By Simon Habtemariam
College football is a sport of majesty. There's a certain regal element when two groups of warriors don the colors and seals of their institutions and march onto the playing field to meet for 60 minutes of combat. Some of this country's most highly acclaimed educational organizations hold their longest-standing traditions in the arena of college athletics.
But many up-and-coming schools do not have centuries of tradition and dynasties to protect. For Towson University, the school's football program is still too young to file for Social Security. But during the team's 43-year history, it has jumped from Division III, to II, to I. The program's history, although not rich, has been the epitome of gradual progression.
The Tigers, who at one time faced extinction, have emerged as a contender in the Colonial Athletic Association. In 2011, the Tigers became the first NCAA football program to reach the postseason in every division of college football.
On Jan. 6, 2009, Rob Ambrose was introduced as the fourth football coach of the Towson Tigers. In a room filled with local media, Tiger football players and school administrators, Ambrose officially took the helm from his one-time coach and boss, Gordy Combs. He was given an important task -- win. Build a team that will win games and build a program that will win championships.
Mike Waddell was introduced as the school's newest athletic director Sept. 29, 2010. Waddell's predecessor was Mike Hermann, and during his tenure -- nearly four years -- Towson's big three sports (football, men's basketball and men's lacrosse) earned just one NCAA postseason berth.
"I've seen empty stands at football games for years here," O'Connell said, "and you feel bad about it. But then last year, it was like you turned on the faucet and here it came, every game, more and more and more people, and it was amazing."
What does it take to build a program? Is it coaching -- strategy, practice and execution on the field? Or is it the administration -- leadership, community support and resources?
It takes both. The leaders of the athletic department need to have a shared vision, set of goals and strategy in order to advance. The program needs resources, leadership and community in order to win games on the field, but the team has to win in order to generate support from the community and donors.
"When Rob first got here, he started engaging with the students," O'Connell said, "and telling them, 'Get on board now, because when we start winning, you're going to want to be part of this.' Sure enough, last year we had unbelievable student support."
Before his return to Towson, Ambrose was part of a building project. The University of Connecticut Huskies, under Randy Edsall -- now the University of Maryland coach -- were making a bigger jump than moving from the cellar to the top of a conference. The program wasn't even just moving from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. UConn had its sights set on a Bowl Championship Series conference, the Big East.
After leaving for the FBS in 1999, UConn played as an independent until 2003. In 2004, the Huskies were admitted as full football members of the Big East, going 7-4 overall, with a 3-3 conference record. They made the school's first bowl appearance, winning the 2004 Motor City Bowl.
"Randy is organized, thorough and planned," Ambrose said. "Under him, there is no opportunity to be on a different page."
For a program to advance, there has to be harmony on multiple levels -- among the players on the field, between the players and coaches, between the coaches and the school, and between the school and its community. During Jeff Hathaway's tenure as athletic director (2003-11), UConn added a state-funded, $90 million facility.
In August 2003, the university opened the doors of Rentschler Field in Hartford, Conn. The first Division I college football stadium built during the 21st century, the stadium acts as one of the primary connections between the university and its surrounding community.
"When you open a new facility, it helps recruiting," Hathaway said. "When you recruit talented football players, you win games and generate more support."
With the resources and leadership working in harmony, Edsall and Ambrose were able to focus on the product on the field.
"We were told by donors, 'I don't want you to worry about winning,' " Edsall said. "They wanted us to build this the right way. We were able to recruit the right athletes, five-year guys."
Finances in college sports can generate a pressure to win right away. Edsall said he had known UConn administrators wanted to win football games. But ultimately, their investment was for a football program that could sustain success, not just a football team to win in the short term.
"We had a staff in place that knew we wanted wins, but ultimately, we have to be able to compete in the Big East," Hathaway said. "We needed to be able to stay competitive with programs like West Virginia, Syracuse and Pitt."
Ambrose said he had known what challenges he would face when he returned to his alma mater. Though both UConn and Towson receive state funding, there weren't as many resources in Maryland at that time, partly because of the economic downturn. Ambrose needed to show his investors something to give them security in their investment.
Still, it wasn't even the dollars Ambrose missed.
"In Connecticut, there were more people that wanted it done," Ambrose said.
Making the move to Towson meant Ambrose had to leave the culture, support and finances that were available to him at UConn and start from almost nothing. But his former bosses had faith in his new path.
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Issue 176: August 2012