Many people around College Park snickered when Bobby Ross took the head-coaching job at Georgia Tech in January 1987. He had been gone from Maryland a little more than a month and already had accepted a position as quarterbacks coach of the Buffalo Bills.
The snickering became sniping when the Yellow Jackets went 2-9 in 1987, 3-8 in 1988 and lost their first three games last season. "Bobby Loss" was the name being whispered around the Atlanta campus.
They are not snickering or sniping or even laughing at Ross anymore.
A stretch that began with last year's 28-24 victory over the Terrapins continued last week with an impressive, 27-6 win over South Carolina. It was the seventh straight victory for Georgia Tech (3-0), the 10th for the Yellow Jackets in their past 11 games.
Which makes Saturday's return to Byrd Stadium for Ross a triumphant one, a far cry from his first appearance on the opposing sidelinethere two years ago. Though Georgia Tech is ranked No. 23 in the country going against Maryland (3-2), Ross is not exactly getting giddy over his team's turnaround.
"It's no different from any other season," Ross said this week. "Things can change rapidly. I'm just trying to keep my head above water."
During Ross' first two seasons at Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets were sinking in a tidal wave of academic problems left over from Bill Curry's seven-year stay and troubled by the death of a key member of the team.
Before the 1987 season, Georgia Tech lost eight players to academic ineligibility, and most of them played skill positions. The next summer, tight end Chris Caudle drowned. "We lost a little bit of our heart with him," said Ross.
It appeared that the Yellow Jackets were heading for another losing season when they faced the Terrapins last year at Bobby Dodd Stadium. But a touchdown early in the fourth quarter gave Georgia Tech the lead, and a tipped pass in the end zone at the last second preserved the victory.
It was not only the first Atlantic Coast Conference victory for the Yellow Jackets under Ross, but also the first win over a Division I-A team.
"It was big only because it was a win in the conference," said Ross. "It helped us because it was a confidence-builder. But, to be totally honest, we were lucky to win that game."
Said junior safety Ken Swilling, "It was the turning point of our season."
Georgia Tech followed up that victory with a 30-14 win a Clemson, stumbled later with a 30-19 loss at Duke and ended the season with a 33-22 victory over arch-rival Georgia. The 7-4 season brought some credibility back to the Yellow Jackets.
It also re-established the reputation of Ross, who, in five seasons at Maryland, coached the Terps to 39 victories, three ACC championships and four bowl appearances. And confidence-wise, as Ross is wont to say, it certainly had helped the coach as well.
"It's hard for me to think about it now, but I'm sure I felt some of those things, doubts or whatever," said Ross, 53. "I never thought about quitting. But I'm human. It was only natural for me to get discouraged."
"During that time when we were losing, he was big on keeping everyone encouraged," said Swilling. "He really stood behind us when everybody had given up. A lot of us had doubts, and some players blamed Coach Ross. He probably had some doubts in his mind, too, but he never let us see them. He is the biggest reason for our success today."
Ross, in turn, deflects most of the credit to his players and his assistant coaches. That his team returned 52 lettermen this year is reflected in Georgia Tech's fast start. That Ross has lost only two members of his staff in two years also is a factor.
"I think there was a big adjustment period for everyone," said senior fullback Stefen Scotton. "That first year was rough on everybody. There were fights in practice every day. But winning takes care of a lot of things."
It certainly takes care of the rumors that Ross would be fired or would resign, something that still was being discussed after last year's loss at Duke. But the success Ross has rediscovered could fuel speculation that he might seek a more high-profile job, either in college or the National Football League.
"I never say what's going to happen too far down the road," said Ross, a former assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs. "I didn't say it at Maryland. I'm not the kind who likes to project his life two or five or 20 years in the future."
Said Georgia Tech athletic director Homer Rice: "In my opinion, Bobby Ross could stay at Georgia Tech his entire life. He fits in here very well. But, considering his image and reputation nationally, I wouldn't be surprised if he gets an offer."
With his family nearly grown -- the youngest of Ross' five children is a high school senior -- it certainly would be easier for him to move. But Ross said he has found a certain comfort level at Georgia Tech and a commitment from the administration.