ATLANTA -- Bobby Ross is a wise guy. No, the Georgia Tech coach is not leaning toward smart aleck. For Ross, wise is a trademark.

Obvious habits are associated with familiar figures: George Allen's sideline gestures that resembled a third-base coach relaying messages from the dugout; the way Jay Schroeder frequently begins thoughts by saying: "No question about it."

Ross uses wise to prop up words he seems to feel are unable to stand by themselves. Size can't function without wise. Nor can strength, speed and lots of other factors that determine a team's success. Recordwise.

Georgia Tech is 1-3 under Ross. Which seems both realistic and more than slightly disappointing, considering North Carolina arose from a nine-count and scored a knockout of its own in Game 2.

That was when Ross said: "Physically, we're not that good." He seems to be saying that Bill Curry did not leave the Georgia Tech freezer stocked as completely with mighty sides of beef as Jerry Claiborne had at Maryland.

"We had 12 to 15 linemen who could play {his last season at Maryland}," Ross said. "We're struggling to get six or seven." Also, both starting wide receivers had knee surgery.

Ross is only the eighth coach in Georgia Tech history (Maryland has had six in the last 21 years) and the first with no school ties since John Heisman.

That's the Heisman whose name graces the most coveted individual trophy in college football; that's the Heisman who once said during halftime: "You're doing all right. We're ahead. But you just can't tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves . . ."

The speech illustrates not Heisman's oratory but his capacity for worry. Georgia Tech was ahead at the time, 126-0. Sure enough, Heisman's men did suffer a letdown. They mustered just 96 points in the second half.

Heisman also once said: "Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble the football." So Ross is stepping into some awesome cleat marks.

"The first football book I ever read was by Bobby Dodd," added Ross, referring to another legendary Georgia Tech coach.

Ross tries to avoid the unpleasant memories of Maryland, "the stuff that kind of wore me down": the conflicts over admissions guidelines, the ugly note on the windshield of his car after a loss to Wake Forest, the fallout on his program after the death of Len Bias.

"I felt like I had to defend my program," he said. "But in my heart I didn't think there was anything that needed to be defended."

There were anonymous phone calls, Ross admitted, during the aftershock of Bias' death that alleged that at least two players were on drugs. Ross reported the matter to authorities, he said, and both were cleared.

"I liked Maryland a lot," he said, "although some may disagree. I particularly like Baltimore. I miss not seeing {some of} my family as much {two daughters and a son attend colleges in the state and other relatives in Richmond routinely attended Terrapins home games}.

"I miss the players a lot, but everyone got caught up in a very tough situation. Maybe my leaving was inevitable. Things happen for the best."

Ross leaving Maryland was not nearly so surprising as his being hired at Georgia Tech slightly more than a month later. In a period of about 36 days, he had three jobs.

Three weeks after resigning at Maryland, Ross was hired as the Buffalo Bills' quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator by Marv Levy, for whom he had worked as an aide twice before.

When Curry suddenly left to replace Ray Perkins at Alabama, Georgia Tech Athletic Director Homer Rice acted quickly. From a roadside phone booth, he called the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference and got Ross' home phone number.

That was on Saturday, Jan. 3. Ross already had one suitcase packed; an airline ticket, from Baltimore to Buffalo via Pittsburgh, was purchased.

Two days later, Ross was introduced as head coach at Georgia Tech. And, no, he did not open his news conference by saying: "A funny thing happened on my way to Buffalo."

Ross is from the sober, get-after-it strain of football coaches. His office is functional, although it does include a model car, Tech Ramblin' Wreck, that sells for $28, and a plaque certifying his honorary membership in the Maryland Alumni Association.

"I started here from ground zero," he said. "The whole staff went {with Curry} to Alabama. And there were only 10 days before the signing date {for recruits}.

"We could sign only 12 players, because Curry had been redshirting. But I haven't seen one of those 12 who can't play."

Ross said more talent was on hand when he replaced Claiborne at Maryland about a month after the 1981 season: "Speedwise, sizewise and strengthwise."

As far as his employment as a head coach goes, call Ross Mr. January. He started just a bit faster and also a bit slower than expected at Georgia Tech -- all in the same game.

Nobody figured Georgia Tech would be leading North Carolina by 20-3 at halftime here two games ago. The offense was as open and imaginative as those at Maryland had come to admire.

Early in the third quarter, however, a Georgia Tech back tried to leap into the end zone -- from the North Carolina 1. In truth, Malcolm King did make it across the goal line, but he left the football behind.

Soon, North Carolina's superior lines helped rub Georgia Tech into the artificial turf.

As Ross reminded his players that day: "This isn't a one-game deal." Or a one-season deal.