Grandchild's death was hardest Loss gives Ross perspective on task

March 22, 1992|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

PHOENIX -- For most NFL executives, the annual March meeting in Phoenix last week was a time to stop by the pool or the golf course.

For Bobby Ross, the former Maryland coach who is in his first year as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers, it was a time to visit a cemetery.

He visited the grave of his granddaughter, Rebecca, who died two years ago at the age of 15 months.

"She was a heart transplant patient," Ross said. "When you go through something like that . . . she got a little boy's heart at 8 weeks of age and lived to be 15 months. That was a tough time in my life. She's buried here because my daughter-in-law's home is here. I made a visit out there Sunday."

During a discussion of the pressures of his new job Ross was asked what he would describe as his toughest experience.

It was then that he mentioned his granddaughter.

"I've seen some tough things in my life," he said. "I'm just going to give it an honest day's work."

That was not the only trauma Ross has faced. His career and life have been a roller-coaster ride for the past six years, ranging from the high of a national championship season at Georgia Tech to the low of personal tragedy.

He was seemingly on the top of the world six years ago as the Maryland head coach when basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose, starting a turbulent time in the university's history.

The fallout included Ross' departure after the 1986 season.

"I'd probably still be there if it hadn't been for the death of Lenny Bias [June 17, 1986]," Ross said. "I enjoyed Maryland. I still think it's a great area."

Although his departure fueled the controversy, Ross said: "A lot more was made of that than what really happened. I don't think it was that big a deal. I left because there was no athletic director in place and there wasn't any intention of bringing in a permanent one for another eight to 10 months. I felt that was too long to go without direction. That's why I resigned. That's what it boiled down to, very simple."

He quit without another job, although he had two jobs within a few weeks. He took the offensive coordinator's job with the Buffalo Bills, but before he ever worked in Buffalo, he was offered the head job at Georgia Tech.

He jumped at the chance, although that job quickly turned into a nightmare.

Nine players were ruled academically ineligible that summer. He had to suspend a player who had signed a pro contract. There were internal problems.

It wasn't long before the team was 2-8 and, he said, "we weren't playing hard."

"That's what really bothered me the most. I've always prided myself on getting a team to play hard," he said.

It was at that point that Ross took his wife to a fast-food restaurant and talked about his future, talked about whether he had lost his zest for the game.

He said he wondered if he'd made a mistake taking the job. "It sure went through my mind," he said.

He took his wife home and then drove around Atlanta for three hours.

"I stopped at some shopping centers. It was Christmas time and I like to walk through and hear the Christmas music. It uplifted me a little bit," Ross said. "I think I was just mentally tired. I had just come off that Maryland-Lenny Bias year. I was letting the problems overtake me.

"I was sitting there waiting for something bad to happen instead of thinking about making something good happen. I just had to get myself recommitted. That's what it amounted to. The only person who was going to do it was me. I just had to get myself right. I went on my TV show the next morning, and I was positive from that point on and I stayed that way."

He didn't see an immediate improvement. The team lost its last game in 1987 to finish 2-9 and went 3-8 in 1988. The team started 0-3 in 1989 before turning it around to finish 7-4. The next year came the national championship season.

"It was satisfying that we did it legally and we did it maintaining a good graduation rate," he said. "Our graduation rate at Maryland was good, too."

After the national championship season, the pros started taking notice. The Cleveland Browns interviewed him, but the timing wasn't right.

His mother, who's now in a nursing home, had been hospitalized with two strokes.

"I wasn't ready to be making any changes," he said.

When the Chargers called after Ross guided Georgia Tech to an 8-5 record last year, Ross was ready at age 55 for another challenge.

It won't be easy. The Chargers went 4-12 last year and 6-10 the three previous seasons. But owner Alex Spanos doesn't want a rebuilding program. He brought in Bobby Beathard as general manager two years ago, and he's tired of losing. He wants to win. Now. He can't start 5-20 the way he did at Georgia Tech if he's to survive.

When Spanos hired him, he told Ross, "I don't want to wait a year or two [to win]."

Ross will work hard, but one thing he won't do is sleep in his office the way Joe Gibbs does in Washington.

Ross' record

The Citadel

Year.. .. ..Rec. ..Postseason

1973.. .. ..3-8.. .. .. .. ..

1974.. .. ..4-7.. .. .. .. ..

1975.. .. ..6-5.. .. .. .. ..

1976.. .. ..6-5.. .. .. .. ..

1977.. .. ..5-6.. .. .. .. ..

Maryland

1982.. .. ..8-4.. .Lost Aloha Bowl

1983.. .. ..8-4*.. Lost Citrus Bowl

1984.. .. .. 9-3*..Won Sun Bowl

1985.. .. .. 9-3*..Won Cherry Bowl

1986.. .. ..5-5-1.. .. .. ..

Georgia Tech

hTC 1987.. .. .. 2-9.. .. .. .. .

.. .. 3-8.. .. .. .. .

.. .. 7-4.. .. .. .. .

.. 11-0-1*..Co-national champs

1991.. .. .. 8-5.. Won Aloha Bowl

*ACC champions

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