- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

WEST POINT, N.Y. — Maryland football fans remember Bobby Ross authored one of the biggest comebacks in college football history when his Terrapins erased a 31-point halftime deficit and beat Miami 42-40 in 1984.

Twenty years later, Ross is attempting another unlikely comeback, which, if successful, would make the Miami miracle look minor.

It wasn’t surprising that Ross, who coached Georgia Tech to a co-national championship and the San Diego Chargers to their only Super Bowl appearance, came out of retirement in December. What is surprising is where the 67-year-old landed — on the banks of the Hudson River at the U.S. Military Academy.

Ross was brought to Army to resurrect the once proud Black Knights program. Army won national titles in 1944, 1945 and 1946 but in recent years has faltered, putting together just one winning season in the last 10. In an era of football as big business, Army’s talent level diminished. Skilled players turned away from the school because they didn’t have the grades or the desire to deal with a military commitment that would delay their entrance to the next level.

“We’re the nation’s team,” said Ross, a former Army officer who attended Virginia Military Institute. “Especially in light of current [world] events, I think it is very important that we are competitive. It’s our avocation to be competitive.”

Ross is determined to prove Army can win in today’s athletic environment. And Ross, who retired from the Detroit Lions in the middle of the 2000 season, is willing to risk his impressive legacy to make Army relevant again.

“It could happen right away — it may not,” said Ross, who gets into the office before 6 a.m. to start his 17-hour workday. “Coaching-wise, I am approaching things pretty much the same. When I came back, my wife [Alice] said, ‘You have to learn to pace yourself.’ I am not doing that.”

One thing is for sure: The turnaround won’t be right away. No. 24 Louisville spoiled Ross’ return with a 52-21 win Saturday at Michie Stadium, the historic field where the Black Knights have not won in nearly three years. The loss left Army’s losing streak at 16, the longest in Division I-A.

“I don’t like the way we got beat,” Ross said. “But we are going to go out, start to work and get better.”

That might have to wait until next year. Army will have an easier schedule after it leaves Conference USA and regains its independent status, playing more academic-oriented programs.

• • •

Ross is unfazed by the task at hand. At a recent practice in the shadow of Michie, the stocky Southern gentleman walked around in circles as he surveyed his team from the middle of the practice field. The bespectacled Ross, looking like a cross between Lou Holtz and Thurston Howell III, spun around constantly, watched each corner of the practice field, made mental notes and nervously crumpled a piece of paper he held that had the plans of that day’s practice.

“Legacy and past records mean nothing to me,” said Ross, who led the Chargers to three playoff appearances and the Lions to two. “Really, I don’t care. I just want to coach, work with young people and compete.

“This is the same as if I was coaching at Maryland or Georgia Tech,” said Ross, whose coaching disciples include Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen, Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer and Central Florida’s George O’Leary. “I love the competition and the competitiveness of game day.”

Of course Ross, as always, refuses to rest on his past accomplishments, something he made clear to his players right away.

“He told me when I came up here in February to sign that ‘I wouldn’t come out of retirement if I didn’t think we could win,’” said Mike Viti, a freshman fullback. “I think that says a lot of a person who won a national championship in college and went to the Super Bowl. He feels he can win, or he wouldn’t be wasting his time. He is really putting his image on the line more than anything. It says a lot about a guy coming out of retirement wanting to turn this place around. In the back of his mind, he knows he will.”

• • •

Ross retired from a 5-4 Lions team in midseason nearly four years ago after two blood clots were discovered in his right leg. It was widely reported he stepped down because he was burned out.

Doctors were particularly concerned about the blood clot above his knee. Ross watched his father lose both legs because of circulation problems and chose an abrupt retirement rather than risk his health.

“I wasn’t forced out,” he said. “I took myself out. It was premature. I think I had good reason. I had been in the hospital for five days. I was worried about it. The biggest thing was my dad. He lost both legs. I got a little worried about it. I really did. I would admit I don’t think resigning was the right thing to do.”

The coach returned to his hometown of Lexington, Va. He helped out in the athletic departments of VMI, where he once was a quarterback and safety, and his old high school. Ross drove cancer patients to chemotherapy and volunteered at his church.

But on Thursday nights in the offseason he found himself coaching again, even though he didn’t have a team. Ross’ son, Kevin, was an assistant at Virginia, and the two of them broke down video of the Cavaliers. The tutoring session often concluded around midnight.

“I figured [staying retired] was a done deal until we started watching film together and I saw the fire in his gut,” said Kevin, who is Army’s offensive coordinator.

The old coach felt healthy enough a year ago to return.

“I felt like I had more energy to do things,” Ross said. “And why shouldn’t I? It wasn’t a thing of, ‘Well, I’m not going to give in to age.’ Not at all. I just felt good. … I talked to my wife about it. She said, ‘Let’s wait and see what happens.’ I said, ‘I do have an interest, but I don’t think there is much chance.’ I really didn’t because of my age. I said, ‘There is probably a 5 percent chance.’”

The dream seemed to end when he interviewed for the Duke job but failed to get it. But after former Nebraska coach Frank Solich reportedly accepted the Army job, then changed his mind, Ross received a call from Army athletic director and Maryland graduate Rick Greenspan. It didn’t take Greenspan, who has since left for Indiana, long to find out how Ross felt.

On Dec. 9, Ross became Army’s 34th football coach.

It was somewhat of a full circle for Ross. His first coaching job was at The Citadel, and his latest is at another military academy. Ross has his share of military connections. The 1959 VMI grad served as a first lieutenant in the Army in Germany in the early 1960s. Kevin is a Naval Academy graduate and veteran of Desert Storm. Another son, Chris, went to the Air Force Academy.

• • •

Army, like other service academies, has an uphill climb in football. Many top high school players don’t have the grades, and if they do, the mention of a five-year post-graduate commitment to active duty usually scares them off.

Other coaches have to deal with negative recruiting from rival schools. Ross has to compete against Iraq.

“I had one school that cited statistics that soldiers in Iraq were about 70 percent of the armed forces stationed there,” Ross said. “My response to that to the recruit was, ‘I am proud of that. I am not ashamed of that.’”

Not surprisingly, that player did not come to Army. But other freshmen were sold on Ross and Army. Viti turned down scholarship offers from Maryland and West Virginia. Linebacker Mark Millen, the son of former NFL star linebacker and current Lions president Matt, chose not to follow in his father’s footsteps to Penn State.

“A lot of people told me I was stupid for not going to Penn State,” said Mark Millen, who grew up in Easton, Pa., and dreamed of playing for Joe Paterno. “It takes a different kind of person to come here. … Coach Ross was a big, deciding factor. Just looking at everything he has done, coaching top teams and coaching in the NFL.”

It’s difficult to believe, but Ross has students at a service academy on a more regimented schedule than last year. Weightlifting and attendance at team meals are mandatory. The coach requires the students, when they are on the field, to consider football as seriously as they do academics when they are in the classroom. However, Ross sympathizes with his players and in turn shortens practices when he notices players need a break.

“He doesn’t even act like he is 67,” said Adam Wojcik, a senior guard. “He acts like he is one of us. To see somebody out there with that kind of passion, it is really an inspiration to us. I am ready to go out and win. I know he has been successful. I want him to make us successful.”

But in the case of Bobby Ross, it’s just one more comeback.

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