- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2011

TOWSON, Md. — Rob Ambrose’s job isn’t finished. Far from it.

Still, the Towson coach is making things happen at his once-moribund alma mater.

Students cascaded onto the field Sept. 10 after a rout of Villanova, startling even Tigers players. The former CAA doormat cracked the Top 25 earlier this month in the former Division I-AA. And Towson, for so long viewed as a commuter school in the Baltimore suburbs, makes its first football visit to Maryland on Saturday in a game loaded with opportunity and symbolism.

It’s a welcome change from the grind of two long seasons littered with more bad days than good.

“I had a woman the first year I was here go ‘You guys have a football team?’ ” Ambrose recalled recently. “And I went ‘Yeah, we got uniforms and everything. It’s great.’ Now I walk into Dunkin Donuts and people I’ve never seen say ‘Hey, coach.’ “

Welcome to life in charge of a 3-0 team happy to dream big after earning just three wins over Ambrose’s first two seasons.

There were, Ambrose admits, plenty of rough times for reasons stemming from things far beyond Towson’s past and present coaching. For years, the school did not adequately invest in the program, and the Tigers’ results reflected the modest commitment.

Enter Ambrose, who returned to his alma mater after a seven-year stint on current Maryland coach Randy Edsall’s staff at Connecticut.

“I came to find out there were a lot of people on this roster who liked having a scholarship to play football, but did not like to play Division I football and did not like the commitment that was involved in that,” Ambrose said. “We spent over two years cleaning house in that way.”

There’s also a push to create awareness of the existence of Towson’s program. Ambrose’s offseason is filled with commitments, from speaking to youth groups and burn victims, rec league coaches and cancer patients, and anyone else who asks for an appearance from the 41-year-old who lives a two-minute drive from his office.

The returns are evident, both numerically and anecdotally. Six of the school’s top 12 football crowds were recorded since the start of the 2010 season. Hours after the 31-10 rout of national power Villanova, Ambrose received a standing ovation after walking into a restaurant on the edge of campus and spent the next half-hour signing autographs.

“There’s a different attitude that I do feel around this program today as opposed to where it was a year ago,” said Towson athletic director Mike Waddell, who was hired last fall.

Now, the Tigers will play on one of the most significant stages in the history of a program founded in 1969 when they visit Byrd Stadium.

Towson will face only its fourth game against a major-college opponent in its history Saturday, hardly a surprising number for a school less than a decade removed from playing in an non-scholarship league. But an in-state game - and a regionally televised one, no less — creates some local intrigue.

“If you ask any alum, they thought this game should have been going on regularly for 20 years,” Ambrose said. “Politically, financially, this game should happen because 85 percent of all the football money in the entire state of Maryland will stay in the state of Maryland that day.”

It is perhaps perfect timing for the fast-improving Tigers, who will receive a guarantee of about $250,000 for the trip. They rotate a solid stable of tailbacks, have received efficient play from quarterback Grant Enders and have scored 31 points in three straight games for the first time since 2002.

They also don’t lack bravado. Towson returned its allotment of full-priced tickets to Maryland earlier this month, telling its fans it could purchase better, cheaper seats on the secondary market. And the Tigers anticipate their supporters will follow them down Interstate 95.

“I don’t see that Maryland game as being a home game for them,” defensive end Frank Beltre said. “I see it as being a home game for us, because this is home for us. Towson is in Maryland. We’re just going to another field. We’re taking it as our field broke down and we have to go to some other stadium to play, but we’re taking our fans with us.”

There’s more of them than ever. Several students approached Ambrose in the days after the defeat of Villanova to tell him it was the greatest moment of their college careers — “And these are kids that are sober,” Ambrose said. On a campus of more than 20,000, football could be starting to tie a community together.

The spotlight of a visit to State U. this weekend can only strengthen that.

“By no sense have we arrived,” Ambrose said. “Not at all. But now we’re starting to move the thing forward in a way that’s noticeable, and it’s really cool.”