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Kevin Schnepf, Published January 02 2014

Schnepf: Towson enjoying a remarkable turnaround

Frisco, Texas - It was October of 2010 when Ryan Delaire was a redshirt freshman suited up on the sidelines for the University of Massachusetts football team. He watched his teammates claim a 27-14 win at Towson in suburban Baltimore.

It would be one of 10 losses for Towson that season. Little did Delaire know at the time that he would be playing for Towson three years later.

“I had no idea,” said Delaire, a junior defensive end who transferred to Towson this season.

Like most people, Delaire had no idea back in 2010 that Towson would be playing for a national championship this Saturday against North Dakota State. Who knew, especially after Towson suffered through a 2-9 season the year before? Rob Ambrose certainly wasn’t thinking national championship when he became Towson’s head coach in 2009.

“Let’s just say in the beginning, it was pretty bad,” Ambrose said Thursday. “We had a lot of cleaning up to do. Anybody who has ever renovated a house, the more work you put into it the more you realize you need to do more. Every time when you fixed something, you found something else was wrong.”

Ambrose was well aware of what was wrong with Towson football. When he was a player from 1988 to 1991, Towson won only 10 games. When he was an assistant coach from 1992 to 2000, Towson managed six winning seasons but no playoff appearances. And before his return as head coach after serving as an assistant at Connecticut, Towson managed only two winning records in eight seasons.

There was a time when Towson did not offer scholarships for its football players. There was a time when the administration could have cared less how the football team did. That was until the Towson president took Ambrose on numerous speaking engagements.

“After he introduced me on our first trip, he covered the microphone and said to me, ‘How does it feel to be responsible for this institution for the next 20 years,” said Ambrose, who has seen coaching salaries increase since his arrival. “This has been more of a directive by the president that football and athletics were going to be important for the university and how the world saw us.”

Arnold Farmer, a part of Ambrose’s first true senior class, saw Towson as an opportunity to create history – even though he knew the first two seasons would be difficult. He and his fellow seniors call themselves the “new-era boys.”

It was a group during those 2-9 and 1-10 seasons that never heard Ambrose utter the word “winning.” That didn’t start until the summer camp after that one-win season.

“Those first two seasons were about being physical and just learning how to be tough,” said Farmer, a 6-foot-1, 330-pound defensive tackle from nearby Baltimore.

Ambrose said he started seeing the tide turn, ironically, during that 1-10 season. His team was playing James Madison, a team that knocked off Virginia Tech that season. His team lost 17-13, dropping the ball in the end zone for a touchdown with 1½ minutes left in the game.

“That’s one of the points when we knew we were building something special,” Ambrose said.

The next season, Towson went 9-3 and made the FCS playoffs – completing the most dramatic turnaround in all of Division I football. After a 7-4 season and missing the playoffs last year, Towson opened this season with an upset at Connecticut – where Ambrose was an assistant coach for six years. Towson has built a 13-2 record, posting upsets on the road at Eastern Illinois and Eastern Washington in their last two playoff games.

“Basically, a lot of people didn’t expect too much out of us,” said Delaire, who calls it a blessing for transferring from UMass to Towson.

“The biggest goal was not to just make it to the national championship but to win the national championship,” said Anthony Davis, a senior offensive lineman. “Now we are here, and we have to finish the job.”

The job Ambrose has done in his five years at Towson looks awfully similar to why NDSU is playing for a third straight national championship. Ambrose came to Towson with a long-range plan of developing a solid run game. Nothing flashy. Just good old-fashioned football.

“I come from western Maryland where hard-nosed football is like breathing,” he said. “It’s a long grinding season. Without the word tough, you don’t make it this far. When we decided to build this, we decided to build it for a chance to play in this game. It’s built on being tough.”

Even the tough-guy Ambrose got a bit choked up Thursday when asked what all this meant being a Towson graduate. He quickly alluded to all those players who went through the days of Division III and Division II, the days without scholarships and the days of losing seasons.

“It’s kind of like the Grinch with all those guys,” Ambrose said. “Their hearts are a thousand times bigger now, because what they knew could always get done is now getting done.”

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com. Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com