No fear, just loathing at my alma mater
With this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament tipping-off it’s Sweet 16 , it made me remember that this year is a special anniversary.
2011 marks 20 years since my alma mater, Towson University, made the tournament. Given the basketball program’s record of futility, the NCAA may have to expand the field to 200 teams before the Tigers get in again.
While some schools have had longer droughts, for my Tigers, it has been, as Trent Reznor once said, “a steady, systematic decline.”
Things bottomed out this year with an abysmal 4-26 record, including no conference wins and a Detroit Lions-esque 19 game losing streak. Since 1997, the Tigers have gone a hideous 131-283. Needless to say, 131 wins in 14 years is gawd-awful.
As if the hoops team’s awesome badness wasn’t enough, the football team went 1-10 in 2010 with no conference wins, after going 2-8 in 2009. In Coach Rob Ambrose’s first two years, the Tigers are 3-18 with exactly one conference win.
If anybody actually gave a crap, which, unfortunately, not enough do, it would be grounds to drive one to drink. As an alumnus, just typing those words makes me want to reach for one of those bottles of Crystal Head Vodka that come in a crystal skull and chug. Then when I’m done, start reciting melancholy soliloquies to the skull a la Hamlet.
Those records are flat-out embarrassing and inexcusable for a school that should be able to attract talent. As an alum, I don’t ask for much, just that the teams be competitive, but even that has been too much to ask in recent years. It says a lot when the most competitive sport at Towson is racing for a parking space.
Towson is a beautiful campus, located in the hilly suburbs of Baltimore, meaning it has access to city and suburban talent. It has an upgraded football stadium, a new basketball arena on the way and is in the middle of a massive upgrade to its education facilities. And while the school’s reputation is that of a soulless commuter college, it has built new dorms to house more students. The campus is almost unrecognizable from when I left there 10 years ago, in a good way.
So what’s the problem? Certainly, TU has to compete with Maryland, Georgetown and the Pennsylvania schools for talent, not to mention the loaded CAA, which includes football powers Delaware, Richmond and James Madison, plus Virginia Commonwealth –who made the Sweet 16 – and George Mason in basketball.
I do not blame the players. Yes, they are the ones on the field getting the crap kicked out of them every week, but they are doing the best they can. They are simply overmatched playing for a school that has never been able to figure out how to win consistently.
Let’s start with basketball and a history lesson. In 2000, the Tigers were a young team coached by an ex-University of Miami guy named Mike Jaskulski.
As the program headed into the 2000s, Coach Jaz, as he was known on campus, seemed to be building a program. Among other recruits, Jaz had managed to land Tamir Goodman, an Orthodox Jewish guard who Maryland had gone after and then dropped when they couldn’t accommodate Goodman’s religious observances.
Goodman, known then as “the Jewish Jordan” struggled that first year, but Jaz wisely let him play and learn the game. The Tigers weren’t good, but they seemed to be on the right track.
But after four years of steady improvement under Jaz, the administration fired the coach for reasons I still haven’t comprehended. Jazkulski was no Mike Krzyzewski (try saying those five words fast) but he seemed to have things getting better.
In his stead, they brought in a fella named Michael Hunt, a hard-ass disciplinarian who was about as fun to be around as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket.” Hunt even had his own “What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?” moment when he allegedly kicked a stool at Goodman and threatened to hit the Jewish guard with a chair.
Goodman quickly fled to obscurity, but needless to say, threatening to hit a kid with a chair wasn’t the best way to sway potential recruits. Hunt was a disastrous 23-63 and was relieved of his duties in 2004.
Seeking a “big name” that could woo better players, the school hired Pat Kennedy, who had been a successful coach with Iona and Florida State. The athletic department ignored his under .500 records at his last two stops at DePaul and Montana. But, Kennedy was a name, and it was hoped he could restore the team to respectability after the Hunt fiasco.
Kennedy’s first four years were fine; steady improvement from 5-24 to 15-17. Then the bottom fell out as “Pat’s Cats” got worse and worse. They did have a surprise run to the semifinals of the CAA tournament in 2009-10, but it wasn’t enough to mask the fact that the program was still a punching bag in the CAA. Kennedy “resigned” earlier this month, but let’s face it, when you go 4-26, you got fired.
The football program I will largely give the benefit of the doubt, for now. Ambrose took over two years ago for Gordy Combs, who had been at the school seemingly forever. While a very nice guy – I was around Gordy a little when I worked on the sports program at the campus TV station, and the coach would occasionally come in for interviews – Gordy’s time had come and a change needed to be made. Starting over again is never easy, and it’s even harder when you’re a losing program. That being said, more 1-10 seasons will not keep Ambrose coaching for very long.
I’m not sure I have a solution to TU’s lack of competitiveness on the court and on the football field. Perhaps it needs to look into moving football and basketball out of the mid-major heavyweight that is the CAA. After all, if you can’t get athletes that can play at that level, maybe find them another level to play at.
Of course, that will never happen. The school has spent a lot of money in upgrading the football stadium and building a new basketball arena. The prestige of the CAA allows the athletic department to take big money out of power conferences like the Big Ten in exchange for sending the football team up to Northwestern and Indiana like lambs to be slaughtered 51-14 while the Northwestern and Indiana fans wonder “Where is Towson?”
Believe me, I was there for the Northwestern game two years ago, watching the Wildcats run roughshod. It was not a pleasant sight given that Northwestern’s starting quarterback, Mike Kafka, was bigger than some of TU’s lineman. And yes, not long after the Wildcats were done beating the Tigers 47-14, I was asked, “Where is Towson?”
In basketball, well, apart from the trip to the NCAA’s in 1991, the most pleasant memory was a near-upset of Michigan in 1998, back when Michigan was MICHIGAN. The program still hasn’t recovered from when the athletic department nuked Jaskulski, and then it was put back further by the Hunt error and Kennedy’s lost mojo.
To me, the school needs to go back to the drawing board when it comes to football and basketball. What can we do to make this a more attractive destination for top recruits and transfers? What are we doing wrong that the Delawares, George Masons and Richmonds of the world are doing right? Should we recruit youngsters from Baltimore and the surrounding area, or should we go hard after transfers from big Division I schools (like UD has done with Joe Flacco and Pat Devlin, for example)?
As an alumnus, I hope the athletic department figures this out, because to me, Towson is an untapped jewel that could really be Baltimore’s school, much in the same way that UD is Delaware’s school. There’s a lot of potential there, and there is no reason for this university to be a perennial doormat in football and basketball.
At the very least, if anybody associated with the TU athletic department happens to read this, can you at least bring back the old fight song?