Towson has nothing to be ashamed of

Ambrose has made Tigers football relevant again

December 03, 2011|Kevin Cowherd

The dream season came to a crashing halt.

It ended for Towson University in front of a raucous, sellout crowd at Johnny Unitas Stadium on Saturday, in a heart-breaking 40-38 loss to Lehigh in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

And maybe this is the worst part: The killer play for the Tigers in this back-and-forth game was a safety, of all things.

With a little more than five minutes left, Towson quarterback Grant Enders was tackled in the end zone by Lehigh's Tom Bianchi. And right at that moment, you could feel the air go out of the crowd, like it had just taken a collective punch to the gut that left it gasping.

Right then you knew that, barring a miracle, it was game over for the Tigers.

And the miracle never came.

"It was kind of ironic that it was a defensive play that ended the game," Lehigh coach Andy Coen said of this thrilling, 60-minute shootout.

Towson coach Rob Ambrose didn't exactly appreciate the irony, of course. But years from now, maybe he'll appreciate what a great game this was, and how close his team came to extending its season for one more precious game.

"I don't think I could have imagined being more proud to be a head coach of an institution than I was today when I came out and saw my guys and saw the [crowd]," he said when it was over. "That was awe-inspiring. Not only am I proud to be a coach here, I'm proud to be a member of this community."

That's the thing: Ambrose and his players have no reason to hang their heads today.

Not after their gutty performance against the Mountain Hawks. Not after stretching this season so far and bringing so many thrills to the Towson student body and its alumni.

How great a year was this for the Tigers football program? And what a ride it was for the entire university.

Start with the amazing turnaround the Tigers pulled off -- the best in either the FCS or the Football Bowl Subdivision -- from the dismal 1-10 season of a year ago.

For the first time in, oh, forever, the campus buzzed about the football team. Record crowds (an average of an announced 8,575) showed up at Unitas Stadium. And the Tigers finished the regular season with a No. 8 ranking in the FCS that earned the school its first home playoff game in 35 years.

Maybe this says it all about this crazy Tigers season: There were pre-game traffic jams on Osler Drive.

Yes, traffic jams! When was the last time that happened for Towson football?

How about, oh, never?

To make things even sweeter, just a week ago, the Towson players were yukking it up and posing for photos with President Barack Obama at a Tigers basketball game.

The images of Ambrose and his players celebrating with the smiling leader of the free world were quickly flashed all over the country.

You don't think that was a major coup for a team trying to forge a new identity? Talk to any school's marketing director -- you can't buy that kind of publicity.

But that's the kind of magical season it was for the Tigers. This was a football team, after all, that had finished last in the Colonial Athletic Association the past four years. A football team that went 9-35 during that span.

And here it was playing the sixth-ranked Mountain Hawks in December for a shot to go on and win its first Division I football championship.

Too bad it ended the way it did, because this was an old-fashioned shootout, with two gun-slinging quarterbacks, the kind of game Towson has won all year.

Lehigh finished with 482 yards of total offense, but the Towson offense racked up 339 yards of its own. Enders, the sophomore quarterback, competed 12 of 21 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns. But Lehigh quarterback Chris Lum, a senior, was even better: 16-for-38 for 351 yards and a TD.

And when it was all over and Ambrose was asked what he had told his players, whether he had any words of wisdom for them about lessons learned in the most important game of their young lives, he shook his head sadly.

"To expect them to derive any kind of educational anything in the midst of ridiculous personal pain would be a poor job on my part as an educator," he said. "Before the game, I did whatever I could to make this as normal as possible.

"Truth be told, this is the most momentous thing that anybody who's been around here for 15 years has seen. And they were a part of it. They earned their right to be a part of it. And so did everyone in the stands."

It was that kind of game for the Tigers. That kind of season, too.

One they won't forget anytime soon.

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

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