Freshman coaching class is full of winners, but Ross is biggest

December 18, 1992|By Eric Noland | Eric Noland,Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES -- The All-Pro ballot was completed and turned back in to the Associated Press this week. It required the usual difficult choices.

Choose only two wide receivers. That meant spots for Sterling Sharpe of Green Bay and Michael Irvin of Dallas, but left out the eminently worthy Jerry Rice of San Francisco and Haywood Jeffires of Houston.

Pick just two outside linebackers. Washington's Wilber Marshall and Philadelphia's Seth Joyner were chosen because their play demands that opponents never lose track of them, but that meant ignoring such talents as New Orleans' Pat Swilling, Kansas City's Derrick Thomas and San Francisco's Tim Harris.

But perhaps the most difficult decision on the ballot centered around Coach of the Year.

The choice here went to San Diego's Bobby Ross, but he certainly did not lack for competition.

There are nine new coaches in the NFL this season, and five of them -- including Ross -- are solidly in the playoff hunt with two games to play.

Bill Cowher stepped in at Pittsburgh, squeezed the most out of such unsung talents as halfback Barry Foster, quarterback Neil O'Donnell and rookie safety Darren Perry, and quickly swept out the somnolence that marked the wane of the Chuck Noll era.

Mike Holmgren installed the efficiency and productivity of the Bill Walsh system at Green Bay, and in very short order succeeded in making chicken salad out of the Packers.

Dennis Green, another Walsh protege, took over the traditionally underachieving Minnesota Vikings, instituted a no-nonsense code, and has the team one win away from the NFC Central title.

It's hard to fault the work of Indianapolis' Ted Marchibroda, who could sneak the Colts into the playoffs just one year after they plunged to 1-15. Not even the '89-90 Cowboys turned it around that abruptly.

Similarly strong cases can be made for George Seifert at San Francisco and Jimmy Johnson at Dallas. One suffers from the thinking that 49ers success is self-perpetuating, while the other is still looked at as a cocky punk from the college ranks -- neither characterization is accurate or fair.

But Ross, the onetime Maryland coach, deserves this award not only for the remarkable turnaround he accomplished with the Chargers, but also for the unique management style he employed and the initial obstacles he had to overcome.

The team was in desperate condition when he arrived, coming off eight non-winning seasons in its previous nine years. No team in the AFC had been away from the playoffs longer ('82).

Ross immediately made a decision that was unprecedented for rookie head coaches. He chose not to install his own offensive system, resisting any urge to create a kind of Georgia Tech West.

Instead, he stuck with the Washington Redskins derivative favored by general manager Bobby Beathard -- the very offense that Dan Henning had employed to produce a 4-12 record the year before.

Ross said on the phone this week that his thinking was based on the desire not to clutter the tender mind of second-year quarterback John Friesz. Let the kid work with something he knew.

It meant, however, shelving personal ego, a concept that tends to be an anathema to the men who ascend to this level.

"That didn't bother me," said Ross. "The bottom line is to win games, and I'm not going to let egos -- mine or my players' -- get in the way of that, I can tell you that. I don't have that problem. I think I'm able to accept the fact that there's a lot of people out there who are a lot smarter than I am. But I think the main thing is to get yourself around some good people and some good players and let them function. And I felt they could best function in a system they had familiarity with."

This best-laid plan went along wonderfully until Friesz blew out a knee in the Chargers' first exhibition game. Beathard had to hustle a deal for backup quarterback Stan Humphries of the Redskins -- wisely selecting a guy from a system similar to the Chargers'.

Then Ross had to patiently weather Humphries' on-the-fly training, which meant sticking to his convictions when the team got out to an 0-4 start.

The Chargers have since won nine of 10 games, and can clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Los Angeles Raiders Sunday at the Coliseum. They'd be the first team in the NFL's 73-year history to reach the playoffs after an 0-4 start.

San Diego also is firmly in the race for the AFC West title; it hasn't won one of those since '81.

There are those who would undoubtedly argue that the Chargers' success is based primarily on the wimpy, fifth-place schedule that the NFL so generously lavishes on its have-nots. But it should be noted that Henning had the fifth-place schedule after the '89 season, only to go 6-10 in '90. You still have to win the games.

Bobby Ross did. He inherited a mess, but instantly quelled the team's legendary bickering and created an open, player-friendly environment. Then he overcame the twin specters of a lost quarterback and an 0-4 start, all the while keeping his head -- and, more importantly, his ego -- in check.

Nice work.

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