Bobby Ross is entering his third season as football coach at Maryland, yet he still can walk into the student union on campus and go almost unrecognized.
On his way out of Cole Field House one day recently, a student -- a Maryland senior, in fact -- wandered over to find out if Ross might be basketball Coach Lefty Driesell's new assistant. One of Ross' daughters picked up a recent issue of Washingtonian magazine and turned to the page with a listing of the five most popular coaches in this area. She said, "Daddy, your name isn't even in the top five."
Ross said he smiled and replied, "Good."
"I don't need the adulation," he said. "I don't know why I don't like recognition. I guess I'm just embarrassed by it. Not being recognized, some people might relate that as a sign that football isn't popular at Maryland. But the only satisfaction I need is to win. I'm only as popular as my last game."
From all indications, Ross has halted whatever slippage had occurred in a program that was 4-6-1 in Jerry Claiborne's final season. In Ross' first two years, the Terrapins have a 16-6 regular season record, an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and two bowl appearances.
People said the Terrapins never beat the big-time teams; in Ross' two seasons they have beaten North Carolina twice, Pitt and Miami. Home attendance is up approximately 16,000 per game. Dick Dull, Maryland's athletic director, worries every day that some school with a big budget will sneak in and steal his football coach.
If anonymity were Ross' biggest problem, he'd be delighted. Right now, with a season opener against Syracuse Saturday in College Park, he is more concerned about how to move the program from bowl team to bowl winner. From 8-4 to 9-2 or better. From top 20 consideration to top 10 or 15 consistently.
"I'd like our program to be consistently thought of as a top 10 or top 15 caliber program," Ross said this week. "I'd like for people to begin coming to see us because we're Maryland, not because we're playing Clemson at home, or Miami at home, or North Carolina at home."
Virginia Coach George Welsh recently said a coach had to turn the corner by the third year. Ross subscribes to no such theories. "I think we're pretty close," he said. "But I'm not putting a time limit on it. I know that sounds like a coach's cliche, but I don't think you can afford to do that. If we don't win this year, yes, I know there will be people saying, 'He's not getting it done.'
"I used to worry about what people said about me and what I was doing," Ross said. "But somewhere along the way -- I don't know where -- I changed. I'm going to work hard this year, treat my players the way I always have and try everything I can, legally, to win. But I don't see the third year, this year, as being especially crucial."
Dull also knows Maryland is seen as a school that has a pretty good football program, but is not yet on the level of Miami, Nebraska or Penn State.
"The public perception is that we've never been able to win the big game," Dull said. "We need to beat Clemson and Miami and Penn State. We need to go one step further with football to achieve the credibility we wish for ourselves. I have complete confidence that Bobby Ross is the right person to accomplish that."
A lot of people apparently have that kind of confidence in Ross now. Many college athletic directors with a team to rebuild or recharge have asked for Ross' telephone number. Dull said yesterday, "It's great having a coach like Bobby, but I also live in fear of someone coming in and taking him away."
The University of Minnesota wasn't very secretive about its interest in Ross. Paul Giel, the athletic director there, said almost every time he asked a colleague "what names are in your little file, or on your back burner in terms of football coaches, invariably the name Bobby Ross would come up. I know he's the person to take their program a step further, or take a program far down and improve it rapidly.
"While he's not effervescent and outgoing and nationally known as a speaker," Giel said, "he's a fine football coach. The way he handles himself on the sideline is impressive. He's solid, clean-cut, a conscientious person. He's got a great rapport with his players. And he plays it straight. He'll continue to win . . . and if he's not at Maryland, then he'll win somewhere else."
Ross and Dull feel that for Maryland's football program to move another step forward it will have to have a much stronger commitment from the state, much like the support given to schools like Penn State and Nebraska.
"I want people in this state to think of Maryland as the first place to send their children to school," Ross said. "(We) need a total commitment, not to the point of breaking rules. But we need a total involvement. I'm not talking about people recruiting for Maryland. But I'm talking about a specific direction the people of this state want to move in."
During the offseason, he accepted almost every speaking invitation extended to him from Rotary, Lions' and Kiwanis clubs, trying to secure that type of support. But even if Ross doesn't get it, he is prepared to proceed with his plan to make Maryland a perennial power. Several improvements already have been made, some that aren't apparent to people who rate talent but that are nonetheless important in attracting it.
"We've improved the facilities here," he said. "We've got as nice a weight room now as there is in the country, and a better training table. We've got a staff of academic advisors; three full-time people plus Jim Dietsch (the athletic department's academic coordinator), and their offices are right here (in the football offices)." There were no academic advisors for football before Ross arrived.
"On the field, I think we have a very good talent base. We had a good one when I got here. But I definitely think we've gotten more speed and we've got four (freshmen) defensive linemen who I think can be very good. That's why I can't agree with what George said about the third year being so critical. The speed we have and the play of those linemen might not show up this year."
Ross said the team is actually ahead of where he expected it to be when he replaced Claiborne in January 1982. One measure, he said, is last year's ACC championship, an achievement, he said, that should not be diminished by the fact that Clemson, which was on probation and thus ineligible to win the title, beat Maryland.
After that loss, Ross had no qualms about reminding anyone that Clemson was on probation, remarks that some observers felt amounted to sour grapes. "What I meant was that I feel people were cheapening our ACC title," Ross said. "I was taking a position of defense for our school and our players. We should not be looked upon as champions with an asterisk."
This year, Maryland has another potentially explosive offense. Ross has brought along young players much faster than most coaches. The schedule is tough, and the record will depend on many variables, especially the play of the defensive line.
"I have really enjoyed the football this year," he said. "I haven't felt the pressure at all. Maybe I'll say something different if you ask me that at the end of the season."