by F.T. Rea (Sept. 2004 issue of FiftyPlus)
Fresh out of Virginia Military Institute, Bobby Ross took on his first mission as a football coach in 1959. Benedictine High School’s dynamic athletic director, Warren Rutledge, hired the 22-year-old Ross coming off of a stellar athletic career at Benedictine and VMI. Now, forty-five years later, it seems the last mission of Ross’ distinguished coaching career -- which includes a college national championship and a trip to the Super Bowl -- will be to restore a measure of dignity to the pigskin program at the United States Military Academy.
Ross’ predecessor at West Point, Todd Berry, posted a 5-42 record before he was mercifully relieved of command in the midst of last season, a campaign in which Army eventually lost all thirteen of its scheduled games
Ross, at 67, obviously has his work cut out for him.
Some say this mission can’t be accomplished in the money-driven, brave new world of so-called amateur sports. How can he attract today’s top athletes to such an academically challenging institution, with a five-year military commitment in a time of war to follow? Others suggest that Ross, himself, is simply out-of-date.
Fine: Coach Ross is at ease operating as the underdog. Yes, and looking beyond the “0-13” and the “67,” Ross and West Point seem to be a perfect fit in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, right now they need one another.
The search committee that lured Ross out of retirement knew that its situation called for more than just a smart, tough-minded football coach. It cried out for a man who understood the Academy’s military-based system, who could hit the ground running. Having worn the cadet uniforms of both Benedictine and VMI, and coached at The Citadel, Ross certainly knows his way around a cadet corps.
Thus, with a natural grasp of the importance of tradition at West Point, Ross is accentuating the positive. “Coaching at a place like this,” he said, “is college football in its purest form. No compromises are made here.”
Ross’ most recent stint as a head coach was in the National Football League with the Detroit Lions. Two-thirds of the way through the 2000 season, his fourth in Detroit, Ross announced he was stepping down, due to mounting health concerns. Cynics assumed he was burned out. Truth be told, his decision was precipitated by the reappearance of painful blood clots in his right leg (his father had suffered from similar problems, and eventually lost both of his legs).
Why did a man who shouldn’t have anything to prove come out of a comfortable retirement? With a clarity that might well flow from being accustomed to fielding the same questions repeatedly, Ross answered politely: “I felt like I had a lot of energy. Then the competitive instincts were returning.”
When Ross speaks of football, his voice reveals little about his state of mind. It’s his business, after all, and he sounds much like the thoughtful professional. On the other hand, when he talks about Chiocca’s, a restaurant in Richmond’s Benedictine neighborhood -- “The best roast beef sandwich I've ever had!” -- or afternoon walks through the same neighborhood, where his wife grew up, or when he reminisces about old ballfields such as Hotchkiss, near where he grew up, and the diamond in Byrd Park where Benedictine used to play its home games, his warmth for his hometown is unrestrained
“I love Richmond,” said Ross, with his unchanged Richmond accent. “It's my home, and always will be.”
Ross and his wife, Alice, have five children and fifteen grandchildren. His son Kevin, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1988, is now on his father’s staff, serving as Army’s offensive coordinator.
Asked about Bobby Ross, Benedictine's current athletic director, Barry Gibrall, pointed out that Ross has often helped the school, sometimes under a veil of anonymity. While he was serving on the school’s Board of Trustees, for instance, Ross noticed the Cadets football uniforms weren’t all precisely the same shade of green. Ross fixed it, but typically, he wanted no credit.
"The new renovations, state-of-the-art locker room and weight room, are a direct result of Coach Ross’ generosity,” Gibrall added. “He tears up when he remembers where he came from. He’s a Highland Park guy who has gone far. He doesn’t forget it.”
In recognition of this strong bond, last May Benedictine named its Goochland County football field Robert J. “Bobby” Ross Stadium. Gibrall said that Ross was surprised and characteristically humble about the announcement, saying he didn’t deserve it.
Gibrall, who played his football at Benedictine in the early-sixties, chuckled. “No one deserves it more! His name was the only one that came up.”
“He’s the greatest human being I've known in my life,” said Johnny Siewers, who played on the Benedictine basketball team with Ross for two seasons. “He never did anything wrong.”
Siewers, who keeps regular office hours at his family’s business, Siewers Lumber, recalled what an outstanding athlete his friend was in high school. Ross was named to All-City teams in football (as quarterback), basketball (as point guard) and baseball (as shortstop), according to Siewers. “He was quiet, had a lot of natural ability, desire, and heart, but he was injury-prone because he played too hard.”
Ross remains close with Siewers and several other men with whom he played sports as a boy. A group of them meets every July Fourth at Siewers’ place on the York River. And, when Ross coached the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, he invited six of his old Richmond pals, along with their wives, to the game.
In 1959 Ross married his high school sweetheart and graduated from VMI with a bachelor of arts degree. Following that one-season stint at Benedictine the same year, he left Richmond to serve his active-duty obligation as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. As it was during the Berlin Wall crisis, the six-month active-duty-option that might have been available was not, so coaching football had to wait.
Once his U.S. Army duty was done in 1962, Ross wrote every school system in Virginia asking for a job coaching high school football. He landed on his feet in Colonial Heights. And in 1965, his first assistant’s job at the collegiate level took him back to VMI. Ross’ other stops as an assistant coach at the college level were at The College of William & Mary, Rice University (in Houston, Texas), and the University of Maryland.
Ross’ first college head coaching job was at The Citadel, where he stayed for five seasons (1973-77). While he didn’t post a winning record (24-31-0) there, Ross took advantage of his first opportunity to be the boss by hiring an amazingly bright group of young assistants. Included on that list are no less than five current head coaches of note: Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech), Sylvester Crooms (Mississippi State), Ralph Friedgen (Maryland), Jimmye Laycock (William & Mary) and Cal McCombs (VMI).
“I had him [Ross] as a position-coach as a player,” said Laycock, referring to when he played football at William & Mary in the late-sixties. About his tenure as an assistant coach under Ross, Laycock added, “He gave me a tremendous break and a tremendous foundation, as far as how to be a coach. Bobby Ross is a great person to talk with, and emulate. I never hesitate to call him.”
Beamer recalled a particular day at The Citadel: “During one meeting, I remember going over how we were going to play a pass coverage. I was talking about it in general terms. Coach Ross said, ‘Let’s stop and when you come back this afternoon let’s be very specific. Exactly how many yards off hash are you going to be?’ From that time on, I learned you take care of all the details in coaching, and he does that very well.”
Ross left The Citadel in 1978 to spend four years as an assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs, then returned to college football to become head coach at Maryland. Ross subsequently led the Terrapins to three consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championships (1983-85). In 1986 he took charge of Georgia Tech’s program. Four years later the Yellow Jackets were co-national champions.
Moving back to the NFL in 1992, Ross retooled the perennial also-ran San Diego Chargers, leading them to Super Bowl XXIX, the only NFL championship appearance in franchise history. In 1997 he left San Diego, rather than cave in to management’s wishes and fire four of his assistant coaches.
Ross injected, “I didn’t feel it was justified. It was in my contract to have say-so over hiring and firing. I've only fired one coach in my life.”
Three years of retirement in Lexington, Virginia, however, had Ross thinking about getting back into the game. Then his name surfaced as a possible candidate for the head coaching job at Duke. As treatment had his health problem under control his wife encouraged him to consider a comeback. When the West Point possibility opened up, her enthusiasm for that opportunity weighed on his decision.
On December, 9, 2003, USMA officials announced that Bobby Ross had accepted an offer to become Army’s 34th head football coach. He inked a pact that purportedly pays him over $600,000 per year, almost three times what former coach Berry is said to have earned. Interestingly, the money was put together by the Association of Graduates, an alumni group, which means that Ross is officially an independent contractor being paid by private donations.
To this new mission Ross takes with him a well-honed gift for leadership that apparently has always been there. Even in grade school, it’s said, he was the leader of the pack, a sentiment echoed by Johnny Siewers: “His success in coaching, everywhere he’s been, is based on his being able to take the best players and make leaders out of them.”
“Bobby Ross is a successful coach because he is very detailed,” said Beamer, “he’s very knowledgeable, and he cares a lot about his players and coaches.”
Laughing off a question about goals for Army this season, Ross deadpanned, “Our program lost by 20.76 points per game [last year], we’ve got to get so we lose better.” Then he added, “We’ve got to get some wins.”
“I'm so glad he’s back,” said Laycock. “He’s straightforward; we need people like him in coaching.”
Wearing a favorite shirt, one that pays tribute to the late Warren Rutledge’s 949 basketball wins at Benedictine, the ever-loyal Ross said with sincerity, “Warren was a great man to work for, and with.”
Ross had seventy-five freshmen turn out in perfect weather for the first official football practice on August 9 at Howze Field. Army may have been humiliated in its last game (Navy 34, Army 6), but a new enthusiasm for football appears to be taking root along the banks of the Hudson River - which can’t come as much of a surprise to his colleagues, Laycock and Beamer, or any of Ross’ old teammates at Benedictine.