After Towson's 35-7 loss to North Dakota State in the Football Championship Subdivision title game, coach Rob Ambrose didn't act differently at the postgame news conference than he had in the past. He parried with the media, told a few jokes and expressed his pride in his players.
Standing outside the team's locker room at Toyota Stadium, however, the full impact of the Tigers' worst loss since 2010 finally caught up to Ambrose, who was asked how long it would take for him to appreciate what the program had accomplished this season.
"I need a day to just let it sink in," Ambrose said. "Just trying to come up with another way in my mind to give them another down, another chance. Not yet. Just not yet."
Ambrose's response — which appeared to be a mixture of sadness and disappointment — wasn't a side the fifth-year coach normally displays. But what Towson achieved in 2013 may not be perceived as normal either.
After sharing the Colonial Athletic Association title but not making the postseason in 2012, the Tigers won an FCS playoff game for the first time, compiled a single-season record 13 victories and advance to their first national championship game this season.
With a "Leave No Doubt" slogan, the program galvanized a fan base that had primarily supported the men's lacrosse team and made alumni proud to say they graduated from Towson. And, perhaps just as importantly, the success has raised the school's profile nationally.
"People are going to start looking at Towson a different way now…," Tigers junior running back Terrance West (Northwestern) said. "People will know we're coming to play now. Four years ago, people had already checked us off on the list with a win. Now they have to really study us and work."
Towson senior defensive tackle Arnold Farmer (Poly) said: "We created history, and we put Towson on the map."
Prior to Saturday's lopsided defeat to the three-time defending FCS champion Bison, the Tigers had lost only to a pair of Colonial Athletic Association rivals at home this year — Villanova and Delaware. They went 9-0 on the road in 2013, and had won 12 in a row away from Johnny Unitas Stadium dating back to last season.
While Towson's surge may have caught outsiders by surprise, players insisted that they saw the seeds planted in offseason workouts and preseason practices.
"Even before the season started, I saw things building, I saw things starting to mold out," senior outside linebacker Telvion Clark said. "I think we really proved a lot of people wrong this year, although it didn't end the way we wanted it to. But I couldn't be more proud of my guys and the things that we accomplished."
Still, the pain of missing out on the university's first Division I title in any sport wiped away any consideration of a moral victory for reaching the title game.
"You just don't want to get there," West said. "You want to finish the whole mission. But a lot of teams didn't make it this far. We did. We gave it our all."
So what is in store for 2014?
Towson will lose 17 seniors who will graduate or have used all of their eligibility. All five starters on the offensive line Saturday must be replaced, as well as quarterback Peter Athens, wide receiver Leon Kinnard (Loyola) and tight end James Oboh.
West, who is regarded as an NFL prospect after setting FCS single-season records in yards (2,509) and total touchdowns (42), may elect to skip his senior year and declare for the draft in April.
The defense will part ways with two-thirds of its starting linebacking corps in Clark and middle linebacker Monte Gaddis, as well as Farmer and cornerback Jordan Love. The team must also find a new kicker to replace the duo of Drew Evangelista and D.J. Soven.
While that task seems almost insurmountable now, Ambrose is confident that the program will reload, not rebuild.
"It's going to be hard. We're going to graduate a lot of guys," he said. "But we set a tone and a standard that we need to keep building upon. I've said this in terms of the program and the institution that we need to reinvest in our success. We can't just sit there and say, 'Hey, we got here.'
"We have to take what we've done and try to make it better. Because if you're not doing that, then what in the hell did you get out of bed for? We're close, we're close, but we're not there yet."
Clarification: After Saturday's loss, Ambrose was quoted as saying his daughters were born in Towson. His daughter, Grace, was born there. A son, Riley, was born in Connecticut.