- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

WEST POINT, N.Y. — Two years ago Bobby Ross had it made, living the good life in his native Virginia.

“It was nice,” said Ross, who in 2000 resigned as vice president and coach of the Detroit Lions. “I was head of my church board, I was on the executive board of my high school, I delivered Meals on Wheels, I took cancer patients to Roanoke. I stayed busy, I really did.”

After more than four decades as a coach, however, Ross itched to get back in. Army offered him the head job in December 2003, and he accepted the challenge of righting a once-proud program gone horribly wrong.

So bad were the Black Knights that when Ross won two games in 2004 it was considered progress. Army started this season 0-6, but the Cadets have won four straight since and the losing atmosphere that has hovered like a black cloud over West Point appears to be lifting as the team heads into Saturday’s game against Navy at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.

“Winning at West Point is a huge factor, and I’ve said this to my team: I don’t think Dallas is America’s team, I think we are,” Ross said. “You know why? Because I think we touch more people nationally. We touch every troop in the United States Army and every base in the United States and in foreign countries. It is important for us to win. That’s representative of what this school stands for when it comes down to fighting a war.

“I think I have a pretty important job, and I like the challenge of it.”

During his long career Ross has excelled at rebuilding struggling programs.

When he became coach at Georgia Tech in 1987, Ross inherited a team that had won just five of its previous 25 games. Three years later, the Yellow Jackets were the only undefeated team in the nation at 11-0-1, and he was named national coach of the year.

Ross also led Maryland to three ACC titles and four bowl games, guided the San Diego Chargers to their only Super Bowl (1994) and twice coached the Lions to the playoffs. But he had never encountered a team as bad off as Army.

West Point fired coach Todd Berry in October 2003 after Army lost its first six games. Berry left with a 5-35 record over four-plus seasons, and little changed after defensive coordinator John Mumford took over as interim coach. The Black Knights lost their final seven games that season to become the only NCAA team ever to finish 0-13.

Ross, who turns 69 in December, was undeterred.

“I moved right in, didn’t blink an eye,” he said.

The first step in the right direction came against Cincinnati at Michie Stadium last season, when Army won 48-29 to break a 19-game losing streak.

“It was amazing,” tight end Jared Ulekowski said. “It gave us all energy, it gave us hope.”

The next week, Army beat South Florida 42-35 on the road for its first two-game winning streak in seven seasons.

“He’s made a huge difference,” tailback Carlton Jones said. “He’s made everyone’s attitudes and beliefs that we could win, that we could do it.”

Though the Black Knights went on to lose to both Air Force and Navy, the seeds of optimism had been planted and they weren’t uprooted when Army started slowly this year.

“We were making progress. We weren’t seeing it in the won-loss column, but our players saw it,” Ross said. “You’ve got to have a group of guys to buy into that and stick with it, have a degree of determination and perseverance.”

Home losses to then-No. 22 Iowa State and Central Michigan, both of which rallied in the fourth quarter to win by a combined 11 points, had the Black Knights down but far from out in their first season back as an independent after seven seasons in Conference USA.

“It’s been tough because he hates to lose more than anybody else that I have ever known,” said Kevin Ross, Bobby’s son and running backs coach. “Those six games were rough. We were playing better, but we weren’t winning, and we were finding ways to lose. But he didn’t lose hope.”

Everything finally clicked at Akron in a 20-0 shutout of the Zips. It was Army’s first road shutout since 1968 and showcased a vastly improved defense. Last year Army ranked last in the nation total defense (490 yards a game). The Black Knights currently rank 28th in total defense, allowing 328 yards a game.

Army followed with a 27-24 victory at Air Force, its first road win in the series since 1977. The ecstasy of the moment prompted a contingent of cadets to unbolt one of the goal posts at Michie Stadium, autograph it and place it on the front lawn of Lt. Gen. William J. Lennox, the academy superintendent.

The winning streak reached four games last week with a 38-10 victory against Arkansas State, Ross’ 100th college win. Now the trick is to beat Navy.

“That Air Force victory was a great victory — it’s going to be a landmark victory,” said 79-year-old Joe Steffy, a former team captain and winner of the 1947 Outland Trophy as the nation’s outstanding lineman. “The whole thing is, though, can we beat Navy? We beat Air Force, that’s fine, but the season will fall short if we don’t beat Navy.”

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