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Preseason expectations for the Towson football team have been a common topic of conversation throughout the past decade under head coach Rob Ambrose, who's heading into his 11th season at the helm.
The Tigers are coming off their third Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearance in program history. The first came in 2011, though Towson was expected to finish at the bottom of the Colonial Athletic Association that year. The Tigers had gone 3-19 during Ambrose's first two seasons and won just one conference game. Nobody expected what was to follow: a share of the CAA championship.
Fast forward to 2018 and the Tigers, picked to finish 10th in the 12-team CAA, shocked everyone once again, finishing tied for third in the conference. Towson finished 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the conference but lost to Duquesne, 31-10, in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
According to Ambrose, playing the spoiler role yet again made the 2018 season among his most special.
"It's up there. There was a little bit of a culture change," Ambrose said. "After the last game of the  season, the last couple of games, we had some BS going on and guys were like, 'No, we're not doing that, that's not how you win ballgames.'"
"Guys got tired of not winning from doing stupid stuff," Ambrose added. "So they go, 'Coach, tell us what we've got to do.' And they did it. We had the best offseason since 2011. So the culture inside the locker room has really ramped itself up."
After last year's strong finish, the expectations for the Tigers have shifted again. Towson was picked to finish second in the CAA by the conference's coaches and sports information directors in the 2019 preseason poll, and the Tigers claimed three first-place votes. With 15 starters on offense and defense returning, Towson enters the year ranked No. 10 nationally by HERO Sports and No. 11 by Athlon Sports.
But according to Ambrose, the Tigers cannot let the success they had in 2018 affect their preparation for the 2019 season.
"Last year, we set the finish line too short, and it was obvious," Ambrose said. "They wanted to win, they wanted to get respect, they wanted to beat national competition, and we did. But we got to the playoffs and were like 'All right, we did it.' No, that was just the beginning."
Ambrose says his team can no longer be so easily satisfied -- it has to strive to be among the best FCS programs in the country.
"From my perspective, the big-picture goal is not to make the playoffs," Ambrose said. "The big picture goal is to make the playoffs every year, ... which is where James Madison has been. It's where Delaware has been historically."
A major reason for the team's culture shift last year was the addition of quarterback Tom Flacco, the brother of former Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Tom Flacco came to Towson in June 2018 as a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining. He played at Western Michigan from 2015-2016 and spent the 2017 season at Rutgers.
Flacco posted 3,251 yards and 28 touchdowns through the air during 12 starts in 2018. He earned CAA Offensive Player of the Year honors and finished fifth in voting for the Walter Payton Award, given to the most outstanding player in the FCS.
The expectations for Flacco have shifted along with those for the rest of the program, as he heads into his final year of college ball.
Flacco said that last season he tried to "create relationships and [make] sure guys trust me."
Now, the program must take the next step.
"That was last season. This season, everyone knows what I'm capable of, so now it's a different role for me. Last year, the expectations weren't much for the team, being picked 10th in the CAA. Now it's about making sure everybody understands what we're capable of, making sure we're not content with where we're at, but continue to walk forward."
Another catalyst for change was running back Shane Simpson, who accumulated 2,058 all-purpose yards last year. His 171.5 yards per game ranked second in the country. The redshirt senior is not only the Tigers' greatest weapon out of the backfield and on special teams, but one of the leaders Ambrose credits with taking charge of the Towson locker room ahead of the 2018 season.
"We had a good team on paper," Simpson said of the 2017 Tigers. "Not to single anybody out, but we had guys who were not benefiting the team. It was all about them, and we got that bad habit out."
Simpson and former safety Monty Fenner realized a passive approach to leadership would not change the team's culture as needed heading into 2018.
"We realized we couldn't just lead by example anymore," Simpson said. "We needed to use our words as well as our actions."
Simpson finished the 2018 campaign with 1,067 yards and 11 touchdowns from scrimmage. The Easton, Pa., native has been named to the 2019 Walter Payton Award preseason watch list along with Flacco.
Towson kicks off its schedule against The Citadel Aug. 31, and the nonconference schedule is highlighted by a trip to Gainesville, Fla., to take on Florida Sept. 28. As always, Towson will face a loaded slate of CAA opponents, including Maine, the defending conference champions, and James Madison, the only team picked to finish ahead of Towson in the preseason rankings.
Heading into the 2019 season with high expectations, Ambrose is not so concerned with what the polls say about any one season. Instead, he's focused on changing the conversation surrounding Towson football.
"The first time, it was about proving that it could be done when people said it couldn't be done," Ambrose said. "Now, this time, it's building in a way that it's going to feed itself and be done over and over again, and the word 'legacy' is starting to be used. And we've had the conversation, that legacy is not what you do, but it's about what you leave behind."
Photo Credit: ENP Photography
Issue 256: August 2019