As some sports fans might know, Ross, who is from Richmond, is a much beloved figure in Virginia and in the college coaching ranks. I interviewed him just before his first season at West Point was to start. Ross was enthusiastic about returning to coaching, but he knew his job at Army would not be an easy one. Anyone who knows him will tell you he did his best; he always did.
From Benedictine to West Point
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 Others suggest that Ross, himself, is simply out-of-date.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.”
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