For the longest time it looked as if Bobby Ross wasn't going to be able to produce at Georgia Tech what he produced at Maryland.

Ross's 1987 team, his first in Atlanta, lost nine of 11. It was depressing, but tolerable under the circumstances of rebuilding. His 1988 team lost eight of 11. Players were transferring. Nine were academic casualties. Several were suspended. A business major transferred because he didn't want to take calculus. "There was a crisis a day," Ross said. Impatience set in, letters to his bosses grew nasty. When you come on in relief, nobody wants to hear about the base runners you inherited.

To start the 1989 season, Tech lost its first three. The letters were downright ugly. That made 20 defeats in Ross's first 25 games. And there were worse losses along the way. Bobby Dodd, the legendary Tech coach and Ross's idol as a kid, died. Tight end Chris Caudle drowned accidentally. Dave Pasanella, Ross's strength and fitness coach, died in a car accident. And Ross's 15-month-old granddaughter, who had received a heart transplant, died in March.

The grieving coach and his team vaguely resembled what we grew accustomed to at Maryland, where the Terrapins won 34 of 48 games and made four consecutive bowl appearances from 1982 to 1985, prompting an avalanche of job offers.

"There was some real strong resentment," Ross recalled this week. "I was following such a popular guy, Bill Curry, who was a Georgia Tech graduate. Bill really was Georgia Tech. The people here felt cheated when he left {for Alabama}. Then, here comes yours truly, ugly, short and scrawny, trying to take his place. There were some difficult times. I had a lot of doubt those first couple of years. I kept telling myself, 'I'm the same coach I was.' "

Ross found some encouragement in the three losses to open last season, however, because the games were close. His team was competitive. Academic attrition ended. The players began to understand what he was trying to do. Tech won seven of its final eight games.

The ugly letters have stopped. Nobody feels cheated. Bobby Ross and Georgia Tech are playing Virginia in Charlottesville today and the No. 1-ranked Cavaliers aren't the only team with an undefeated season at stake. None of Ross's Maryland teams ever went this deep into a season undefeated. Tech is 6-0-1 and the last real barrier between Virginia and a perfect regular season.

But Ross is uncharacteristically having a hard time enjoying this success, despite having won 13 of his last 15 games. At Maryland, Ross took a different approach than most coaches. He wanted his teams to be ranked high, to be involved in the big games. That's probably why Maryland played so well, win or lose, against Clemson, Auburn, Penn State and Miami in the Ross years.

"I really haven't had time to enjoy this," Ross said. "I haven't felt the sense of joy that I felt at Maryland, maybe because this has been such a grind. So much of my time here we were spending just trying to get off the deck. So I feel if I don't watch every single step, it'll get away. At Maryland, on the other hand, it just took off. Maybe at the end of this season, I'll feel differently. I guess the satisfaction is having the things you believe in as a coach reaffirmed."

Ross left Maryland after the 1986 season, yet it seems his departure never has been adequately explained. It is generally preceived in some quarters that Ross, who asked firmly for improved facilities and the right to admit academic "exceptions," wore out his welcome by asking for too much; some say he was selfishly concerned only with his football team while the entire athletic department was drowning in the wake of Len Bias's death.

Ross beyond question was a wonderful coach, his critics said, but he was a man who should be coaching pros where he would be far away from the administrative maze college coaches must negotiate.

"I know there was a perception that I was constantly dissatisfied with the facilities at Maryland," Ross said. "Sure, I wanted certain improvements but that wasn't the reason why I left. Dick Dull {the athletic director who hired Ross} left early in my last season. There was also the perception that I didn't get along with John Slaughter {the school president}, but in reality, I was close to him. He didn't say so exactly, but it was implied when I went to see him that he wouldn't be at Maryland much longer, and I was led to believe there would not be a new AD for some time, perhaps eight or nine months.

"At that time {after Bias's death} things were difficult enough without knowing who in the administration you could identify with. I didn't feel I had any real security."

So without a job, Ross resigned. He almost took one college offer {he won't reveal the name of the school} and did agree to work for his old boss, Marv Levy, with the Buffalo Bills. But before Ross could actually sign a contract, Bill Curry resigned at Tech and Homer Rice offered Ross the job.

Many close to him thought he should have stayed in Buffalo, tutored Jim Kelly, and waited for a chance to coach in the NFL. "But the Georgia Tech job was the one thing that excited me," he said. "My college coach, John McKenna, retired from Georgia Tech. I'd grown up listening to Tech games on the radio when Bobby Dodd was coach. I knew the conference and it was closer to my family {in Virginia}. It just got me excited.

"I'm kind of impulsive, and it's obvious from some of the things that happened. The situation was somewhat different than what I expected. My emotions got into it."

Ross struggles to manage crisis, but not to coach football. At Georgia Tech, he has a quick, elusive quarterback named Shawn Jones instead of a strong-armed pocket passer like Boomer Esiason. So Ross scrapped the straight dropback game to install some option and sprintout to take advantage of Jones's talents. The defense scheme also bears no resemblance to what his teams played at Maryland.

Ross's coaching ego has never got in the way of doing what is best for his players. System be damned if it doesn't maximize the players' talents. Georgia Tech, after a long and sometimes painful transition, is just finding out how successful his philosophy can be.