Sometimes when Bobby Ross jogs past Terrapin Hall and around McKeldin Library on his daily campus run, his mind wanders back to leaner times; the days when nobody thought of him as an innovator, when he was recruiting against the Vietnam War in trying to persuade kids to come to The Citadel, when his idea of a wide-open offense was a draw play.
So he laughs uncomfortably now and turns red when students wave, when fans ask for his autograph and when better-known coaching colleagues listen to his theories.
"I'm not an expert," Ross said recently. "I don't understand all this, because I've never seen any reason to get real fired up over myself."
On Jan. 14, 1982, Ross was introduced as Maryland's football coach. He said the Terrapins would play wide-open football, something the school hadn't seen in Jerry Claiborne's decade as head coach. The skeptics said they'd heard it all before; they pointed to Ross' 24-31 record in five years at The Citadel, his only head-coaching experience.
Athletic Director Dick Dull, who hired Ross, said, "I knew I was out on a limb. Everybody kept asking me, 'Who's Bobby Ross?' I knew my own career could be affected by the fact that I hired a coach nobody knew."
Twenty months later, after Ross took a program on the downswing upward to 8-4, the limb holding Dull is strong. The Terrapins were ranked in the top 20 in almost every preseason poll. Byrd Stadium will be full this fall and Maryland will be on network television when it opens the season Saturday at Vanderbilt. Said Dull, "I'd have to say Bobby Ross has helped my career."
Ross, 46, is not the least bit complicated.
"He's without much guile," said Marv Levy, former coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and Ross' former boss. In a profession full of men who rule with military intimidation and live by tradition, no matter how out of date, Ross tries to make common-sense decisions. If his logic proves faulty, he'll listen to someone else. Above all, he believes hard work will compensate for shortcomings.
"I carried morning papers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, from 12 years old all the way up to my senior year in high school," Ross said. "I'd get up at 4:30 in the morning to carry my route, and then I had to thumb a ride five miles to high school. Then, I'd thumb home after football practice. In basketball season, we'd practice at night because the girls had the gym in the afternoon. So, I'd thumb home, thumb back to school for basketball practice, then thumb home again.
"My dad worked for the C&O railroad for 52 years. My dad worked hard; he worked a couple of jobs. The thing I remember most about my dad was that he never learned how to drive a car. He used to walk to work every morning, which was about six or seven miles. He'd walk home for supper, and then walk back to another job--Peoples Drug Store--and work from 6 until 10 at night. He worked hard. My mother did, too. She worked at a local drug store. Everybody (four sisters and brothers) worked. It was expected."
Bill Nebraska, Ross' backup at Virginia Military Institute, remembered Ross played quarterback that way, too. "Because of his size (5 feet 10), he had to work extra hard. He wasn't big, but he made the tools work."
After his senior season in 1959 was marred by a broken ankle, Ross found himself graduating with a degree in history and English, but not knowing what to do with his life. "I was ready to go into the army for three years, take a regular commission, and maybe in three years I'd find out what I wanted to do. But one day (VMI) Coach John McKenna called me in his office and asked if I was interested in coaching. There was an opportunity to go back to my old high school (Benedictine in Richmond) and coach, right out of college.
"That thing just got me so excited, that's when I knew, 'This is what I want to do.' I wasn't very well prepared. I understood discipline and all, but I didn't know the first thing about football and my record reflected it, too. I won one, lost eight and tied one that first year."
The next 23 years were one long trip through the coaching netherworld: four years coaching football and baseball at various high schools, four years as an assistant at William and Mary under Levy, one year at Rice, a year at Maryland under Claiborne, five years at The Citadel and four more years under Levy, as a special teams and running backs coach with the Chiefs.
His experience in the NFL (1978-81) led Ross to change his thinking and embrace the theories of multiple sets, balance on offense and the value of keeping the other team guessing.
"For a period of time, I didn't have much appreciation of the pass; I was like Woody Hayes," Ross said. "But in pro football, I learned the passing game and had a chance to study it for four years. It was an area I knew I was weak in when I went there."
At Kansas City, Ross became student as much as coach. "I saw such an equality of talent and realized there are things you really can't control," Ross said recently. "It is a game of strategy and emotion and teamwork, but it's a game you need to study. I became a student. My current philosophy of balance of attack all came from that. Nobody consistently drives the ball down people's throats anymore.
"I'm not a trend-setter; if anything I'm a copier. My philosophies have been gained through the people I've worked with, and clear-out studying. There's nothing I enjoy more than just getting the film, closing the door, turning off the lights and just looking at it."
When Marty Crosby, one of Ross' quarterbacks at The Citadel, saw Maryland play Clemson on television last year, he remembers thinking, " 'Whoo, look at this, they're wide-open now.' I called him once and he told me, 'God, I wish I'd known then what I know now.' I do, too."
Still, the time and work spent on college football's lower rung was hardly wasted. Most important, it taught Ross how to teach football.
At The Citadel (Military College of South Carolina) in the mid-'70s, it was difficult to maintain a level of success because of the antiwar sentiment. Good players got fed up and left. Ross found it was nearly impossible to recruit competitively his first two years there (1973-74).
"I hurt for him. I could see what he was going through," said Stan Brooks, an offensive guard and later graduate assistant coach for Ross at The Citadel. "I was 6 foot, 222 pounds--like most of the other guys, pretty marginal. If we lost, it was always Bobby Ross' fault. We knew it wasn't him, but he always took losing so hard. About 80 percent of the time, we were inferior, especially against teams like Air Force and Clemson. But it never mattered to him. He never played to keep it close."
In Ross' last three years, his teams were 17-16. The Citadel had a first-team all-America for the first time in linebacker Brian Ruff. In 1976, Ross came within 10-7 of Clemson. Later that year, he beat Air Force, 26-7, in Colorado. The Bulldogs had forgotten what they didn't have.
Brooks said, "At The Citadel, he didn't try to trick anybody. We made people beat us. We played much like Clemson does now--no mistakes, no frills."
That, clearly--at least as far as the frills go--is no longer true.
Last year, Maryland gained 2,241 yards rushing, 2,367 passing. It was one of only three schools in the nation that averaged 200 yards per game passing and rushing. "He showed me how much he profited from the sophistication of the pro passing game," said Levy. "I looked eagerly in the paper every Sunday to find the Maryland results."
There is another ingredient in Ross' success that he didn't acquire in Kansas City. He has a rapport with the players that has inspired fierce loyalty. Hardly a day goes by when quarterback Boomer Esiason doesn't say, "I'd die for the man."
Visitors to Maryland practices last year were surprised to find out how much time Ross would take to explain why a pass route should be run; why offensive linemen should come up, then out with their arms. "I want them to understand why," Ross said. "I'm still the authority figure. But I just don't believe any longer in, 'Damn it, you do it or else.' Youngsters are smarter than that."
So far, it's a success story some might not believe. Bright, honest, clean-living family man climbs out of relative obscurity and makes it in the big time. Somewhere, there are still skeptics, saying, "If this guy is so good, why did he take so long to surface?"
Dull said, "I think a lot of people (athletic directors) are too caught up in names. There are a lot of bad coaches with decent won-lost records. They happen to be in situations which allow them to succeed in spite of themselves. Bobby's always been in situations without much talent, but I knew he had integrity and high character from the beginning . . ."
McKenna, the man Ross still admires nearly as much as his own father, said, "I am as high on Bobby as he is on me. I know it seems like everybody is painting a rosy picture of Bobby. It's pretty hard to go through life without rubbing somebody the wrong way, and there are probably some instances where he did. I just don't know of them."
Strangely enough, the biggest problem Bobby Ross has going into his second season at Maryland is last year's success. "He succeeded beyond what I thought was realistic," said Levy.
"We talked on the phone before last fall," said McKenna. "He said he didn't feel he had outstanding material, but he'd make the kids toe the mark, buckle down. A team can never go beyond its potential, but I believe that team reached its potential. He got as much out of that team as anybody in the business could have."
And so, there are giant expectations. People don't know Maryland's defense had to be rebuilt. They just know Ross worked a miracle last year, so why not this year, too?
"All of us have such a high level of excitement," said Dull, "that Chancellor John Slaughter asked me to get Bobby and talk to him (about the pressure of the upcoming season). People like me, talking about the Orange Bowl, might be putting too much pressure on him."
During those daily runs across campus that he finds so necessary, Ross is preparing himself for those expectations.
"My whole life, other than my family and, of course, my players, is locked into winning. I want to win. And if I win, I don't need anything else. That satisfies me. I know we've got to go out and do it again this year. And we may fall flat on our faces. I do know that the only thing I'm comfortable with, whether I win or whether I lose, is to get back to work and prepare for the next one. I just don't know any other way."