Towson football — the best sports story in Maryland

Ambrose has 6-1 Tigers primed for Saturday night showdown vs. Delaware

October 26, 2011|Kevin Cowherd

Go ahead, find me a better comeback story than the one Towson University's football team is writing this fall.

Think about it: this is a team that went 1-10 last season. A team with a grand total of two wins the year before. A team picked to finish last in the Colonial Athletic Association. A team that had lost 26 of 28 conference games going into this year.

Now the Tigers are 6-1 and ranked 13th in the nation among FCS teams. It's their best start since 1987. In fact, they're the most improved team in Division I — FBS or FCS.

And now they're anticipating a sell-out crowd at 11,000-seat Johnny Unitas Stadium on Saturday night for the Delaware game.

Imagine that: a full house at Unitas Stadium, a place where crowds were often so sparse you thought you were at a tractor-pull.

Maybe you have to know how downtrodden the football program was to truly appreciate this roll the Tigers are on.

The comeback story begins with the coach, Rob Ambrose. When he left as offensive coordinator at Connecticut three years ago to coach his alma mater, he was appalled at what he found.

In some ways, the football team seemed almost like an after-thought. There were no organized weight-lifting programs. No nutritional program, either. For pre-game meals on the road, the Tigers dined on apples and Snickers bars.

Worse, there was a huge chasm between the athletic and academic sides of the campus. Both were wary of each other. Ambrose knew he needed the support of the whole school to be successful. So he set out to change the entire culture.

"For years, everybody here was just happy to have a team," he says. "It was, 'Cool, we have a team!'"

Except often it was a losing team that drew flies. And that attitude of settling for mediocrity fried Ambrose.

"Now it's, 'We want to be good,'" he says.

But Ambrose, a cocky guy, then only 38, had to be convinced the administration cared about excelling as much as he did.

At his job interview with former Towson president Robert Caret, Ambrose was blunt. He wanted to know if Caret was committed to winning. And spending the kind of dough it took to win at the Division I level.

If Caret wasn't, Ambrose was ready to call a cab right then and there.

"If you're going to have a seriously renowned institution, then you're going to have to have a seriously renowned athletic department," Ambrose says. "… [But] there are a whole bunch of incredibly intelligent people on the planet that just do not want to hear that."

From all accounts, Caret was blown away by Ambrose's passion. So Ambrose took the job and went to work.

The first two years were incredibly difficult. Ambrose and his staff concentrated on getting the players in shape and getting them to buy into his ideas about sacrifice and changing the culture.

Sacrifice? Starting last January, the Tigers did conditioning drills at 5 a.m. at Unitas Stadium. And when official practices began, they did them at 5 a.m., too.

"We got them some Under Armour cold-weather gear," Ambrose says with a smile.

Change? He started a program called "Tiger Accountability." The Tiger players were divided into teams. And they competed in everything from class attendance to keeping the locker room clean to community service.

Ambrose was preaching a weighty sermon: be aware of more than just yourself. Do things the right way. Don't let your teammates down.

In the meantime, he was visiting with professors all over campus, talking with students, even breaking down film with them and answering questions.

(Can you imagine the Ravens doing that with their fans? With all the raging paranoia at the Castle? With the Ravens it would be: "Sure, we can break down film with you. But then we'll have to kill you.")

By last year, there was progress. The Tigers' lone win was a 47-45 five-overtime thriller against Coastal Carolina at home. But a narrow loss to James Madison — a team that had beaten them 43-12 the year before — gave Ambrose hope.

"We lost 17-13 to the No. 5 team in the country — and we dropped a ball in the end zone with a minute and a half to go in the game," he says. "That's when the kids thought: 'If we do what this guy says, we could win.'"

Another sign of change came in the final game, a 38-19 road loss to New Hampshire. When it was over, sophomore defensive end Frank Beltre draped an arm around Ambrose.

"Coach," Beltre said, "we just got better today."

Better? After a 19-point butt-whipping? Ambrose had no idea where Beltre was going with this one.

"OK, Frank," he said, "why are we better?"

Beltre pointed to some senior players.

"Because that (bleep-bleeper) right there and that (bleep-bleeper) over there and that (bleep-bleeper) over there are never putting on the uniform again," he said.

Addition by subtraction, Beltre meant. The Tigers were losing players who were just going through the motions. But there were plenty of hungry, motivated players to take their places.

The Tigers did get better, of course. Way better. Look where they are now. Look at that dogfight they gave much-bigger Maryland a few weeks ago before finally running out of gas, 28-3.

Now they take on Delaware Saturday night. And Johnny Unitas Stadium will be rocking.

Tell me there's a better local sports story than that.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "Norris and Davis Show."

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