ambrose standing on the turf of Johnny Unitas Stadium — arms folded, whistle clenched between his teeth — at 5:30 a.m.

That early in the morning, the Maryland sky is still pitch black. Normally the Towson University campus would be as quiet and as dark as an abandoned coal mine, but when Ambrose is there with his football team, the lights that tower above Unitas Stadium illuminate the field below.

On this day, sophomore quarterback Pete Athens, who looks like he rolled out of bed 10 minutes ago, zips a pass to wide receiver Wayne Hicks, who is immediately sandwiched by a linebacker and a safety. Senior guard John Esposito leads a group of offensive lineman as they sprint to the other end of the field second after the horn sounds. All the while Ambrose, dressed in shorts and a black visor, takes meticulous notes with a red pen, trying to figure out a way to turn around a team with only three victories the last two seasons into a consistent winner.

Welcome to spring football practice for the Towson Tigers.

Their workouts end today with the spring game, which has been dubbed the "Tiger Bowl," at 1 p.m. in Johnny Unitas Stadium.

Ambrose and his team held full contact, pre-dawn practices this year in part because it seemed more convenient and in part because Ambrose simply wanted to give it a shot. The genesis of the situation can probably be traced back to last April, when a 900 square foot sinkhole appeared one day on the Tigers' normal grass practice field. The sinkhole was caused by a cracked pipe buried deep beneath the field, and the field hasn't been used recently as new grass grows where repairs were made. That left Towson's lacrosse, soccer, football, and field hockey teams all jostling for the use of the one remaining field.

Ambrose, who in the fall wrapped up his second season as the Tigers head coach, was also fielding countless requests from his players about afternoon classes they needed to take in order to stay on track for graduation. At some point, it dawned on him that he could solve all his scheduling issues — and create a unique bonding exercise — by simply starting practice at "farm hours."

"Don't get me wrong," Ambrose said. "I would much rather practice at 8 o'clock in the morning or 9 o'clock in the morning. But when you have 20 Division I sports and one lit turf field, you need to plan accordingly. There are benefits to this too, though. It's not just suffering."

Changing the culture

Ambrose has some insight into the way hard work before the day's first light builds character. He grew up on a farm in Western Maryland, and his father, Tim — who coached football at Middletown High School and is a member of the Maryland High School Coaches Hall of Fame — would make him get out of bed every morning to corral and feed the horses, the cats and dogs, and the 25 head of cattle his family owned. He's a morning person now, often showing up the at the office somewhere between the hours of 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., but he certainly wasn't that way during his teenage years.

"My dad got me up before the crack of dawn every day, and I hated him for it," Ambrose said. "I love him for it now."

The lifestyle isn't without its challenges, though. The 40-year-old Ambrose, a married father of two, tries to get dressed in the dark every morning without waking up his wife, Melissa, which can lead to some interesting style choices. Even on his best days, he's been known to show up at the field wearing different color socks.

"If you don't walk in here like a color-blind idiot every day, then you're getting pretty good," Ambrose said.

When Ambrose informed his players of Towson's spring practice schedule during the first meeting after winter break, the reaction was, at the very least, mixed.

"The morale of the team was not great," said John Esposito, an offensive guard who will be a senior in the fall. "We really did not want to wake up that early."

But once practices began, many of the players started to see the benefits. They were done with football by 9 a.m., they always got a good breakfast — Ambrose makes them sign in at breakfast after practice and meetings — and they could use the rest of the day to focus on school.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a challenge getting out of bed at 4:15 in the morning," Esposito said. "But once you're out of bed, once you're here in the locker room with all your brothers, it's not that bad. Ever since coach Ambrose got here, he stressed the importance of us being a family. We have to continuing acting like a family. I think it's starting to come around. We care about one another a lot more than we did in the past."

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