Ross plans to focus on the positive

Originally Published: April 23, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- It is the last week of spring practice at Army, and new coach Bobby Ross is preaching discipline and responsibility to his players, which should be as redundant as reminding them to wear a uniform. Cadets at the United States Military Academy are taught to be leaders from the moment they arrive.

But over the last two seasons, Army went 1-24. You don't need a degree in cryptography to break that code. Michie Stadium is on high ground on this scenic campus, but only as measured by sea level.

"As a cadet, you're put in position to be a leader," senior corner Delente Brewer said. "Up here, most of the leadership is from performance. If you're not successful and you don't know what it takes, it's hard to show others the way."

The new way is the only way the 67-year-old has ever coached. The former VMI quarterback and head coach at The Citadel went on to win three consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championships at Maryland (1983-85) and a share of the national championship at Georgia Tech in 1990. Four seasons later, he led the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl.

"In some regards, we have the same issues that civilian schools have," Ross said. "Everybody must be responsible. If you've got an appointment to meet a doctor, you're there."

At a "civilian school," players don't miss treatment because it might affect their chances at the NFL. At the Academy, players miss treatment to study for a physics exam. That's not a good enough reason for Ross. What he has been telling them since his arrival last December is that football must be of equal importance to their other responsibilities.

"I don't want them to see this as an escape," Ross said. "I don't want them to see it as being excused from something. We've got to have some discipline to be successful."

"There's a big intensity change that this team needed to feel," senior offensive tackle Joel Glover said. "In the past, we were lifting to work out. Now we're lifting to get stronger ... This team has gotten a lot closer. We've seen each other working. That really does bring people together. We don't try to survive practice. You're working to get better."

Football is at once separate and integral to West Point. There's a tradition of national championships and Heisman Trophy winners. Yet the remove of Michie Stadium is more than mere location. Cadet life is "down the hill." Michie Stadium is "up the hill." When a football player comes up the hill, he is no longer a plebe (freshman) or a firstie (senior). He's a teammate.

Ross' message is simple: When you come up the hill, leave your academic and military life down the hill. In past years, an academic tutor has accompanied the team on the road and to the Friday night hotel stay before a home game. Not any longer.

"When I first got here," he said, "I asked the players, 'How many of you want to win?' All of them raised their hands.

"'How many of you want to prepare to win?' There's a big difference. You guys don't have any confidence. You start by preparing.

"I asked them, 'Have you ever gone into an exam unprepared?'

"'Oh, yes.'

"How did you feel?

"'Nervous.'

"How did you feel when you were prepared? You felt good. Well, what's the difference?

"They are going to have to be responsible. Don't come to me and tell me you've got a big exam when I'm getting notes from the teacher saying you haven't been doing the work. I want them focusing on football."

The players are responding to the message.

"At first," Glover said, "you had some people saying, 'There's no way I can leave it down the hill.' Others said, 'Oh gosh, he's telling me I can leave it down the hill!' For me, it's kind of nice to forget about it."

Out of genuine affection and their respect for authority, the Army players do not badmouth former coach Todd Berry, a successful I-AA coach who was overmatched at West Point before he was fired midway through last season. But the players still feel like they have gone from working the drive-thru window to winning "The Apprentice."

Senior defensive lineman Will Sullivan grew up in Atlanta with a poster of Ross and the 1990 Georgia Tech national championship team on his bedroom wall. Junior safety Dhyan Tarver grew up in San Antonio, the son of Michigan State grads who ordered DirecTV so that they could see the Lions play every week.

When the players were assembled last December to meet the new coach, they didn't know who had been hired.

"He walked in, and I thought, 'Are you serious?'" Tarver said. "It's just a dream. It's so weird. I'm always staring at Coach Ross. I'm sure he's wondering why."

Ross has been in this predicament before. When he got to Georgia Tech in 1987, he went 2-9 in his first season and 3-8 in his second, including an 0-13 record in the ACC. The following spring, Ross laid down the law to his staff: no negative comments.

"It's almost condescending -- 'Way to break the huddle!'" said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, an assistant under Ross at The Citadel, Maryland, Georgia Tech and with the Chargers. "No matter how small it was, Bobby focused on the positive, on not beating them down."

Georgia Tech began the 1989 season with three straight losses, two in the league. The Yellow Jackets finished with seven wins in their final eight games. The next season, 1990, they went 11-0-1 and shared the national title.

"Once we did win, the players got confidence," Friedgen said. "Bobby could have gotten frustrated with a lot of things."

Three seasons may be optimistic for a team as downtrodden as Army. Ross has ditched the passing offense for a traditional two-back scheme. Where Berry reduced the size of the squad from 175 to 130, Ross is building it back up again. The service academies are not subject to NCAA scholarship limitations. Next fall, Ross will have 53 freshmen. Another 30 will begin a year at the Academy prep school in New Jersey.

Ross has also redesigned the uniforms to look like the Army teams that dominated football in the mid-1940s. The gold pants will no longer have a black stripe, and the jerseys will have three stripes on each arm. Ross is hoping that the changes will be more than cosmetic.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel's Mailbag.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE