Rob Ambrose

Towson head coach Rob Ambrose talks to his players before practice earlier this week. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / December 30, 2013)

In trying to sum up the past five years, Rob Ambrose thought back to his introductory press conference as Towson University's football coach.

"I said, 'If we hadn't won some ball games by year three, I hope they had [a] good furniture budget, because I was going to break something,'" he recalled.

By the time Ambrose was hired, the university and its boosters had become accustomed to such gung-ho talk from new coaches, few of whom delivered the winning programs Towson sought.

"He came off to me as maybe a little too optimistic about what he could do," former Towson president Robert L. Caret said with a chuckle.

Or not.

Ambrose, the tough-talking Towson alumnus, has delivered on every promise, leading his program to three straight winning seasons and to Saturday's Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) national title game in Frisco, Texas.

The game represents a milestone in Towson's long quest for greater relevance in athletics, a journey that often traversed thorny paths.

"I knew we would win," Ambrose said. "I knew we would get back to the respectability of the past."

The coach sold his initial recruits on playing a punishing style and building a great team from the ground up. If they couldn't win right away, he told them, they could be pioneers.

"We wanted to be part of a change," said senior All-American tackle Eric Pike. "I know that a couple referred to us when we first came in as 'The New Era Boys.' We wanted to make sure that before we left at the end of our careers, we did something to change the program's history drastically, and I think so far, we're starting to do what we set our minds to do."

Winning has taken the Tigers to places they could hardly have imagined. The team has played multiple games on ESPN and been written up in the New York Times. Six busloads of students have made the 1,400-mile drive to Texas to watch the championship game. In just a few weeks, donors have ponied up almost $150,000 to cover the costs of charter flights, first-class hotel rooms and championship rings.

The dream started with Caret, who believed success in football and basketball could bring new vitality to campus and create recognition beyond the university's immediate region. College Park would always remain the university system's flagship, but Caret and his supporters spoke of Towson becoming a strong No. 2, akin to North Carolina State. Athletics would help the wider world see Towson's evolution from a commuter school for aspiring teachers to a more diverse, rigorous institution.

"I know others disagree with me, but I think it's an important tool in American higher education," Caret said of having a successful athletic program. "It's a huge marketing arm. Most people don't know a ton of details about an institution, so just a little bit of positive impression can change their opinions completely."

Ambrose bought into this vision of athletics as a "front porch" for Towson when Caret hired him.

"We told Rob, 'We want to be big time,'" recalled David Nevins, a Towson alumnus and former chairman of the state university system's Board of Regents. "We wanted to use the athletic department to knock people's socks off. And he got that."

Caret more than doubled the athletic budget during his eight-year tenure, offering competitive salaries to attract coaches like Ambrose. Even so, a 2010 report from an internal task force portrayed the athletic department as underfunded compared to its conference competitors and stuck with stagnant leadership and weak alumni support.

A succession of coaches failed to lift the university's programs. Caret left to become president of the University of Massachusetts in 2011, with his aspirations for Towson athletics unrealized.

From controversy to success

Caret's successor, Maravene Loeschke, stepped into an unexpected economic mess that consumed the athletic department for much of the 2012-2013 school year. On one hand, the football and men's basketball programs finally seemed on the rise under Ambrose and Pat Skerry, respectively. On the other, then-athletic director Mike Waddell told Loeschke he needed to cut baseball and men's soccer to balance the department's budget and bring it in compliance with federal gender equity laws.

Towson's plan to cut sports divided the university and drew criticism from the highest levels of state government. Some of the vitriol from baseball and soccer supporters spewed directly at the football program, which critics perceived as a major cause of the budget imbalance.