By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
TOWSON, MD. — There was a changing of the guard last season in the Colonial Athletic Association football world, with Towson University of all teams winning its first-ever gridiron crown.
At the same time, two members of the old guard in the CAA, Villanova and Richmond found themselves at the bottom of the CAA standings — just two and three seasons, respectively, after those two schools had captured NCAA Division I football titles.
It was a topsy-turvy season, where Towson and Maine — two teams picked near the bottom of the preseason polls — played for the league title and Old Dominion rushed to a playoff berth and the second round of the playoffs in its first-ever CAA campaign.
Stalwarts like New Hampshire and James Madison also made the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, but Delaware missed postseason play just a season after making its third national-title-game appearance in eight years.
William & Mary — somewhat foolishly in retrospect — was picked by some to win the national championship, but the Tribe was also on the sidelines when the playoffs began.
Massachusetts, a team that had won a national championship in 1998 and had finished as the FCS runner-up in 1978 and 2006, ruined its eligibility for the CAA title and a possible playoff berth when it announced it was heading for the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks in 2012.
But then the Minutemen finished their FCS run with a losing season, costing coach Kevin Morris his job. Welcome to the Mid-American Conference, UMass.
Rhode Island had its ups and downs in its third year under Joe Trainer, but appears to be heading in a winning direction as the Rams get ready to leave the CAA for the Northeast Conference in 2013.
With that craziness in the rear-view window, this writer took the opportunity to catch two of these teams that crossed in divergent paths last year in the past few days as the CAA wrapped up its 2012 spring football season.
THE TURNAROUND TIGERS
For the few folks who experienced it, there should be t-shirts that proclaim “I survived the 2009 Towson spring football game.”
What that miserably hot April day lacked in offensive execution and defensive skill was offset by the enthusiasm of a new coach, Tiger alumnus Rob Ambrose, who had been hired less than four months before.
In his short tenure as coach before spring practice began, Ambrose was like an old-fashioned politician, shaking more hands than Bill Clinton and preaching the gospel of Tiger football like a televangelist.
We didn’t get any confirmation of Ambrose kissing any babies, but if he could have sold some new parents a few season tickets, nothing would have stopped him.
It didn’t take long for posters to show up on the windows of local businesses and banners to promote Towson around this tight-knit Baltimore suburb.
Success on the field took a little longer as Towson finished 2-9 in 2009 and 1-10 in 2010.
But after a strong spring in 2012, Ambrose went from enthusiasm to confidence when he talked to friends at that summer’s CAA media day at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
“We only won one game last year, but I’m telling you, we’re going to surprise a lot of people this season,” Ambrose said. “After what I saw last spring, I think we’re going to have a very good football team.”
Towson was one of the feel-good stories of the 2011 season, winning the CAA crown, finishing ninth in the national rankings and earning a 9-3 record.
Ambrose was honored as the FCS coach of the year by College Sports Journal and won the Eddie Robinson Award. Dynamic running back Terrance West rushed for 1,294 yards and was picked as the CSJ freshman of the year and won the first Jerry Rice Award.
On top of that, the Tigers pulled it off in exciting fashion, winning game after game in dramatic fashion.
Even when Towson finally lost 40-38 in the second round of the NCAA playoffs to Lehigh it was a thriller — complete with the winning points coming on a safety.
Towson celebrated that success on Friday night with an awards banquet fit for kings, from scrumptious food and decor, to a first-class video presentation and some of the classiest championship rings you will ever see on a college athlete.
There was also a motivational speech to set the tone for a new season perfectly — delivered by Towson alum and New Orleans Saints All-Pro tackle Jerrod Bushrod.
Bushrod, wearing his Super Bowl ring for all to see, had a warning for the returning Tigers. There would be no sneaking up on anyone in 2012 and Towson would now wear the target of a champion as opponents look to get even.
Bushrod had the Tigers hanging on every word as he described how his Saints had gone from Super Bowl champs to a first-round exit in the 2010 NFL playoffs.
The message was clear that Towson needs to continue working hard and to keep on its toes for 2012.
TIGER BOWL II
While just a handful of fans had been present for Ambrose’s first spring game in 2009, an event billed as Tiger Bowl II drew 1,564 fans on a beautiful, sun-drenched Saturday afternoon.
They watched the Towson Black team beat the Tiger White squad 21-7 on the strength of two touchdowns of one and nine yards from running back Dominique Booker, a key leader who was lost midway through the 2011 with injuries.
“Dominique is one of the first players in a long time who has the aspect of player-coach,” Ambrose said of a back who rushed seven times for 45 yards. “He knows the offense so well that he is able to bring a level of confidence to the other members of the team.”
It wouldn’t have been a Towson game without a touchdown from West, who scored an FCS-leading 29 times during his freshman campaign. West bounced into the end zone from seven yards out.
Spring games are probably more significant for newcomers as they are established stars and the discovery on Saturday was a walk-on listed as wide receiver and wearing No. 86 on his white jersey.
Spending most of the game in the backfield, Navassa Brown rumbled for 141 yards on nine carries, including a 67-yard scamper down to the eight-yard line on the first play of the third quarter.
Quarterback Price Litton connected with tight end David Vaughan from two yards out to cut the Black’s lead to 14-7 in between the two Booker touchdowns.
“Navassa earned his stripes today,” Ambrose said. “He’s got the respect of his team. He did a great job, even though he played out of position a little.”
The Tigers also received a solid outing from redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Frazier, who completed 14-of-25 passes for 167 yards.
Among the established stars to shine on Saturday were wide receiver Tom Ryan, whose great hands and nifty moves accounted for five catches and 67 yards and All-American safety Jordan Dangerfield, who was flying around the field, putting hits on receivers and running backs.
One area that Towson knows it needs to shore up this season is on defense and newcomer Jordan Love contributed a game-high six tackles from his linebacker position, while redshirt freshman defensive end Stephan Janik added four tackles, including two tackles for loss.
“Our transfer students and our young players got a lot of kids experience in game situations,” Ambrose said. “It got the transfer students acclimated to what it means to be Tigers and what it’s like to be play in Unitas Stadium.”
DOWN ON THE MAIN LINE
Veteran coach Andy Talley has long believed in taking things conservatively during the spring. Lacking the luxury of a large arsenal of walk-ons that many public schools have, Talley is always concerned about injuries and the Wildcats haven’t conducted a spring game in many years.
But as Villanova wrapped up its spring work on Wednesday morning, there was enough of a scrimmage to get a feel for what the Wildcats might look like this fall.
The injury bug had mostly been minor for Villanova this spring until the Wildcats lost a potential All-American in senior center Dan Shirey, who tore an Achilles tendon and will be lost for the 2012 season.
Shirey still has a redshirt season available, but will face a long road back to recovery to play in 2013 and leaves Villanova needing to build offensive line depth heading into the fall.
On the plus side, 2012 preseason All-American wide receiver Norman White looks to be completely healthy after being sidelined by a foot injury last season. White found his way to the end zone several times on Wednesday.
Villanova struggled offensively last season with the playmaking White sidelined, but the Wildcats looked to have more firepower this spring.
Sophomore passer Chris Polony “can be one of the best quarterbacks in the CAA, if he cuts down on his turnovers,” Talley said.
Polony looked sharp in the final Villanova scrimmage and avoided interceptions.
Redshirt freshman John Robertson should give the Wildcats some versatility with his running ability. He is expected to be utilized in the Wildcat formation this season and showed why on Wednesday with several dashes through the defense.
Talley said he had also been pleased by the development of Austin Medley and Kevin Monangai in the Villanova running game.
Villanova will still be youthful on the defensive side of the ball, but there is enough talent with players like sophomore linebacker Dillon Lucas and junior defensive end Rakim Cox, among others, to make the Wildcats effective.
Don’t be surprised to see Villanova negotiate its way through the minefield of the CAA schedule and make the playoffs in 2012.
Changes have been numerous since Villanova finished off an uncharacteristic 2-9 season in 2011. Probably the biggest is the departure of defensive coordinating whiz Mark Reardon, whose 3-3-5, high-pressure scheme had given opponents headaches for seven years.
Reardon has moved on to take over the high school program at New Jersey’s St. Augustine Prep, choosing to put his young family above football after 11 years in the Wildcat program.
“There were plenty of nights that Mark would spend sleeping in his office during the season,” Talley said of his dedicated former assistant. “This is a good move for his family.”
Replacing Reardon as defensive coordinator is Billy Crocker, who had spent seven years in the Villanova program as a defensive line and linebackers coach and special teams coordinator. The scheme should remain basically the same, but Crocker will have the pressure of taking over for one of the most highly respected coordinators in FCS.
A key addition to the staff is defensive line coach Roc Bellantoni, who was the defensive coordinator for Bob Spoo at Eastern Illinois from 2002-2011 and the associate head coach from 2007-2011. Bellantoni also served as Rob Ash’s defensive coordinator at Drake before moving to EIU.
Bellantoni, who took a noticeable role in Villanova’s practice on Wednesday, is a huge pick-up for the Wildcats. He was expected to become the next head coach at Eastern Illinois when Spoo retired following the 2011 campaign, but a new president at EIU decided to go in a different direction.
The former Iona defensive tackle replaces Dave Sollazzo, who moved to UMass after one year at Villanova.
Tony Trisciani had been toiling as the head coach at Whitehall High School in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley in the past five years, coaching Polony as a prep.
Veteran FCS fans might remember this personable secondary coach from his work with Pete Lembo at Lehigh and Elon and with New Hampshire under Sean McDonnell.
Trisciani also has experience coaching linebackers and special teams under Lembo.
The Springfield College rookie of the year in 1992 and team MVP in 1995, Trisciani also had coaching stops at Springfield and Alfred University and is close friends with Oregon coach Chip Kelly from their days at New Hampshire.
STAYING AT HOME
While many of the top FCS programs have flirted with the possibility of moving to FBS, Villanova’s aspirations of leaving for the Big East, or the Atlantic Coast Conference in football appear to be over.
“I think that ship has sailed,” Talley said. “We are pretty bitter about how we were treated in that process. I just hope all of this expansion stuff settles down and let’s us have a conference to play football in for the next few years.”
When it looked like Villanova was going to get a solid invite from the Big East, facility issues and petty conference rivalries from the likes of Pittsburgh, Rutgers and West Virginia sabotaged the move.
Ironically, Pittsburgh and West Virginia have since moved on to the ACC and the Big 12, respectively.
In reality, the idea of Villanova playing Big East football was more of a way to protect the Wildcats’ men’s basketball tradition than to help Villanova on the gridiron, so in the long run, it could prove to be a bonus for both the Wildcats and the CAA.