by Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — While doing research this week for the matchup between the Tigers and Mountain Hawks, I looked into the archives of my blog, as I often do, for special insight on the history of the team Lehigh is to face.
You might think there would be something — anything — in there about an early 2000s matchup with the Tigers, or, perhaps, something about their time in the Patriot League.
You’d have been wrong, however.
The history of Towson is at once different, for the most part frustrating. And yet, the Tigers are a crucial reason why the Patriot League is here today, with a bid to the FCS playoffs.
Were the Tigers powerbrokers in the world of FCS football, too?
I think you could make that case.
In 1996, the Patriot League was facing a deadline.
Fordham, whose football-only membership was due to expire, was no guarantee to remain in the “non-scholarship” conference they helped found.
Incredibly displeased with the sudden, rapid decline of their basketball team without scholarships, they left the Patriot League in all sports but football in 1997, and it was a real possibility that they were going to leave in that sport as well.
Enter Towson, a school whose football program had just started competing at the I-AA level in 1987, and were eager to enter into a conference to help them get a chance to play postseason football in the I-AA playoffs.
As an independent I-AA program, the Tigers played at least one Patriot League team a year since joining the subdivision.
They would also schedule Bucknell and Colgate, but Lehigh faced off against the Tigers five times before they became Patriot League members (including one contest when Towson was in their final year as a Division II school in 1986).
“The Patriot League has announced that Towson State will join in 1997 as a football-only member,” the New York Times stuck in a small-college football report that year. “The Tigers, who have given up athletic scholarships, will conform to the need-based aid program of the five charter Patriot members: Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette and Lehigh. The admission of the suburban Baltimore school is also a hedge against Fordham leaving when the Rams’ football-only membership expires after 1997.”
As the Patriot League’s only public school, Towson was different than the rest of the schools in the league, but with coach Gordy Combs running the show, it was clear that the Tigers would have football teams that were great academic achievers that would have no problem fitting in academically.
A Towson guy through and through, Combs graduated from the Towson, MD. campus in 1972.
His freshman year was the year of the first Tiger football team, and COmbs was Towson’s best player, rapidly becoming an assistant coach under head man Phil Albert and finally getting promoted to the head coaching position in 1992, during which time Towson transitioned from being a “small college” program to a Division III program to a Division II program.
Combs saw Towson grow from being a glorified club team in the late 1960s, through a move to Division III, to a limited number of scholarships in Division II, to becoming a I-AA independent.
And with the move to the Patriot League, Towson had to then make the adjustment to their flavor of need-based aid at the time.
All through these tidal waves of change, Combs did one thing extremely well — graduate his players.
“Combs’ tenure at Towson was also marked by a record of academic success matched by few at the FCS level,” it says in his bio at Johns Hopkins, where he is an assistant coach today. “Eight of his players were named to the NCAA’s FCS All-Academic Team, two were selected as National Football Foundation Scholar-Athletes and one — WR Adam Overby — garnered first-team Academic All-America accolades. In addition, 108 of his players were named to the Patriot League Academic Honor Roll during Towson’s time in the league.”
With Towson’s voluntary reshuffle to need-based aid, the Tigers were the only football school to modify their existing scholarship structure in order to join the Patriot League and it gave the League something it desperately needed, a sixth member in order to qualify for an autobid to the playoffs should Fordham leave.
While Towson and Combs fit the league academically, the Tigers’ time in the League resulted in some tempting stretches where they competed for the title, but fell frustratingly short time and again.
No Towson football year could match 1999 in terms of heartbreak.
They seemed to have enough to make a run at the title — a solid offense, and a monster defense, led my recent member of the Patriot League All-Anniversary team, DE Andrew Hollingsworth.
In his Tiger career, Hollingsworth amassed an amazing 43 sacks, still a Patriot League record.
At 7-3 and facing Colgate, all QB Joe Lee and the Towson offense would need to do is to get a lead to protect, and the Patriot League championship and autobid would be theirs.
But after battling hard for three quarters, Colgate’s powerful running game would wear down the Tigers in a 38-14 defeat. (“They have very good run blocking. That’s Dick Biddle’s way,” Combs said of the Colgate coach in an article at the time. “He’s not going to change. He’s going to run the football at you.”)
Eventually, as Towson’s basketball program moved from the ECC (which, incidentally, was the same conference in which Lehigh competed in basketball before the Patriot League) to America East and then, ultimately, a rising conference called the Colonial Athletic Association, then a basketball-only conference.
Towson left the Patriot League for the CAA, which — as an all-sports member — played a key role on their football takeover of the Atlantic 10 Conference.
(By then, Georgetown, which had left their non-scholarship league, the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference, joined the Patriot League as the League’s eight member — meaning the league’s autobid to the FCS playoffs was secure, and the need for Towson as the maintainer of the FCS playoffs was no longer as great.)
By joining the conference, they would have to go from need-based aid to merit-based aid — now allowed to offer the maximum number of scholarships on offer to 63.
Unfortunately, Combs would not stick around at Towson to see the total ascension of the program to its first-ever conference championship at the Division I level.
After 39 years as a player, assistant, and head coach, Combs was unceremoniously terminated in 2008, with wins and losses cited as the reason for his firing.
Combs was 92-90 as Towson’s head coach and had seen the program go from a neat idea, to 63-scholarship FCS football.
Towson’s football history is complicated, involves a multitude of twists and turns, and involves more changes to scholarships in its 43 history than any other college football program — yet still had a stability to it, with Combs and the current coach, Rob Ambrose, who has put the Tigers over the top.
It is not surprising that Ambrose played football at Towson for Combs, graduating in 1993, and that he later served under Combs as a key assistant.
The Tigers have gone through four basketball conference changes, four NCAA Division, or subdivision changes, and four football conference changes, if you count the change in ownership of the Atlantic 10 to the CAA.
Towson has been independent and affiliated with a conference, scholarship, non-scholarship, and somewhere in between.
And along the way, Towson helped put the CAA in the football business, and also kept the Patriot League in business, too.
Not bad for a school winning it’s first-ever conference title in 2011.
For me, personally, Towson holds a special place for me as well, as the first Lehigh game I ever saw was Lehigh hosting Towson State at Murray Goodman Stadium. (Freshman Parents’ weekend, to be exact. I still have the ticket stub.)
With QB Todd Brunner — the brother of Delaware and then New York Giants QB Scott Brunner — the Mountain Hawks cruised to a 21-0 lead at halftime before making things interesting in the second half by giving up 422 yards on defense to Towson QB Rick Marsillo and a game Towson squad that would be a part of a fourth-quarter explosion with 45 points scored by both teams.
With Lehigh RB Erick Torain and FB Kevin Costello, not to mention WR Dave Cecchini, Lehigh piled on the points- but Marsillo and a slicing punt return by future NFL player RB Dave Meggett would make the Goodman scoreboard light up like a pinball machine.
(In the Brown & White, they credit the punt return to Mike Smith, but I am near-certain that it was Meggett who returned the kick for a touchdown, one of the more memorable returns I’ve ever seen.)
Will this Saturday’s game be similar to this one? Only Saturday will tell.