Bobby Ross sits at his formal desk, staring sleepy-lidded out the window. His arms are bent at the elbows and his hands are close together, touching at the fingertips, moving in and out in a regular, flexing motion, sort of like a spider doing pushups on a mirror. With five games gone and six left, Ross has been asked to find one word to define this season, and he is taking all the time allotted. There is a hissing noise faintly audible from the outside, which sounds like air leaking from a balloon.
"I guess you'd put the word 'inconsistent' in there," Ross says, offering it up like a swatch of flea-market wallpaper. Then, thinking better of it, he says, "Course, we could be 10 and 0, and I might feel the same way."
Maryland is not 10 and 0. Maryland is not 5 and 0. Maryland is not, and was not anything and 0. Before the season began, Maryland was ranked No. 1 by Sport magazine and No. 5 by Sports Illustrated. That wasn't sufficient reason to take out a second mortgage, but it did indicate a shared belief that these Terrapins had enough talent to be a very good team, with the potential to become a superior one. About three hours into the schedule, after the annual ceremony of sacrifice to Penn State, Maryland was 0 and 1. Easy come, easy go. Maryland won two straight, impressive victories over Boston College and West Virginia, but a 28-0 loss at Michigan was convincing testimony in the case against greatness.
Back to the word game.
" . . . Some degree of 'frustration,' " Ross said.
"The build-up. In my heart, even though I thought this was our best team in my years here -- and I still think so -- with all that build-up, I was certain that we would not go undefeated; that's just too hard nowadays. I tried to dispel it. I tried talking about how much we'd lost from last year's team, how daggone tough our schedule was. I tried simply saying we were worthy of top-20 consideration. But nobody was buying that."
All things considered, how about "disappointment?"
"Not at all."
This then is where we part company, Ross and I, because I think Maryland's 3-2 record is disappointing. I think if a team is going to declare itself as belonging on the top shelf, if it is stepping up in class from the very good to the superior, it has to beat teams already comfortably in that class. Maryland didn't have to beat both Penn State and Michigan, but it had to beat one of them. There isn't a team remaining on Maryland's schedule, with the possible exception of a rejuvenated Miami, on that top shelf. Considering their whirlwind drives to the wire under Ross's whiphand (8-1 in 1982; 6-0, averaging 41.5 points per game in 1984), Maryland might finish the regular season at 9-2. But the critical losses to Penn State and Michigan -- at a time when everyone was watching -- would keep the Terrapins a few bricks shy of a load.
Ross' position is that this team is better, statistically, at a comparable point in the season than last year's, and that encourages him. He doesn't agree that to step up Maryland was compelled to defeat either Penn State or Michigan. "I'd be crazy if I did," he insists. "We have to prepare for a whole season, not just Penn State or Michigan. If I put more emphasis on those games than the others, and we lose them, then the season's all over. What you shoot for, is to improve on the previous year . . . "
"The press and the public measure us totally on whether we win or we lose, rightfully so," Ross concedes. "But I look at our program, and I see our team on the field against a Penn State or a Michigan. And I say, okay, in the Michigan game we've got to play better to win. Penn State? A break or two at a critical time. I look and I see us as good as them. Up to this season, I never felt like talent-wise we were there, but now I feel we are there. Granted, I understand that in your eyes we have to win the game, but in my eyes I see us as being there."
It's the Penn State loss that hurts Maryland the most. How many times in a row is it now, 21? Even if Ross didn't put extra emphasis on the game, he knows his players did. If it didn't shred the material, it surely soiled it. "They said Maryland can't win a game in front of 50,000; we've done it," Ross says. "They said Maryland can't win a game against a ranked team; we've done it. What we haven't done is beaten Penn State." Ross shrugs, and half-laughs. "Three times by a total of 11 points since I'm here. I don't know why."
The most recent AP and UPI rankings have Michigan as high as No. 2 and Penn State as high as No. 4. Michigan, which plays at No. 1 Iowa today, has given up just one touchdown and 21 points in five games; no major college has numbers as good. On paper, only Pittsburgh poses a genuine threat to Penn State ending its season at 11-0.
Wouldn't it be something if the 2 in Maryland's 9-2 were to the two highest-ranked teams in the country?
Would it be vindication?
"It might soften the blow a little," Ross says, being cordial. But his heart isn't in it. "Years from now, nobody'll remember who we lost to, just our record." He takes a big gulp from a can of soda and says, "Nah, you either beat them or you lose to them."