ATLANTA — ATLANTA--WHEN BOBBY ROSS left Maryland in 1987 to became the eighth coach in Georgia Tech's football history, at the time 95 years, there was every reason to believe that the rebuilding task facing Ross would last well into the 1990s.
Georgia Tech had mustered only three winning seasons in the 1980s. Fan support had dwindled.
Ross' first two seasons produced 2-9 and 3-8 records and a losing streak in Atlantic Coast Conference play that would reach 16 games.
The first remedy for Ross, as for any coach in any sport with a program in dire straits, was collecting better players.
"We sold kids on the fact that this is an excellent academic school," Ross said. "We sold them on the city of Atlanta. And, I guess most of all, we sold them on a chance to play right away. We just weren't very good."
If Ross doesn't win ACC Coach of the Year honors this season, he has salesman of the year wrapped up. His team was 7-4 last season and hasn't looked back.
Georgia Tech (6-0-1) battles Virginia (7-0) on Saturday in Charlottesville, Va. The Yellow Jackets are ranked No. 16 while the Cavaliers are No. 1.
There are turnarounds.
And then there are somersaults.
For the Yellow Jackets, this has been one wild and woolly flip.
"I never had any gauge on where I expected us to be," Ross said recently. "That first year here things went sour. What I saw was a long-range thing without any time frame on it. I saw we had a lot of work to do."
Winning hadn't always been so scarce for Georgia Tech. It has one of the nation's most illustrious college football histories, but even that history had become such deep history that recently the school had become primarily known athletically for its basketball prowess.
Georgia Tech from 1904 to 1966 featured a coaching clan of John Heisman (yes, the Heisman for whom the trophy is named), William Alexander and Bobby Dodd, for whom the Yellow Jackets' stadium is named. Each of those coaches won at least 102 games. From 1939 through 1966, Georgia Tech nearly always finished ranked among the nation's top 15 teams. It is one of only four teams along with Alabama, Georgia and Notre Dame to win each of the major bowls (the '29 Rose, the '55 Cotton, the '40, '48, and '52 Orange and '44, '53, '54 and '56 Sugar).
Attempting to recapture that stature, Ross hired a veteran staff of assistants and mixed them with promising young coaches. He credits his staff for taking the lead and beyond in the recruiting wars, leaving few stones unturned.
One of his most remarkable accomplishments was not only garnering talented players but speedy ones, too. Virginia's offense ranks first nationally, averaging 544.9 yards and 48.1 points a game.
But the Yellow Jackets on both sides of the football possess the speed to keep track.
"Speed is a difficult thing to identify, but our coaches had a feel," Ross said. "I put emphasis on it. I told them I didn't care how big the recruits were, they just better be able to run."
Georgia Tech's recruiting class of 1988 mirrors Ross' philosophy. The quarterback Shawn Jones, the safety Ken Swilling and the receiver Bobby Rodriguez were part of a prize group signed that year.
Rodriguez, from Wagner High School in New York City, mirrors the thinking of Ross' recruits.
"When you go to a team that has struggled and you see the accomplishment, it means so much more," said Rodriguez, who opted for Georgia Tech over Syracuse and Michigan State. "All the guys that I came in with are excited that much of the change here coincided with when we came.
"With Coach Ross, we have a very honest and caring coach, and those are his two attributes that stand out most. He is a very intelligent coach. He runs a pro-style offense and that suited me perfectly. And, with Atlanta being a major city, guys from big cities like New York and Los Angeles love it here. It socially gives you a slower pace, but not too slow."
Ross is worried that Swilling, a mammoth, hard-hitting and fleet safety, will be slowed by a knee injury that has sidelined him for two games. Ross said he won't decide how much Swilling will play until the warmups.
Swilling calls the defensive signals, and his presence, Ross said, means the Yellow Jackets "would have an emotional lift and know we're going into this big game with a full deck."
It was Swilling's injury on a kickoff return, however, in Georgia Tech's 21-19 victory over Clemson on Oct. 13 that helped Ross find a jewel.
Kevin Tisdale, a walk-on, asked Ross if he could return kicks. It was his 87-yard return that helped Georgia Tech beat Clemson and his 85-yard return for a touchdown against Duke last Saturday gave him nine returns for 327 yards (a 36.3 average). Tisdale -- this week awarded a full scholarship by Ross -- could be a game-breaker against Virginia.