When Rob Ambrose was named as the Tigers’ head football coach four years ago, he vowed to make the Tigers one of the top programs in the Colonial Athletic Association and fill Unitas Stadium.
Even the most optimistic Tiger fan could not have foreseen how quickly he would accomplish these tasks.
In his third season as the Tigers’ coach, he guided Towson to one of the most dramatic turnarounds in college football history. Only one season removed from a 1-10 record, the 2011 Tigers became the Turnaround Tigers as they posted a 9-2 regular season record and won the CAA championship outright.
Towson’s 7.5-game improvement was the most dramatic improvement in NCAA Division I last year and one of the biggest turnarounds ever.
Along the way, the Tigers beat six nationally-ranked teams and won the CAA with a 7-1 mark.
On Dec. 3, the Tigers made their first-ever appearance in the NCAA FCS playoffs, becoming the first program to earn playoff berths at the Division II, Division III and FCS levels.
Although the Tigers dropped a heartbreaker to Lehigh, Coach Ambrose will never forget how he felt moments before kickoff when the Tigers took the field before a loud, sell-out crowd.
“I don’t think I could have imagined being more proud to be a head coach of an institution than I was when I came out and saw my guys and saw this community,” he recalled. “I’m usually pretty good at this, but that was awe-inspiring. Not only am I proud to be the coach here. I’m proud to be a member of this community. My hats are off to the seniors. They deserve a degree of respect that most people will never understand except their brothers. I’m proud of my staff for fighting an uphill battle. I’m proud of my team for fighting even harder.”
Once the season ended, the Tiger coach was the recipient of many individual accolades. He was honored as the CAA Coach of the Year, the AFCA District Coach of the Year and a finalist for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year.
In January, 2012, he was the recipient of the Eddie Robinson Award as the top coach in FCS football.
Now that the Tigers are considered among the top teams in FCS football, Ambrose is determined to keep them there.
“Last year is over,” says Coach Ambrose, who was also the CAA Coach of the Year and the AFCA District Coach of the Year.
After two years of hard work and renovating the Tiger football program, Rob Ambrose saw his efforts pay off in the 2011 season.
Coach Ambrose, who endured 2-9 season and a 1-10 campaign in his first two years, was the architect of the "Turnaround Tigers" in 2011.
He coached the most improved team in NCAA Division I football as the Tigers posted a 9-3 record and made an eight-game improvement. He also led the Tigers to their first Colonial Athletic Association championship and their first NCAA FCS playoff berth.
The Tigers, who finished the season as eighth-ranked team in NCAA FCS, won seven of eight CAA games to claim their first CAA title. What makes the accomplishment even more amazing is the fact that the Tigers had lost 26 of their previous 28 CAA contests entering the season.
Honored as the CAA Coach of the Year, Ambrose led a very young team to wins over Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island in the final weeks of the season to claim the title. The Tigers entered November one game behind Maine in the CAA standings. On Nov. 5, the Tigers travelled to Maine and shocked the Black Bears, 40-30, creating a three-way tie for first place in the CAA. One week later, the Tigers overwhelmed New Hampshire, 56-42, their first-ever win over the Wildcats. In the regular season finale, the Tigers overcame a 10-0 deficit to post a 28-10 win over Rhode Island. When Maine lost to UNH, the Tigers had gone from "Worst to First" and won the CAA championship.
As the CAA champions, the Tigers earned the automatic qualifier to the NCAA FCS playoffs. Towson became the first school in NCAA history to qualify for the post-season at the NCAA FCS, Division II and Division III levels.
After receiving a first round bye, the Tigers hosted No. 6 Lehigh in the second round. Before a sell-out crowd at Unitas Stadium, the Tigers dropped a 40-38 heart-breaker to Lehigh.
“The only way to explain the dramatic turnaround is like this," says Coach Ambrose. "It took a ridiculous amount of hard work and dedication by everyone involved - the players, the coaches, the support staff and the administration. At the same time, everyone has had fun doing it. When we started here three years ago, we knew we were playing in a league with some outstanding football programs that were well-established and we knew we had to catch up. We felt we had to do 15 years of work in a very short time.”
While the on-the-field turnaround was amazing, the perception of Tiger football also changed dramatically. Students turned out in record numbers to cheer on the Tigers. At the same time, the community interest in the program reached an all-time high.
For their seven home games, the Tigers averaged a record 8,949 fans per game. For the first time ever, Unitas Stadium was sold out for the NCAA FCS playoff game against Lehigh.
as a very rewarding season. We went into the season fighting for any scrap of respect we could get. We were looking for respect on a personal level and within the league. We earned that.
“Now, we have to change our focus,” he adds. “We need to maintain our level of success and that will be just as difficult. Our expectations are higher and we’ve got to keep working the way we did to get where we are.”
For most of the last decade, Coach Ambrose was in New England, helping Randy Edsall build a program at the University of Connecticut.
He joined Coach Edsall in Storrs in 2002 as the Huskies grew from an NCAA Division I-AA program into a major college contender that was considered one of the teams in the BIG EAST Conference.
As the seasons went by, the stature of the UConn program grew. Every year, more and more National Football League scouts stopped by the Storrs campus. Each year, more Bowl scouts came to watch UConn play.
After spending three seasons as the Offensive Coordinator for the Huskies, Rob Ambrose was being prominently mentioned as as a candidate when there was speculation about major college coaching vacancies.
Then, in the words of Rob Ambrose, “Mama called.”
For only the fourth time in the 40-year history of the program, his alma mater, Towson University, was looking for a new coach after the 2008 season.
Rob Ambrose got the call.
“Although I’ve never been a fan of Bear Bryant’s, I agree with him on one topic,” Ambrose said at the press conference announcing his hiring. “In 1958, Bear Bryant was asked why he left his coaching job at Texas A&M to become the coach at Alabama. He responded, ‘my school called me. Mama called. When Mama calls, then you have to just come running.’ That’s how I feel about Towson.”
A member of the UConn staff for seven years and a veteran of 17 years of college coaching, Ambrose became only the fourth head coach in the history of Tiger football.
He succeeded Carl Runk (1969-71), Phil Albert (1972-1991) and Gordy Combs (1992-2008), who combined to lead Towson to a total of 220 victories in 40 years.
In many ways, he was the perfect coach to succeed them. He was a player for Coach Albert and he was part of Coach Combs’ staff for nine years. In addition, he was friends with Coach Runk, the Tigers’ men’s lacrosse coach for 31 seasons.
“It’s very humbling for me to follow three men who are the founding fathers of this football program and they need to be acknowledged,” Ambrose remarked at his press conference. “Carl Runk was the first coach and he got all of this started. There would be no football program without him. Then, there was Phil Albert who took this program to places nobody ever thought it would reach. He’s the man who recruited me to come to Towson and I can never thank him enough for all that he did for me.
“He was followed by Gordy Combs,” he added. “Without Gordy, I don’t think I would have become a football coach. 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.
“Those men deserve all our respect and we will never forget what they did for Tiger football,” he added. “Without the past, there can’t be any future.”
A 1993 graduate of Towson, the Middletown, Maryland native started his coaching career at a very young age, spending nine seasons as an assistant coach at his alma mater.
In the Spring of 1992, the veteran wide receiver suffered a serious injury, ending his playing career before his senior season started. Combs, who was starting his first season as the Tigers’ Head Coach, recognized Ambrose’s talent and he made Ambrose a Student Assistant Coach who worked with the wide receivers.
After graduating from Towson with a B.S. degree in English, he became a full-time member of the Tiger coaching staff. After serving as Wide Receivers Coach in 1992 and 1993, he was promoted to Passing Game Coordinator and Recruiting Coordinator.
In his first three seasons as a member of the Towson coaching staff, the Tigers had a very successful run. In 1992, the Tigers posted a 5-5 record which included memorable wins over James Madison (28-21), Indiana of Pa. (35-33) and Northeastern (33-32).
In 1993, Ambrose helped the Tigers compile an 8-2 record as they finished the season as the 24th-ranked team in NCAA Division I-AA. As an Offensive Assistant Coach, he coached All-American running back Tony Vinson, who led the nation in rushing yards (2,016), all-purpose yards (2,073) and points scored (138). Vinson, who set the NCAA record with 364 rushing yards in one game, was a fifth round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers.
In 1994, Ambrose worked with the record-setting passing combination of quarterback Dan Crowley and wide receiver Mark Orlando. An honorable mention All-American, Crowley led the Tigers to another 8-2 record by passing for 2,913 yards and 28 touchdowns. Orlando earned first team All-American honors by catching 55 passes for 1,223 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Tigers, who were ranked 26th in the nation at the end of the season, averaged 36.4 points per game, eighth in the country. The Towson passing game averaged 395.0 yards per game, ninth in the nation.
After the 1994 season, the Tiger football program changed direction. Towson went to non-scholarship football and competed in the ECAC-IFC. The Tigers posted back-to-back 6-4 records, paving the way for their move to the Patriot League in 1997.
When Towson joined Bucknell, Colgate, Fordham, Holy Cross, Lafayette and Lehigh in the Patriot League, Ambrose was promoted to Offensive Coordinator and Quarterback Coach.
Understandably, the Tigers struggled in their first two Patriot League seasons. In 1997, they were 3-7 record for their first losing season in six years. In 1998, they improved to 5-6.
In 1999, Coach Ambrose was the architect of the most explosive passing game in the nation. Under his guidance, quarterback Joe Lee threw for a school and Patriot League record 4,168 yards. Completing 322 of 577 passes, Lee threw 22 touchdown passes as the Tigers averaged 381.2 passing yards per game to lead the nation. Towson posted a 7-4 record and a third place finish in the Patriot League with a 4-2 mark.
While Lee earned All-Patriot League honors, wide receiver Jamal White was a first team All-American. He caught 82 passes for 1,322 yards and eight touchdowns. Jason Corle finished his career as the Tigers’ all-time leading rusher with 3,601 yards. With 282 points and 47 career touchdowns, Corle also set Towson scoring records.
Prior to the 2000 season, Ambrose was promoted to Associate Head Coach. In what turned out to be his final season as a member of the Tigers’ staff, Ambrose helped the Tigers post another 7-4 record. Showing his flexibility as an Offensive Coordinator, Ambrose relied on All-Patriot League running back Noah Read to carry the offensive load. Read rushed for a league-leading 1,422 yards and scored a league high 17 touchdowns.
In his nine seasons as an assistant coach at Towson, Ambrose helped the Tigers compile a 55-38 record. In those nine years, Towson had only two losing seasons.
After 2000, Ambrose left Towson to become the Head Coach at Catholic University, a Division III program in Washington, D.C. In one year at Catholic, he led the Cardinals to a 3-7 record.
After the 2001 season, Edsall hired Ambrose to join his staff at the University of Connecticut. The Huskies were in the middle of an ambitous transition, moving from NCAA Division I-AA status to Division I-A classification. In addition, UConn was preparing to join the very competitive BIG EAST Conference in 2004.
Joining the staff as the Quarterbacks Coach, Ambrose played a major role in the development of Dan Orlovsky, the first UConn quarterback to play in the National Football League.
During his career, Orlovsky set UConn records by completing 916 of 1,567 passes for 10,706 yards with a record 84 touchdown passes. An All-ECAC pick, he was the seventh-ranked passer in the nation as a senior. He passed for 3,485 yards and 33 touchdowns.
A fifth round draft pick by the Detroit Lions, Orlovsky had his best NFL season in 2008. In his fourth NFL season, he started seven games for the Lions, passing for 1,616 yards with eight interceptions and eight touchdowns. He completed 143 of 255 passes. He is currently a member of the Tampa Bay Bucaneers.
In his first season as a member of the staff, Ambrose helped UConn post a 6-6 mark, averaging 31.1 points per game.
In the final year before moving to the major college level in 2003, UConn posted a 9-3 mark. UConn scored 34 points per game with impressive wins over Indiana (34-10), Rutgers (38-31) and Wake Forest (51-17).
In 2004, UConn made a terrific debut in the BIG EAST. The Huskies won BIG EAST games against Pittsburgh, Temple and Rutgers, finishing the season with a 7-4 record and a 3-3 BIG EAST mark. UConn made the first Bowl game appearance in school history as the Huskies played Toledo in the Motor City Bowl in Detroit. The Huskies rolled to a 39-10 win, completing an 8-4 season in which they scored 30.2 points per game. UConn’s passing game was ranked second in the BIG EAST.The 2005 season was Coach Ambrose’s final year as Passing Game Coordinator. While the Huskies were 5-6, they had impressive wins over Syracuse and South Florida.
In 2006, he was promoted to Offensive Coordinator. UConn had a 4-8 record, highlighted by a 46-45 double overtime win over Pittsburgh.
Ambrose was a key part of one of the greatest seasons in UConn history in 2007. The Huskies opened the season with five straight wins before losing at Virginia. But UConn bounced back with a 21-17 win over Louisville and upset 11th-ranked South Florida, 22-15. With a 7-1 record, the Huskies made their debut in the national rankings when they were rated 16th by Associated Press.
UConn finished the regular season with a 9-3 record. With a 5-2 mark in the BIG EAST, Connecticut shared the conference title with West Virginia. UConn was co-champion in only its fourth year of BIG EAST membership.
UConn earned its second-ever bowl bid when the Huskies were selected to play Wake Forest in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. The Demon Deacons pulled out a 24-10 victory.
Ambrose directed an offense that averaged 27.8 points and 358.3 total yards per game in 2007.
In 2008, Ambrose coached one of the top running backs in the nation as Donald Brown led UConn to an 8-5 record and its third bowl game in five years. The 2008 Big East Offensive Player of the Year, Brown earned All-American honors and led the nation with 2,083 yards on 367 carries. He averaged 160.2 yards per game and ended his career as UConn’s career leader with 3,800 rushing yards. He became the first UConn player to become a first round selection in the NFL draft when the Indianapolis Colts selected him.
In 2008, UConn opened the season with five straight wins. UConn also handed eventual BIG EAST champion Cincinnati its only conference loss with a 40-16 win over the Bearcats. UConn finished off its 8-5 season a 38-20 win over Buffalo in the International Bowl in Toronto as Brown was named MVP.
During Ambrose’s seven seasons at UConn, he helped the Huskies compile a 49-36 record with only two losing campaigns.
When he inherited the Towson program in 2009, there was little to suggest that the Tigers were only a few years away from winning a conference championship. In 2007 and 2008, Towson had a combined record of 6-17. The Tigers had won only two of 16 Colonial Athletic Association games and had finished last both years.
Coach Ambrose’s first two seasons at Towson were also rough ones. In 2009, the outmanned Tigers had a 2-9 record and finished last in the CAA with a 1-7 mark. In his second season at Towson, the Tigers lost 10 of 11 and were winless in the CAA. But, the Tigers’ coach knew there was improvement.
“In our first year, there were a number of games against CAA teams that were decided long before halftime,” he recalled. “In 2010, I think most of our CAA games were decided in the fourth quarter. Even though we didn’t win any of them, we knew we were more competitive.”
The Tigers set the stage for their dramatic turnaround last year with four straight last place finishes in the CAA and 26 losses in their 28 previous CAA contests.
A three-sport standout at Middletown High School, he played football for his father, Coach Tim Ambrose. He was also a member of the baseball and basketball teams. A two-way standout at quarterback and defensive back, he was the All-Frederick County quarterback twice. In 1987, he threw for 1,096 yards and 12 touchdowns to earn All-Area notice. An honorable mention All-American by Street & Smith’s, he was also the Knights’ place kicker. Ambrose averaged 14 points per game for the basketball team and batted .415 for the baseball squad. He was team captain for all three sports.
At Towson, he started his career as a quarterback but moved to wide receiver as a sophomore. In 1990, he caught four passes for 20 yards. As a junior, he had four catches for 35 yards. Three of those receptions were touchdown passes from Dan Crowley. He caught an 11-yard TD pass at James Madison, a seven-yard TD toss at Liberty and a 14-yard TD pass against Hofstra.
The Tigers’ coach is the son of one of the most successful high school football coaches in the state of Maryland. His father, Tim, was the head coach at Middletown for 31 years and won 249 games, leading the Knights to 14 Monocacy Valley League championships. Currently the Athletic Director at Middletown, he stepped down as football coach after the 2004 season.
Rob’s younger brother, Jared, was an assistant football coach at Delaware for two years before joining the Tigers’ staff as Tight Ends Coach. He will be the Tigers’ Quarterbacks Coach this season.
Coach Ambrose was born on July 30, 1970 in Skokie, Illinois. He and his wife, the former Melissa Grady, are the parents of two children, Grace (10) and Riley (7).