In nearly three decades as a head football coach, Bobby Ross has guided the Maryland Terrapins to three ACC titles, Georgia Tech to a share of the national championship and the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl. Yet for a man whose name is synonymous with winning, his latest project might be his most ambitious.
Ross is trying to return Army to its glorious past, when it was consistently finishing with winning records and playing in bowl games.
That won't happen this year, but after entering this season with just seven wins since the start of the 2000 season, Army can finish 5-6 with a victory over Navy tomorrow in Philadelphia.
A victory also would give the Black Knights the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, awarded annually to the winner of the football competition among the three major service academies, for the first time since 1996. And it would give Army its first five-game winning streak since going 10-2 in 1996. That's not bad for a school that, in 2003, became the first in NCAA history to go 0-13, the season before Army hired Ross.
Ross, whose team went 2-9 last year, acknowledged a victory over the Midshipmen would mean more to the team's supporters -- especially those stationed on foreign soil -- than to the 68-year-old who has five children and 15 grandchildren.
"I'm beyond the stage of worrying about my won-loss record," Ross said. "I really don't give it a whole lot of thought. I am happy because I know it has a big effect on the school and on our post. It has a big effect on the Corps of Cadets and it has an effect on the troops overseas. That's what makes it so rewarding for me. I think we can accomplish something more than just winning a football game."
Army entered the season having lost eight straight games to Air Force and six of eight to the Midshipmen. But the Black Knights moved up a rung on Nov. 5, when they posted a 27-24 victory at Air Force, their first win in Colorado Springs since 1977.
"I can't wait to line up with my boys one more time" against Navy, senior cornerback Dhyan Tarver said. "What we go through both on and off the field is special. The struggles we go through are what hold people together."
This is Ross's latest stint at trying to resurrect a struggling team. In 1982, he left The Citadel after five seasons to take over at Maryland, where he transformed a Terrapins' team that went 4-6-1 in 1981 into a squad that won three conference titles in four years before he left for Georgia Tech following the 1986 season. Ross was named national coach of the year after the Yellow Jackets went 11-0-1 and shared the 1990 national title.
Ross jumped to the NFL for the start of the 1992 season and immediately led San Diego to the second round of the playoffs, and two years later, the Chargers made their first -- and still only -- Super Bowl appearance, losing to San Francisco. He moved to Detroit in 1997 and led the Lions to two postseason appearances in four years before retiring in 2000 and moving back to his family's farm in Lexington, Va.
But after a few years doing volunteer work with his local church and high school, Ross, a former first lieutenant in the U.S. Army in the early 1960s, decided he couldn't pass up the chance to return to the sideline.
"Any time you come into a program that has been losing, you have to deal with the attitude of the team," Ross said. "You have to sell them on the importance of winning. Winning at West Point is important because it really affects the troops overseas. I want to win for them. I have a respect for the military because I served in it."
After Army lost 15 of its first 17 games under Ross, including an 0-6 start this year, the Black Knights appear to have bought into his philosophy.
"There's no question Army has gotten a lot better under Coach Ross," Navy Coach Paul Johnson said. "We know we are playing a very good football team. Just look at the way they've played the last month of the season."
Army's next hurdle is ending a three-game losing streak to the Midshipmen.
"I tell our people we are climbing a mountain and we have made some progress," Ross said. "But we haven't reached the top."