Ross follows Rice's recipe to cook up Ga. Tech title Stability, recruiting are keys to success

January 06, 1991|By Don Markus

A year ago, Georgia Tech football coach Bobby Ross was in the office of Homer Rice, the school's athletic director, when the conversation turned to how the Yellow Jackets could win a national championship.

"I remember telling Bobby we'd have to finish unbeaten and beat a big-name school in a New Year's Day bowl to have any chance," Rice recalled last week in Orlando, Fla.

Ross said that he can remember speaking to Rice about it, but couldn't remember any specifics of their conversation.

"It wasn't like we had a strategy or a plan," said Ross. "You have to be lucky to win a national championship."

Rice's scenario was played out to near perfection when the Yellow Jackets finished the regular season as the nation's only unbeaten team (10-0-1) and then routed Nebraska, 45-21, in the Florida Citrus Bowl Tuesday.

By the next afternoon, a team that had begun the season barely in anyone's top 50 was voted No. 1 in the United Press International poll of coaches. Georgia Tech finished second in the Associated Press poll of sportswriters and broadcasters.

"I'm glad we were No. 1 in somebody's poll, but I wouldn't lose any sleep if we hadn't been," said Ross.

Neither talking about nor winning national championships was something that was being done when Ross left the University of Maryland after the 1986 season.

The school was in shock, mourning the death that June of basketball star Len Bias.

The athletic department was in upheaval with the resignation of athletic director Dick Dull.

And the football team, considered one of the favorites to win a fourth straight Atlantic Coast Conference championship, was coming off a disappointing 5-5-1 season.

"There was still a lot of turmoil in the aftermath of Lenny Bias' death," said Ross. "I didn't know which direction the [football] program was headed. Dull had left, and there was no athletic director. If Dick hadn't left, I'd still be at Maryland."

When Ross went to Georgia Tech -- after first accepting the job as quarterbacks coach of the Buffalo Bills -- the Yellow Jackets had strong leadership from Rice and a commitment from the administration, but had a severe shortage in a significant area.

Players.

That much was evident when Ross, who had led the Terrapins to three straight ACC championships (1983-85), suffered through successive 2-9 and 3-8 seasons. A 16-game ACC losing streak extended into the early part of the 1989 season, when the Yellow Jackets finished 7-4.

"I didn't think we'd be that bad when I got there, but I didn't think we'd be this good so soon," said Ross.

How did Georgia Tech go from dormant to dominant so quickly? How did the long losing streak turn into a 16-game unbeaten streak? How did Ross become one of the sport's -- college or pro -- hottest coaching commodities once again?

The biggest reason is the players Ross recruited. This year's team, led by sophomore quarterback Shawn Jones, had more speed and probably more talent than any he coached during his five seasons at Maryland.

But the stability of the athletic program at Georgia Tech, and the steady hand of Rice, helped give Ross the confidence that he never seemed to have at Maryland, where he gained as much a reputation for whining as winning.

"I knew the first time I talked with Dr. Rice about the job that it would work," said Ross. "I was familiar with the ACC. I knew there had been some problems at Georgia Tech and some I didn't know about. But the foundation was in place."

Said Rice: "He's intelligent, both as a coach and a person. He pays very close attention to details, whether it's on the field or in having his players go to class. I describe him as a man in a tunnel. He has a clear focus."

Despite its recent success, there are those who expect Georgia Tech to be a one-season phenomenon, similar to Brigham Young in 1984 -- an occasional top 25 team, but a national contender every other millennium.

For his part, Ross is trying to keep the Yellow Jackets in the national picture. He recently received an oral commitment from the country's top-rated high school quarterback, Donnie Davis of Burlington, N.C.

"I think it's a good future," said Ross, whose team returns 15 of its 22 starters, as well as most of its first-string specialists. "The biggest thing was not losing any players through attrition, and that hasn't happened the last couple of years. I don't think there are any more questions about how good we are."

There is, however, a question lingering about Ross' future at Georgia Tech. Though he recently signed a new, four-year contract, speculation grows stronger that Ross soon could realize his longtime aspiration of being a National Football League head coach.

When asked if the new contract means that he plans to stay in Atlanta, Ross said, "It's a little more involved." And Rice would say only that "Bobby Ross can coach at Georgia Tech as long as he wants."

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