It seems like whenever you talk to any coach at Towson University about his or her program, one of the first thing that becomes clear is that team's commitment to community outreach. So it's no wonder that Towson has been recognized as one of the top athletic departments nationally in terms of community service.
After exceeding 10,000 service hours for the sixth straight year, Towson was named a finalist for the National Association of College Directors of Athletics/Fiesta Bowl Community Service Award. During the 2017-18 school year, university student-athletes compiled nearly 13,000 service hours.
"I think we all know that community service is important, and it's certainly something that we emphasize in our program," Towson men's basketball coach Pat Skerry said. "But you truly get a sense of just how strong an initiative it is from our president Kim Schatzel and our athletics director Tim Leonard and how involved they are in this. We have true servant leadership at the top."
The service culture that is created from the top down at Towson is reemphasized in the athletic department, where there are two positions dedicated specifically to overseeing and promoting efforts in the community.
Antwaine Smith was brought in to oversee the Total Tiger Program when it was created in 2011 and is now an assistant athletic director. Bria Bennett is the department's community partners coordinator.
The Total Tiger Program was established to provide mandatory life skills training for all Towson student-athletes as well as to make sure the athletic department was able to reach its yearly target of 10,000 community service hours.
"The life skills program complements the community service and provides those things that coaches request as well as other things that are mandatory," Smith said. "When the student-athletes are out in the field mentoring young kids, they take all those life skills lessons and apply them through the community service opportunities."
The life skills program represents the classroom aspect that is then applied in the field, so to speak. It includes required Title IX training, financial literacy seminars and leadership training, among other components. Smith uses his background as a former collegiate football player at Northeastern to build relationships with the coaches and to get coaches and student-athletes to buy-in to the program.
"Not being a coach, it was imperative for me to build a strong relationship with all the coaches," Smith said. "I think it helped that I was a former athlete and could relate to them. The goal had been set at 10,000 hours, so I decided to make it simple. If we have to do 10,000 hours and have 500 student-athletes, that meant each one was required to do about 20 hours a year. Over a 10-month span, that's about two hours per month per person. When I presented it that way, the coaches were like, 'Oh, OK. That's not much.' By simplifying it for the coaches to digest, it became easier to get the kids to buy-in."
Apparently the plan has worked to perfection, as even the newest of Towson's coaches seem to have embraced the program. Hired in January, women's soccer head coach Katherine Vettori already has had her players participate in five free spring clinics at elementary schools, has plans for them to be involved in various cancer awareness programs and is working on having the team adopt a child as part of program developed by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
"For all of our coaches and student-athletes, community service is a high priority," Vettori said. "In life we are so blessed. It is a privilege to be an athlete at the Division I level, and most people don't get this opportunity. It's important that we are visible in the community. So many people have volunteered for all of us in soccer and given their time as we were growing up. It's important that we give back to the community."
Smith said Vettori has "really hit the ground running" since taking over the women's soccer program, but she has plenty of role models throughout the Towson athletic department.
Towson gymnastics coach Vicki May frequently has her team out in the community, making school visits to talk about the importance of working hard in the classroom, proper nutrition, health and wellness. Gymnasts spend time working with a preschool community class, chaperone gymnasts attending a high-performance regional camp and participate in the university's annual blood drive as volunteers.
"Being able to participate in community service is a great experience for our women," May said. "Just being out there and working with the youth in the schools and talking to the teachers provides them with an additional skill set that they can use post-college. That's part of our job as college coaches: to prepare our student-athletes for the real world."
Skerry, whose youngest son, Owen, has autism, established an autism-awareness game when he took over as head coach in 2011. That game has grown into a program that more than 300 coaches around the country participate in called Coaches Powering Forward.
For Smith, a Baltimore native, it's all a part of the brand and reputation that Towson wants to build locally. But it's also nice to be recognized out of all the college athletic departments in the nation as one of the best in terms of community outreach.
"Being able to do what we do in Baltimore, where I am from, and for all the work you do to be recognized as one of the top schools in the entire country, is just a huge honor," he said. "Just getting acknowledged like that inspires young people to invest in this and justifies to them that it really is worth all they effort they put in."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Towson University Athletics