Turning Up The Roar For Towson Football
Towson athletic director Mike Waddell and coach Rob Ambrose have teamed up to put teeth into the Tigers' football program
By Simon Habtemariam
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"Rob is Towson through and through," Hathaway said. "When that job opened up, I knew that's where he wanted to be. He had a vision and a plan on what he wanted to do."
Ambrose's vision was that of a program-building coach. He said he had adopted his philosophy about how to construct a sustainable football program from his father, Tim, a Hall of Fame high school coach.
"Growing up on a farm, I was raised with this attitude," Ambrose said. "I was taught when there's a mess on the floor, you clean it up."
The mess ahead of Ambrose was a school that many thought had never met its potential and did not have centuries of legacy to work on. Marquee football programs have longstanding traditions, which act as an effective recruiting tool. Most 17-year-olds in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and California probably don't hang Towson football posters in their lockers in hopes that a Tiger coach will sit in their living room one day to convince their parents to ship them off to the mid-Atlantic.
One of the first steps for a coach building a program is to change the team's culture, to establish a sustainable foundation. The vision Ambrose learned from his father had worked at UConn because all the parties involved shared it.
"Rob went in there and implemented the culture," Edsall said. "He had a plan and a vision. You have to do things that you're comfortable with, and stick to it."
Ambrose dedicated his first spring as Towson coach to just that. He verbally reminded his players to forget the previous season; they already knew how to lose. He ran practices meticulously, keeping a strict cadence with timed drills. Procedural errors, walking in between drills and other trademarks of apathy often led to extra conditioning.
These changes were part of a long list of adjustments that ultimately led the team to where it is now -- the defending champion of one of the most competitive conferences in FCS football.
Still, early on, Ambrose was a spark trying to ignite an empty powder keg. A lack of enthusiasm from the athletic department and fan base meant an uphill road for Ambrose to produce the wins that would result in donor and booster support.
Enter Waddell, a former broadcaster, marketer and senior-level administrator. He had been the senior associate director of athletics for external relations at Cincinnati, a BCS program, giving him leadership experience at the highest level in college football. A program that ran for decades on potential, Towson athletics needed a beacon of leadership to take it to a new level. Waddell's ambition, drive and vision were the pillars of fire that dragged the department out of the desert.
"I've worked for a lot of athletic directors," O'Connell said. "I've never seen anyone like him in terms of his enthusiasm, and his work ethic is just incredible. It's a challenge to keep up with him. He's probably the best athletic director I've worked for in the sense that he knows what's important. He thinks like a coach in the sense that he knows what's important to them. He works with them, and he tries to help them as much as he can."
Waddell said his goals were bigger than wins and losses.
"Everyone wants to win," he said. "But you have to ask yourself, what can you do to make a difference?"
Waddell's experience in external affairs armed the Tigers with a superior storyteller, committed to building the Towson brand in order to reach out to stakeholders. Waddell's administration has reached out to students, staff, community members, donors, boosters and commercial sponsors through small, fundamental changes.
"He is constantly trying to get more people to give to the program," O'Connell said. "He's getting some major gifts from some of the football alumni, and Rob has been working with that, too."
Based on the traditionally low attendance at Towson football games, few outsiders would have known that students receive free admission to all athletic contests. By switching the home football schedule to all night games, Waddell was able to change the mind-set of a student body whose tailgating attendance figures have long outdueled game attendance.
O'Connell said Waddell also made a point of emphasizing the Tigers' successes, which previous administrators had not always done. Before Waddell arrived, O'Connell said, no player or team had ever received a championship ring.
"Mike came in with a direction and a vision for this program," O'Connell said. "He wants us to be bigger than we've been, and he wants us to be a better program than it's been. That's the way he's approached this, and that's the way he runs the program."
The second-largest school in Maryland, Towson has long lived in the shadow of College Park, even in the Baltimore market. But the current administration has made strategic partnerships in the media and community to bring in crowds in 2011 that shattered almost every attendance record in the brief history of Johnny Unitas Stadium.
"Five years ago, walking around campus, you'd see students walking around, half of them are wearing Maryland shirts," O'Connell said. "They're wearing Navy, or Penn State or Rutgers T-shirts and sweatshirts and stuff like that. Nobody was all that into us. Now, you walk around this campus, everybody's wearing Towson here, and that's part of what Rob started and Mike Waddell has built upon."
With Ambrose changing the way things worked on the field and Waddell battling a culture of apathy in the student body and surrounding communities, Towson tapped the well of potential it had sat on for decades. If Ambrose was the nail to pierce the wall, Waddell was the hammer that helped drive it through.
"[With Waddell] I was able to have conversations with somebody who understood what I was talking about," Ambrose said.
The vision of a better Towson, which Ambrose set in place, perhaps has led to the resources and community support necessary to sustain success. Both Ambrose and Waddell said it's easier to become a champion than stay a champion, especially when competing in the CAA.
Ambrose's staff and Waddell's administration are able to share the goals, visions and plans to build a lasting contender. Waddell said that at the core of it all, there was one glaring commonality between him and his football coach.
"We hate losing more than we like winning," Waddell said.
Issue 176: August 2012