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January 19, 2013

CAA Focus: Turning Around The Tigers

It's Sunday morning and I send a direct message via Twitter to Towson athletic director Mike Waddell. It's probably not the most conventional way to request a five-minute interview that will turn into a half-hour, but Waddell isn't the most conventional A.D.

Minutes later, Waddell messages back: "Call Now," along with his cell phone number. And seconds later, another message: "6 minutes response time. Lol."

Think of Waddell as a first-responder -- the fire-truck bowling down the street, sirens blaring, a crisis to confront. His emergency here is public relations. The most accessible athletic director in Division I athletics -- unofficially, at least -- lives to market the once-sorry program that he's helping turn around in a blink.

His impact since taking over Towson athletics in Sept. 2010 is far-reaching, but let's just focus on basketball, which, as he notes, is "the one sport that can be a revenue generator" in the Colonial Athletic Association.

After a 26-point win over James Madison on Saturday, Towson is 10-9 and 4-1 in the CAA. The school hasn't had a winning record this late in the season since 1999-2000, which, technically, is last century. Bill Clinton was still in the Oval Office, not at the Golden Globes.

The Tigers are not eligible for the CAA tournament or any postseason play this season because of academic sanctions which go back to the previous regime. It's a shame too, because Towson could be one of the best stories in college basketball.

After a 1-31 season, the Tigers are a top team in the weakened CAA. Who knows if they'd win the league title, but CBS would practically explode if it had the chance to craft one of those feel-good segments you see every March. Inevitably, that segment would have to start with the vision of Waddell.

Following the 15th consecutive losing season for Towson hoops, Waddell, who previously worked in the athletic department at Cincinnati, said goodbye to coach Pat Kennedy. He looked across Towson athletics, at the coaches in charge of the sports that were succeeding, and aimed to fill the men's basketball opening with a gritty, like-minded candidate.

"Who are we going to bring in who can grind the way these people grind?" Waddell asked himself.

The A.D. says the first person on his wish list was Pat Skerry, then an assistant from Jamie Dixon's staff at Pittsburgh. Skerry grew up just outside of Boston and has the hearty accent to prove it. More importantly, he expected success and knew it would take a yeoman's effort. Waddell hired Skerry, who hopped into a kitchen lacking any utensils last season. Year 1 was an expected disaster, but Skerry has quickly brought in enough talent -- including three Big East transfers -- to now compete.

The roster isn't home grown, but it looks scary good for the future. Barring the unforeseen, only fifth-leading scorer Bilal Dixon will be gone next year, which could be a new era for Towson basketball. In addition to boasting a deep roster featuring do-everything forward Jerrelle Benimon and flourishing guard Jerome Hairston, Towson will open a sparkling 5,200-seat arena, it will be eligible again for postseason competition, and it will have the CAA tournament in its backyard for the first time.

George Mason, Delaware and Drexel will again be among the favorites to win the CAA next year, but Towson will be more than just a darkhorse pick to claim its first Colonial title, at First Mariner Bank Arena in Baltimore.

Exciting stuff for Towson, but it's still all part of a process. The Tigers, fresh off a miserable year, are averaging just 1,430 fans per home game -- the second lowest mark in the CAA (in front of only Georgia State). That number is "not where it needs to be," Skerry said.

Waddell believes there's an opening for Baltimore fans -- between the end of the Ravens' season and the beginning of the Orioles' -- to become addicted to Towson hoops. The new arena will certainly help test that theory.

Skerry and Waddell are similar in that they both have unwavering confidence and the willingness to dissect why something can work rather than why it hasn't in the past.

They're also quite different, and that goes beyond their rooting interests for the AFC Championship game (Waddell a Ravens fan, will watch the game at the home of the Skerry's, who are pro-Patriots).

Skerry tries to win each day as it comes. He said players don't even know who's on the schedule past the next game.

Waddell -- who once scheduled a two-for-one series against Oregon State so that Towson could host President Obama, the brother-in-law of Beavers coach Craig Robinson -- worries more about the big picture.

"He's an animal," Skerry said of Waddell. "I'm a day-by-day-guy."

On Sunday morning, after 12 tweets promoting Towson athletics, Waddell writes:

"Just watched this segment from @60Minutes on the ascent of rock climber Alex Honnold - All I can type is "Wow" #unreal."

Honnold is a free solo climber, which means that he scales steep rocks without ropes or harnesses or any protective instruments that will prevent him from falling to his death.

When I reach Waddell on the phone that morning, he immediately brings up the 60 Minutes segment on Honnold.

"There's nothing in my life that I will ever be that good at," Waddell says.

Maybe nothing so skill-driven and tangible, but he and Skerry are doing just fine climbing their own steep battle.


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