By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
HARRISONBURG, VA. — There is an old adage that your college choice is one of the most important decisions of your life.
And Towson coach Rob Ambrose took time to contemplate his decision on Friday afternoon as his Tiger football team took its first look at James Madison's Bridgeforth Stadium in preparation for Saturday's 1 p.m. showdown between not only two of the title favorites in the Colonial Athletic Association, but a pair of teams ranked in the top-10 of the CSJ Top-25 poll.
"I was going to James Madison," said Ambrose, "until they pulled their scholarship."
One of the nasty, little secrets of college football recruiting is when schools make too many offers and get more commitments than they have scholarships and Ambrose was caught in such a place as he prepared to begin his university career.
It makes you think of the science fiction device known as alternate time lines, well used in television shows like the Time Tunnel — for all of those over the age of 50 —Star Trek and Sliders.
What if Rob Ambrose had gone to JMU in 1989? What if the Dukes' coach Joe Purzycki had not withdrawn that scholarship contract?
Beyond trading the black and gold of Towson for the purple and gold of JMU, would there have been last year's scenario of the Turnaround Tigers, who went from 1-10 in 2010 to 9-3, a CAA title and the first trip to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for TU?
Waiting in the wings when the JMU scholarship offer fell through was Phil Albert, then the head coach at Towson. He convinced Ambrose to stay in his native Maryland.
An injury cut short Ambrose's career as a college wide receiver before his senior year, but new Towson head coach Gordy Combs saw something in Ambrose and encouraged him to work as a student assistant as a senior.
"Without Gordy, I don’t think I would have become a football coach," Ambrose said. "When my football playing career ended before my senior year, Gordy was there for me and offered me a spot as a Student Assistant Coach and I’ll never forget that. We were together for nine years and he taught me so much."
The last time Towson beat James Madison, Ambrose was on the staff when the Tigers recorded a 28-21 win behind a then-school-record 264-yard rushing performance on 41 carries from Tony Vincent.
Though he was heavy involved in the Towson passing game, Ambrose was one of the coaches encouraging plays to be called for Vincent on that memorable day.
JMU has won seven games in a row since Towson moved from the Patriot League to the CAA in 2004 and hasn't dropped a game at home to the Tigers since a 10-3 loss in 1983.
Ambrose completed his internship for eventually returning to Towson by serving as a head coach for one year at Division III Catholic University in 2001 and then joining Randy Edsell's staff at Connecticut from 2002-2008.
When Combs was relieved of his duties at Towson, Ambrose was enticed to return as head coach in 2009 and began the process of rebuilding the Tiger program.
After winning just three games in his first two seasons back at Towson, Ambrose served as the architect of one of the biggest turnarounds in college football history.
Picked to finish at the bottom of the CAA, the Tigers won the championship and now are favorites for a repeat of that title.
With a nice mix of veterans like free safety Jordan Dangerfield and defensive end Frank Beltre and youth like running back Terrance West, now Towson is has a big target on its chest.
And no team wants to knock off the 10th-ranked Tigers (2-2 overall, 1-0 in the CAA) more than coach Mickey Matthews' fourth-ranked James Madison squad (3-1, 1-0). The feeling is mutual.
One of the reasons Matthews would like a win is because his next one will be the 100th head coaching victory of his career.
The unbalanced CAA schedule didn't have Towson and JMU meeting last season, but with the two teams favored to compete for the title this year, Saturday's should have an intensity of a playoff game.
You have two of the best defenses (Towson is ranked sixth and JMU is seventh nationally) and two of the most productive rushing attacks in FCS facing off.
While West of Towson and Jordan Anderson of James Madison lead offenses known for their running, quarterbacks Grant Enders of TU and Justin Thorpe of JMU can hurt teams both with their feet and their arms.
“After playing LSU, I feel like we are jumping from the frying pan into the fire," said Ambrose. "JMU is one of the best teams in FCS football and it is going to be quite a challenge to play them down there."
The only losses the two teams have had this season were to FBS opponents, Kent State (41-21) and LSU (38-22) for Towson and West Virginia (42-12) for James Madison.
The two teams have one common opponent, St. Francis. The Dukes beat the Red Flash 55-7 in both teams' season opener and the Tigers topped St. Francis 46-17 two weeks ago.
JMU opened league play by disposing of Rhode Island 32-7 on the road before having a week off.
Towson dropped William & Mary 20-17 in a tight conference opener at home three weeks ago. Last week, the Tigers gave LSU a scare, piling up the most points the Bayou Tigers had given up since their 2011 opener against Oregon and logging the most yardage LSU had allowed all season.
Saturday's game, which will be played on family day before an expected crowd of over 25,000, as well as an NBC Sports Network TV audience, will be one of many challenges for both teams as they negotiate the rigors of the CAA.
"Every week in the CAA is like this," Ambrose said. "It is ridiculous how good this league is. Everyone has talent, everyone is well coached. That is just how it is every week."