TOWSON, Md. — Rob Ambrose looks west to North Dakota State and sees a dynasty, something he knows will be all but impossible to create for his Towson University football program. His campus is located in this middle-class suburb 15 miles from downtown Baltimore, in a metropolitan area of 2.8 million people.
Towson touts itself as Baltimore's College Team, but the truth is harsher than that. The Tigers are popular enough among their students, faculty, staff and alumni. But in a metro that has the NFL's Baltimore Ravens and MLB's Baltimore Orioles and with the Big Ten's Maryland Terrapins just 40 miles away, Towson gets lost in the shuffle.
"I've said this for years now: Find me a metropolitan area with a college team who wins a football national championship. It doesn't happen any more. Because in a metropolitan area there are way too many things to do that are not football," Ambrose said this week. "If you're in Alabama, you're doing football. If you're in Clemson, you're doing football. If you're in Fargo, you're doing football."
The problem for Ambrose is that not only have the Tigers not been able to build a dynasty, they haven't been able to build a consistent playoff program.
The last time Towson and NDSU played prior to Saturday's nonconference game at Johnny Unitas Stadium was the 2013 Football Championship Subdivision title game in Frisco, Texas (actually played in January 2014). With 5 minutes left in the first half of that contest, Towson was at the top of the world. The Tigers were tied 7-7 with No. 1-ranked Bison and D.J. Soven was about to attempt a 41-yard field goal.
Nothing's been the same for Ambrose's program since.
Bison safety Colten Heagle sliced through the line of scrimmage and smothered Soven's kick. Defensive end Kyle Emanuel scooped up the ball and rambled to the Towson 5-yard line. A play later, Ryan Smith sprinted into the end zone for a 14-7 NDSU lead.
Towson's next series ended in a C.J. Smith interception, which led to a TD pass from Brock Jensen to Zach Vraa. A game in which the Tigers were going toe-to-toe with the two-time defending champions was suddenly 21-7 at halftime. It would end 35-7 in favor of NDSU, the Bison's third title in the early stages of a dynasty that would see them win eight championships in nine years.
The Tigers returned home and have barely been heard from since. Towson has one playoff appearance in the eight years since its Texas cameo and that ended with a 31-10 home rout at the hands of Duquense in 2018.
Towson followed its run to north Texas with a 4-8 record in 2014. The Tigers haven't won more than seven games in a season since going 13-3 in 2013.
"It's very hard to create yourself a dynasty anywhere unless your team is huge. And I'm not talking about the football team itself. I'm talking about the university, the surrounding community," Ambrose said. "All of those places where all of those people are rowing the boat in the same direction, the consistency of that, that's what creates a dynasty. That's a very, very hard thing to create."
Ambrose took over a moribund program in 2009 and went 2-9 and 1-10 his first two seasons. University leadership, though, pledged more money to football when he took the job and by 2011 the Tigers went 9-3 and made the postseason. A 7-4 season followed, which included losses at ranked FBS teams LSU and Kent State, and then the Tigers found themselves riding future NFL running back Terrance West to Frisco.
It hasn't been the same since. The Tigers have been mired in the middle of the Colonial Athletic Association, far behind the level of league power James Madison. In four games against the JMU since Towson won in 2013, the Dukes have won by an average score of 45-14.
Asked to describe his program since losing to the Bison in Frisco, Ambrose said:
"In a way, with the same mentality I had when I took the job here — evolving. That it's not just the football program. It evolves within the university and the community at large. It's not like out there where the university and community at large are all centralized on (football). They love it," Ambrose said. "I've had multiple presidents in the time that I've been here. Multiple athletic directors. People just don't see it exactly the same, all the time. So it's a constant re-education process of what needs to be done, how it needs to be done."
Ambrose takes some of the blame, too. He said once Towson began winning, coaches had access to athletes they didn't previously. That led to recruiting mistakes.
"We got a little excited about recruiting some players we couldn't recruit before because they didn't know who we were, and that came with baggage that we hadn't planned," Ambrose said. "It took awhile to clean house after we did that and ever since then, the character of a kid has become No. 1 above everything else."
Towson was picked to finish seventh in the 12-team CAA this season. After an opening 31-0 victory over crosstown rival Morgan State, the Tigers lost 26-14 at New Hampshire in their league opener. Transfer quarterback Chris Ferguson was benched at halftime after throwing two interceptions, but he's expected to start against the Bison.
Towson's roster lists 36 transfers overall, including 21 from FBS programs.
Ambrose is still searching for that 2013 magic. The school is hoping to break the stadium record crowd of 11,196, set in 2011 for a playoff game against Lehigh.
"With 100,000 college kids in a 15-mile radius, in a major metropolitan area, there's a lot of stuff to do that's not football," Ambrose said.