On the day known as “Villanova Sunday,” the Towson football team ran.
Up and down the stairs of Johnny Unitas Stadium, sweat spiking the aluminum benches. Sprinting on the artificial turf, in full pads and sneakers, 10 yards at a time with 10 “up-downs” in between.
Less than 24 hours earlier, on Nov. 14, 2009, Villanova had destroyed the Tigers, 49-7. When Rob Ambrose, then in his first season as Towson’s coach, walked into the locker room the following morning, a scheduled day off, he heard music. He saw dancing, laughing and joking, and a player who had been kicked off the previous year hanging out with former teammates who, in Ambrose’s eyes, just didn’t get it.
So Ambrose, a former Towson wide receiver and straight-shooter to the core, took the Tigers outside and emptied his arsenal of running drills. Bear crawls and crab walks and log rolls, until the quitters quit and all who remained were the only men Ambrose wanted around.
“He pushed us to the max, just to find out if we wanted to be on this team,” senior defensive end Romale Tucker said. “That’s what we needed, to get the guys who weren’t for the program out of here.”
The roster cleansed, Ambrose has since built Towson into a Football Championship Subdivision contender.
On Saturday, Towson will measure itself against one of the nation’s preeminent programs with a nationally televised game at Louisiana State, ranked third in the top-level Football Bowl Subdivision.
When Ambrose took over in 2009, after seven seasons as Connecticut’s offensive coordinator, he first heard that the Tigers never finished games.
Towson looked like a junior varsity team when Ambrose first saw them in action. Monsters against little kids, he said.
At the time, Ambrose couldn’t hold his players accountable for being slower and weaker than their opponents. Instead, he set out to reverse a quitting mentality.
“If you had quit in you, we ran you off,” Ambrose said. “There’s no way I’m going to accept losing and having fun doing it. You ever seen ‘Moneyball’? The scene with Brad Pitt smashing the stereo? That’s what losing sounds like.”
In Ambrose’s second season, Towson lost to James Madison by four points, not 31 like in 2009. The Tigers finished 1-10 but set the program’s all-time attendance record. After the season, Ambrose told his players just how close they were to becoming a playoff team. Their eyes widened.
In 2011, the Tigers started winning. They overcame an 11-point deficit with 3 minutes 13 seconds left against Old Dominion, beat seventh-ranked Maine by 10 points and 12th-ranked New Hampshire by 14. Towson went 9-2 in the regular season and hosted a FCS playoff game for the first time in program history. Along the way it doubled the previous attendance mark.
“At our team meetings in January after we won one game, you’d have thought we were perennial championship-caliber guys,” said Ambrose, who was named Colonial Athletic Association coach of the year last season. “I’ve never seen a more excited one-win team in America. These kids worked their face off. It’s awesome, to see nothing become something really big.”
One evening, Ambrose was eating dinner with his wife at a restaurant near campus. A man asked to shake his hand. “I’ve been living in this town for 30 years, and never once come close to the word pride,” the man said. “Now I’m so proud to live here, and you did this.” Ambrose was blown away. His wife started crying.
Meanwhile, the transfers have arrived from Georgia, Syracuse and Wisconsin, among others, bolstering an already stacked FCS roster with FBS talent. But why move to Towson, a school whose most prominent football achievement before last season was its appearance in the 1976 Division III championship game?
“Because of Rob,” said Ed Molen, Towson’s director of football outreach.
The grueling workouts and unflinching demands remain, even after Towson’s run to the FCS playoffs and rise to the No. 12 FCS ranking this season. This offseason, the Tigers ran 6 a.m. sprints in the snow up the hill that overlooks Unitas Stadium’s east end zone. Players turned it into a competition, fighting to the summit.
“It’s about building a team, not individuals, and playing together, being accountable,” said offensive lineman Eric Pike, one of Ambrose’s first recruits at Towson. “All the team bonding, it rolled over into the season. We grew stronger. You couldn’t break us.”
At least five times in the past two seasons, Ambrose has suspended starters days before a game, and each time Towson has still won. He’s never turned down a community service request. The Tigers feed cancer patients and clean trash in the neighborhoods. Education before application, Ambrose preaches.
“In the end, when I’m lying on my deathbed, will it really matter if I have as many wins as Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno?” said Ambrose, who originally wanted to be a lawyer after an injury ended his college career. “Will that make me feel good? Or is it equipping kids to be successful fathers and successful at their jobs, and understand how to do all that stuff?”
At the end of practice on Wednesday, Ambrose stood near the sideline and beckoned for an assistant to toss a football his way.
With taped crowd noise washing through the speakers to simulate the raucous atmosphere at 92,542-seat Tiger Stadium at LSU, Ambrose slung the ball left-handed, a dead duck through the air. “Oh, give me that back,” Ambrose commanded. He stretched his arms like a windmill. He reared back and threw. Given another chance, Ambrose hit his mark. A perfect spiral.