Towson's football team did not win in the 2011 FCS playoffs. But the Tigers went where no college football team had gone before.
Winning the CAA Football championship clinched Towson's first berth in the FCS playoffs and the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.
The Tigers became the first — and still the only — football team to qualify for the NCAA playoffs at the Division III, Division II and Division I (FCS) levels.
The Tigers quickly became a Division III power after its debut season in 1969. They went 10-0 in 1974 and reached the D-III playoffs for the first time in 1976. They lost to St. John's of Minnesota in the Stagg Bowl, the Division III title game, when St. John's kicked a 19-yard field goal on the game's final play.
In 1979, Towson moved up to Division II and went to the playoffs in 1983, 1984 and 1986. They reached the semifinals in 1984.
In 1987, it was on to Division I-AA. And in their third game that season, the Tigers upset fourth-ranked Maine, 17-14. They also handed Howard University its only loss of the year, 30-14.
But tough times followed. The Tigers didn't have a winning record their first six years in I-AA and the school was on the verge of dropping football in the early 1990s.
"There are very few schools that ever went from Division III to Division II to Division I-AA. Most schools stay for 25, 30, 40, 50 years in one division, maybe they move up one," Sean Landeta, who played for the Tigers as they were transitioning from Division II to Division I-AA, said in 2011. "If they had stayed in Division II with the success they were having, they probably would have been a perennnial playoff team."
The program turned a corner in 1993, finishing 8-2 and setting or tying 46 school records.
In head coach Rob Ambrose's third season, the Tigers won their first conference championship in FCS — formerly Division I-AA — and first FCS playoff berth.
"It took a ridiculous amount of hard work and dedication by everyone involved — the players, the coaches, the support staff and the administration," Ambrose said in 2011. "At the same time, everyone has had fun doing it."
The Tigers lost to Lehigh, 40-38. But two years later, Ambrose led the Tigers to the FCS championship game. They advanced with a 31-28 victory against Eastern Washington in the semifinals when backup quarterback Connor Frazier scored with 17 seconds remaining in the game.
That made Towson the first school in college football history to play for an NCAA championship at the Division III level and the FCS level. They lost 35-7 to North Dakota State, but there's no shame in that. It was the third in the Bison's current streak of five consecutive titles.
“I’m happy and I’m proud of our players," Ambrose said before the title game. "After we beat Eastern Washington, there was no celebration like we won the Super Bowl. We felt excitement and joy and happiness. ... Maybe all of us will appreciate what we’ve done when it’s over.”
And well they should.
• Towson Hall of Fame
On the cover and above: Towson backup QB Connor Frazier squeezes into the end zone for the winning touchdown with 17 seconds remaining in the 2013 FCS semifinal game against Eastern Washington on Dec. 21, 2013. (Courtesy Towson University Archives)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Towson and Tulane
• Tuesday: Tulsa and Union
• Wednesday: Utah Valley and Valparaiso
• Thursday: Vermont and VCU
• Friday: VMI and Western Carolina