- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2008

Bobby Ross is the last coach to take the Detroit Lions to the playoffs and the only coach to take the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl. His Maryland teams won three ACC championships in five seasons, and he won a share of the national championship at Georgia Tech.

As part of his rich legacy in both college and professional football, Ross also left an item of current significance: He hired Jim Zorn as quarterbacks coach in Detroit in 1998, giving Zorn his first chance to coach for real in the NFL.

A decade later, Zorn has led the Washington Redskins to a 6-3 record in his first year as a head coach. He had never been a head coach at any level nor an NFL coordinator, though the Redskins hired him for that job before promoting him in a move that caught many off-guard, including Ross.

“I was surprised when he got the job,” Ross said from his home in Lexington, Va. “But so was everyone else. When he was hired as offensive coordinator, that didn’t surprise me. I thought he was that type of material.”

Ross, who retired in 2007 after going 9-25 in three seasons at Army, still follows the game closely from his home and spends his Saturdays as a college analyst for Westwood One radio.

“He hasn’t changed,” Ross said of Zorn. “He’s doing a great job.”


Zorn, who had extensive college experience, spent a season as a self-described “offensive assistant” with the Seattle Seahawks the year before joining the Lions. He had assorted low-level duties, including snapping the ball during practice and transferring plays to the computer, but never did any actual coaching.

“I didn’t have a position,” Zorn said. “I was in the quarterback room saying nothing. I was in there as kind of a detail or moral support kind of guy. But I didn’t have any authority. I did all the elementary things needed to make practice go well for the quarterbacks.”

He did much more than that with the Lions.

“I thought Jim was smart,” Ross said. “Jim was - I don’t want to say upbeat - but always positive. He came in with that attitude and enjoyed the work. I think he’s passed that on to his players.”

But not everyone responded to Zorn, notably Scott Mitchell, the incumbent starting quarterback. Ross said one reason he hired Zorn was that both he and Mitchell were left-handed. But Ross changed the offense after replacing Wayne Fontes in 1997, and it did not suit Mitchell, who made no secret of his feelings. The relationship between Ross and Mitchell had worn thin, and Zorn’s presence didn’t fix that.

Mitchell, now a high school coach in Utah, laughed when asked about Zorn and would not speak on the record except to acknowledge that the two had “personal and philosophical” differences. Zorn agreed with that assessment and did not elaborate.

After an especially poor game in early in the 1998 season, Ross benched Mitchell and replaced him with rookie Charlie Batch.

“As a pure passer, Scott was very good,” Ross said. “He was a big, strong guy. But he’d have a bad play or two and things would stop.

“We started the season poorly, and he threw three or four interceptions he shouldn’t have thrown, and there was some disenchantment in the locker room. I don’t make a decision based on that, but we weren’t doing well, and it was time to take a look at the other guy.”

Zorn worked closely with Batch, who ended the season with the fourth-highest efficiency rating of any rookie quarterback. But Batch was injury prone. Even now, he’s on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ injured reserve list after suffering a broken collarbone.

“He’s an excellent quarterback,” Zorn said. “But his biggest downfall was his bones were brittle.”

Tutoring Batch and the other Lions quarterbacks, Zorn introduced some of his unique drills to the NFL. One was the famed slip-and-slide drill, which was inspired by Zorn’s friend Frank Tanana, a former major league pitcher.

“He would do things a little differently,” Ross said. “But I liked him. I thought his drills had a carryover to game-type situations. I think at first, some thought that at the pro level they didn’t want to do that stuff. To me, it had great merit.”

The problems with Mitchell notwithstanding, Ross said he also liked the way Zorn communicated with the quarterbacks.

“He was constantly talking to ‘em,” he said. “There wasn’t a letup. You could tell he was trying to get into their minds. Not just techniquewise and fundamentally, but the mental aspect of the game. He was very good at that. He worked hard at the psychology of it, and I like that.”

In January 2000, Lions offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom became seriously ill the night before a road game against Minnesota. Croom, who was briefly hospitalized, went to the stadium the next day, but his conditioned worsened. Ross told Zorn to call the plays in place of Croom, his first NFL playcalling experience. The Lions lost 24-17, but Zorn stuck to the game plan, maintained his cool and acquitted himself well.

“Jim was always a guy who wanted to please, and I think he did a heck of a job,” Ross said. “Very smooth, no real bad situations. He did a good job, and he’s doing a good job with the Redskins.”

Ross knew little of Zorn when he was looking to replace Marc Trestman, his previous quarterbacks coach, though he was familiar with Zorn as a player from when he worked as Marv Levy’s assistant in Kansas City from 1978 to 1981.

“We used to play them, and I remember him being a pretty good player most of all - a guy who could run as well as throw,” Ross said.

Zorn’s playing experience “gave him instant credibility,” Ross said. Being left-handed helped, as did a strong recommendation from former Lions assistant Larry Peccatiello. Best known to Redskins fans as a member of Joe Gibbs’ staff during the Super Bowl years, Peccatiello was an assistant in Seattle when Zorn played there.

“As a coach watching players, you can always pick up on the intangibles,” Peccatiello said. “Their work ethic, their preparation, their character, their competitiveness. I had to give Jim a check mark in all those areas.”

Ross’ most vivid memory of Zorn’s job interview was when he produced a large photograph of his wife and children.

“He was the first guy I have had come in who brought a picture of his family,” Ross said. “That was important.”

Zorn isn’t the only member of the Redskins’ staff with connections to Ross. Special teams coach Danny Smith was an assistant under Ross at Georgia Tech and Detroit. And in his first head coaching job at The Citadel, Ross and assistant Ralph Friedgen (now Maryland’s coach) recruited Stump Mitchell, Zorn’s running backs coach.

“Stump used to tell me he was the best back we had,” Ross recalled. “And he was right.”

Ross, who took the Lions to their last playoff appearance in 1999, resigned during the 2000 season because of health issues and frustrations with the job. Gary Moeller became the interim coach, and then Marty Mornhinweg was hired full time. Zorn was out of work but only temporarily. He returned to Seattle the next season as quarterbacks coach, a position he held until coming to the Redskins.

“To sum it up, he wasn’t your standard NFL football coach,” Ross said. “He was a little different, but I say that in a positive way. … I remember once he talked to me about dealing with the media, and I said: ‘Jim, you don’t need anything from me. You’re doing fine. Keep being what you are. Be yourself.’”

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