On his birthday, Dec. 23, 1971, Bobby Ross was selling Rice University football in the Houston living room of an oversized lineman, Glenn Bujnoch, now on strike from the Cincinnati Bengals. A television was on nearby, but nobody paid much attention until a breathless bulletin reported:

"Bill Peterson Accepts Houston Oiler Job."

The color instantly drained from Ross, although he stayed as calm as a man can who has just has his career blindsided.

"I think," he said, turning back to Bujnoch, "I've just become unemployed."

From tea time Saturday on, there has been no more joyous, no more secure, no more suddenly famous college football coach in America than Bobby Ross. Running all over 10th-rated North Carolina in Chapel Hill, for Maryland's sixth straight victory, will do that.

"Bobby Ross! Congratulations," yelled a hacker from the tennis courts near Cole Field House when Ross arrived at midmorning yesterday from taping his television show. "Keep it going."

"Thanks, try to," Ross said.

He had celebrated alone.

"Propped up my feet and rested," he said. "By the time my son (who had ridden home in the Terrapin equipment truck) got home I was in bed. My wife and the other kids (except for Chris, a student at the Air Force Academy) had driven down and didn't get back until early today.

"Tell you the truth, it was a great win but I wasn't ready to celebrate."

Last week had been his first in the big-game spotlight, with reporters yipping at his heels, alums and other fans even more intent than usual.

"Hectic," he admitted. "I've really gotten tired because of it."

Success means even fewer free moments, and Ross hardly is complaining. Up at 6:15 a.m. yesterday, off to church, then looking back for television and later ahead to Miami for the players.

"I'm not one to burn the midnight oil," he said, "so I like to start early and get home by 11, if I can."

That's 11 p.m.

Football coaches talk casually about 17-hour bursts each day, because they really are routine in season. Having been hired late to replace Jerry Claiborne, Ross has been fighting time at Maryland even longer. With a pro background the last few years, he was not totally certain how to judge either players on hand or recruits quickly signed.

"Some other programs a coach leaves decimated," he said, "but from Day One I knew that wasn't the case here. He left us some good players. A fine senior class. Good leadership, wonderful work habits."

Interestingly, Claiborne hired Ross after he lost that assistant's job at Rice. Claiborne also left a warm note for Ross on the plane both Maryland and Kentucky chartered to get to games last Saturday. Claiborne is 0-7-1, Ross 6-2, with Maryland certain to crack the polls.

"Going into the season," he said, "I felt one thing: we might have a chance to be a better team, but that might not be reflected in the won-lost record. We could even be worse (than the 4-6-1 record under Claiborne). That was a distinct possibility because of our schedule."

Everyone knew about the five games against top 20 teams, Penn State and West Virginia early and Carolina, Miami and Clemson late. Ross fretted about the middle of the schedule.

"Syracuse walloped Rutgers (in its season opener)," Ross recalled, "and Duke beat Tennessee (in Knoxville). N. C. State started 3-0. I had one pro scout tell me State was every bit as good as West Virginia. I really didn't know.

"All I could do was stay in tune with preparation each week and see what happened. It was a little scary."

What happened was a little miracle.

Players a lot better than few outside the team imagined, inventive and bold strategy before and during games are responsible. That and luck at just the right times.

Saturday with about five minutes in the first half, a kind grid goddess all but glided into Kenan Stadium and planted a team kiss on Maryland. About midfield, Boomer Esiason was clobbered by William Fuller and fumbled, the ball rolling and rolling toward the Maryland end zone.

To just about everyone in the stadium, Carolina's Steve Fortson recovered. He was nearest the ball, seemed to have it cradled to his chest about the Maryland 30. Carolina was up, 14-10, at the time. Terrapin fans had ugly visions of it being 21-10 very quickly.

From across the field, Ross was the first to see hope.

"I saw it pop out of his hands," Ross said. "I saw that. I didn't see who got it for us (films showed fullback Dave D'Addio the hero), but I'm thankful. Yeah, I figured 96 (Fortson) couldn't miss getting it either."

Had the worst happened, Fortson recovering and Carolina dashing in for a touchdown, Maryland would have been forced to do what Ross knew was impossible: win by passing.

"We didn't want to get into totally passing," he said, "but we thought it might come to that because Carolina is that good a team. But everyone who threw and threw on 'em had problems, because they're so quick."

Behind by just four points instead of 11, Ross preached run at halftime. And Maryland ran. Time after time, Tar Heel defenders rated the best in the country against the run looked like football heels.

"Can you imagine?" Ross said, still dazzled, "drives of 80, 80 and 93 yards? Three plays each? And never throwing the ball once? Never saw anything like it."

Behind the wheel on the Beltway, Ross once again saw Willie Joyner breaking free of Carolina tacklers and said: "Sometimes in a hard-hitting game like that you'll see sloppy tackling. Guys will hit hard, but they won't lock on."

The few others working yesterday in the Maryland athletic department were taking more than congratulatory calls. One man wanted to drive from deep in Virginia to buy tickets for the Miami and Clemson games. Slowly, the area is beginning to lock onto Maryland.