A look beyond the gleaming Towson logo and gem-encrusted baseball diamond on Mike Gottlieb's 2013 Colonial Athletic Association championship ring reveals a message with deeper meaning.
The veteran former head coach had the team's rings engraved with the phrase "Against All Odds," a nod to the program's incredible resilience on and off the field on the way to its first conference title in more than two decades.
The Tigers managed to survive a very public brush with the chopping block that spring thanks to a timely assist from then-Gov. Martin O'Malley. Then, they strung together four straight wins as the No. 4 seed at the CAA Tournament to earn an unlikely NCAA bid.
With the three-word inscription, Gottlieb found a perfect way to sum up the satisfying triumph that capped a trying season.
"Truly, that's what we were up against," assistant coach Scott Roane said. "People wanted to get rid of us."
Gottlieb's aplomb through Towson baseball's darkest hour showed how his leadership extended beyond the diamond.
The coach closed his 30-year run at his alma mater May 20 with a win against UNC-Wilmington. He was let go after a fourth straight losing season that left his career record at 733-821-10.
His resume includes three NCAA trips, two alums in Major League Baseball and an NCAA Regional Coach of the Year award, plus a steady stream of graduates who found success after baseball.
"We always cared about the kids as people and not just guys who could help us win ballgames," Gottlieb said. "I hope people realized that and will think of me that way."
Gottlieb, 60, played at Towson from 1977 to 1979, became an assistant to Towson head coach Billy Hunter in 1981 and then succeeded him in 1988.
For three decades, Gottlieb did his best to make the most of limited resources. The Tigers have struggled to keep up with scholarship and facility needs, and Gottlieb didn't hire his first full-time assistant until 2004.
His plan for overcoming all that involved meticulously scouring the region for prospects and then developing them in a no-nonsense environment.
Time and again, Gottlieb managed to turn recruits nobody else wanted into program cornerstones. That group includes Nick Agoglia, an outfielder who came to the Tigers as a walk-on in 1996 and left a four-year starter.
"I think the biggest thing is just the amount of time that Coach put into it," said Agoglia, now a high school teacher and coach in his native New Jersey. "If you called him at 8 in the morning and said, ‘Hey Coach, I want to hit,' you were hitting by 8:30."
Brian McKenna played shortstop for Gottlieb from 2001 to 2004 and now runs a youth club that has sent five players to Towson in recent years. He still finds himself quoting his old coach from time to time, often greeting mental mistakes with "common sense ain't so common."
Mostly, McKenna tries to copy Gottlieb's patience in teaching the game.
"I think it allowed me to be a better baseball player when I didn't have to worry about being afraid to fail," McKenna said.
That caring touch and a dry sense of humor won Gottlieb favor with players. His commitment to academics helped keep them on the field and set them up for the future.
Gottlieb instituted mandatory study halls before the athletic department ever did. Through this spring, the coach continued personally supervising extra study sessions every week. He estimated 90 percent of his players earned degrees.
"It's always been so much more than just baseball with Coach Gottlieb," said Steve Yarsinsky, a third baseman who graduated in 2010.
Gottlieb's Tigers ultimately lost more than they won, but there were plenty of highlights along the way. His first club claimed the 1988 East Coast Conference championship and became the first men's team in school history to advance to a Division I NCAA Tournament. They went back in 1991.
"That was exciting because we were leading the way," Gottlieb said. "That was something to be proud of."
Towson posted at least 30 wins eight times during his tenure, including a 34-24 mark in 2005 when it led the country in home runs per game. Casper Wells was a 14th-round pick of the Detroit Tigers after starring on the 2005 Towson club and eventually spent parts of four seasons as an outfielder in the major leagues.
Recruited as a pitcher, Wells laughs now recounting his early struggle to get Gottlieb to let him hit. Eventually, the coach relented -- as long as Wells was willing to practice with both position groups. The double-conditioning was a hassle at first but paid off in the long run.
"You don't really appreciate it and realize it until you're kind of away from it and you can look back and reflect on some of the things he did," Wells said. "At the time, you think it's tough, but it's tough love and really he just cares about all his players equally."
It took until the strange events of 2013 for Towson's NCAA return.
The university first began exploring the possibility of dropping the baseball and men's soccer programs the previous fall. A few weeks into the season, the plan was announced publicly.
Quickly, the players were blacking out "Towson" on their jerseys and trying to line up transfers. It fell on Gottlieb to maintain business as usual within the program while rallying supporters to keep up the fight.
"He kept those kids together, kept them grinding," said Roane, who spent the past 13 seasons on Gottlieb's staff. "Nobody was going to quit on him."
On April 1, O'Malley bailed out Towson with a plan to free up $300,000 in state funds to help continue the program. By May 25, the Tigers were CAA champions with a backstory worthy of national headlines. They also won their opener at the Chapel Hill Regional before losing their next two games.
"It's not like winning World War II, but we fought the good fight," Gottlieb said.
Now, Towson will move on without Gottlieb. The Tigers hired former Orioles farmhand Matt Tyner for the job June 22.
Gottlieb plans to find some way to stay around the game. He'd have to find the right situation to coach in college again, though. Scouting seems a better possibility.
One thing's for sure: He's got plenty of former players willing to put in a good word.
"He molds young guys into men," Wells said. "They carry that forward, and that's kind of the legacy he leaves. I'm very fortunate to be a player that he coached."
Issue 235: July 2017