Taking charge in San Diego Ex-Terps coach Ross leads turnaround team

October 28, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- At Maryland, he cried after his second game. At Georgia Tech, he nearly quit in his first season. And, now, here amid the gentle breezes and blue skies of this pro football ghost town, he merely apologized.

Beginnings never have come easy for Bobby Ross throughout most of his 27-year coaching career. His first season as head coach of the San Diego Chargers has been no different from the way it was early on in College Park or Atlanta.

"I feel more comfortable on the job on almost a daily basis," Ross said in his office at Jack Murphy Stadium on Friday. "It's going to be based on how things go."

Things have gone smoothly for Ross in the past few weeks. After an 0-4 start, the Chargers have won three straight, including Sunday's down-to-the-wire, 24-21 win over the division-leading Denver Broncos.

Until this recent turnaround, Ross had gotten off to another rocky start. In his first NFL head coaching job, he didn't like the work habits of his players on the practice field. He wasn't getting along with the local media.

And, most significantly, his team was losing. It was after the Chargers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers last month -- a 23-6 defeat in which San Diego collapsed in the fourth quarter -- that Ross apologized to the team's fans, the city fathers, mothers and anyone else who cared to listen.

"He had told the team something to that effect in the locker room, but I didn't think he was going to say the same thing to the press outside," said Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard.

"That's the way Bobby is. He's totally honest."

Or, as longtime assistant Ralph Friedgen, now the Chargers tight ends coach, said, "With Bobby, what you see is what you get."

Not everyone feels that way. A beat reporter from the Los Angeles Times accused Ross in print of being misleading about personnel moves during the preseason, and the coach's relationship with the press has been strained since.

It startled Ross, who had good working relationships with the press while at Maryland and Georgia Tech. But Ross always has been the kind of coach who preferred watching films to trading one-liners.

"I'm not going to say that there's not an adjustment," said Beathard, who hired Ross to replace Dan Henning and become the team's ninth head coach, its third in the past five years. "But I don't think it's as big an adjustment as some people want to make you think. He's a football coach. Some guys can fit into any level, and he's one of them."

Said Ross: "Having been in pro football for four years as an assistant, there are certain things I understood about the league coming in. You don't get a rah-rah type of atmosphere. But that nTC doesn't mean you can't work on getting the right level of intensity. It's been a little bit of a struggle for me."

The recent winning streak has helped Ross get his message across to his team. And it's readily apparent that the players respect Ross, whose work habits include 18-hour days. The words you hear from the San Diego players are similar to those spoken during the past 10 years at Maryland and Georgia Tech.

"We want to play hard for him," quarterback Stan Humphries said. "You want to win for him."

The easiest part of the transition for Ross has been his continued anonymity. Ross used to joke that he could take his daily jog around the Maryland campus and few people knew who he was. His profile got a little bigger after taking Georgia Tech from the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference to the top.

But in a town that seems to have a revolving door for its coaches and managers, Ross is just another ruddy face.

Though ex-college coaches have not had great success in the pros -- Lou Holtz lasted less than one season with the New York Jets after a successful stint at North Carolina State -- Ross has long been thought of as pro coaching material.

His reputation was enhanced during the four years he spent as an assistant under Marv Levy with the Kansas City Chiefs before coming to Maryland in 1982. He coached special teams and defense his first two seasons and offensive backs the last two years. It was then that Ross became intrigued by the possibility of becoming an NFL head coach.

It was why he was going to join to Levy's staff after resigning from Maryland in 1986, a move that lasted about 10 days before he took over at Georgia Tech. It was why he interviewed for the Cleveland Browns' head coaching job after leading the Yellow Jackets to a share of the national championship in 1990.

"At the time [of the Browns' offer], I didn't think it was the right move," said Ross, 55. "My mother was very sick. I was pretty happy at Georgia Tech. I felt I had a real good team coming back. When Bobby [Beathard] called last year, I thought, 'Maybe this is the time.' If I ever was going to do it, now was the time."

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