Ten years ago, Ro Waldron was an all-Met football center at Northwood High School in Silver Spring. Now he's at Catholic University and, at 27, is one of the youngest college football coaches in the nation.
If optimism and dedication mean anything, Waldron might recapture Catholic's glory days of 50 years ago, when its football program was among the nation's strongest. Since being named to the position in January, he has been working nearly 70 hours a week scouting and recruiting players, reviewing game films, selecting assistants and installing a new offense and defense.
As Catholic's first full-time football coach since 1951, Waldron knows he has a lot to prove. He also realizes that a turnaround from last year's 5-4 record to a consistent Division III power won't happen overnight.
"We're trying to lay the groundwork now toward becoming a very successful program," he said. "Getting to where we want to be, a consistent Division III playoff team, means recruiting more good players, better coaching, and plenty of hard work on everyone's part. And patience, especially patience."
Alabama, UCLA, Ohio State and Maryland were among the more than 100 colleges that offered Waldron a scholarship when he was a senior at Northwood. He went to Virginia Tech, where he was named an honorable mention all-America center. In 1980, he worked as a graduate assistant coach for Bill Dooley at Virginia Tech and two years later, he joined Jerry Claiborne's staff at Kentucky.
"I couldn't ask for a better opportunity than I have here at Catholic," Waldron said. "Coming home to be a college head coach at a great academic school like Catholic, a beautiful new athletic facility -- this is like a dream come true."
Anyone doubting Waldron's experience should know that he'll have plenty of advisors available. Athletic Director Fred O'Connor preceded Bill Walsh as coach of the San Francisco 49ers and was an assistant with the Redskins and Chicago Bears.
Defensive coordinator Kenny Dutton, the only holdover from former coach Joe Pascale's staff, returns for his 13th season at Catholic. And Waldron's father Doonie, who recently retired as coach at St. John's High School, will serve as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.
"I can't tell you how excited I am about joining Ro, being able to assist him," said Doonie Waldron, who was an all-Met at St. John's in 1948. "But don't let anyone fool you, Ro's the boss on the field."
When Catholic decided not to retain Pascale, some players were alarmed and didn't know what to expect from the new coach.
"I met with him several times during the spring and got to know him some, but it wasn't until we started practice that I realized how much better things were going to get around here," said Karl Mizell, a Carroll High School graduate who played on scholarship at James Madison before transferring to Catholic. "We're better organized, and there's a whole new attitude."
Catholic is still waiting on a decision by the ECAC, which discovered several months ago that the school had allowed Chris McMahon, a Division III all-America defensive back, to overstay his eligibility by a year. The matter is under appeal. If CU loses its appeal, the penalty could be as severe as forfeiture of all of its games last season.
Waldron's local roots might be his trump card for quick success at Catholic. He's recruited running back Keith Harris from DeMatha to add speed, and Karl Gannon and Reggie Taylor from Gonzaga to help implement the new wide-tackle-six defense.
"We're going to heavily recruit locally because that's got to be our bread-and-butter," Waldron said. "If we can get between 10 and 20 good, solid local players every year, that would be the foundation for a real good football team.
"I've played and coached Division I, so I can tell our players honestly that Division III doesn't have to mean less than first class."
With the $7.7 million DuFour athletic complex scheduled to open this fall, most of the necessary pieces are in place for a much improved program. And Doonie Waldron is upbeat about his son's chances.
"Ro hasn't always succeeded immediately at everything, but he's never failed in anything he's ever done."