At Army, it's forward march

Bobby Ross: Veteran coach inspires Cadets in dual comeback.

College Football

December 03, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WEST POINT, N.Y. - A middle-aged man approached Bobby Ross after a recent practice, asking the first-year Army coach to sign his football and offering words of thanks for giving him and others some hope for the future.

"It's been an enjoyable season," the man told Ross.

"I don't know how much fun 2-8 can be," Ross answered with a smile.

It could well be 2-9 after tomorrow's game against 8-2 Navy at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, but many of the goals Ross set when he came out of retirement last December have been met by the Black Knights this season.

"We have gotten better, we are more competitive, so that part of it's been good," said Ross, 67, sitting in his spacious office overlooking Michie Stadium last Friday afternoon.

"But it's a tough place to coach, it really is. I felt like coming in I knew a lot about the place, and I do know a lot about the place. But there have been some things I learned, too, as I've gone through."

Ross has experienced some of the same obstacles his predecessor, Todd Berry, faced before being fired in the middle of last season after a 3 1/2 -year tenure produced five wins in 40 games. Ross said he thought some of the problems had been "exaggerated" to cover up the losing, but realized they were part of the job.

"What I learned over the summer was that we lost a lot of the development of our players that we had made in the offseason [because of] the [military] training they go through," Ross said. "The progress that some of them had made in the spring, some of them still haven't gotten back to where they were."

Another issue for Ross has been the admissions process.

At a time when there has been a reported 20 percent decline in applications academy-wide, Ross said of the process: "I knew it was complicated, but I had no idea how complicated and how extensive it is and how thorough it is. The medical part of it is so intense, I guess that's the word I want to say."

Former athletic director Rick Greenspan, who hired Ross before taking the same job at Indiana University in the fall, said he didn't try to hide the reality of coaching at Army.

"It's a very complex place," Greenspan said in a telephone interview from Bloomington earlier this week. "It's certainly learnable, and Bobby is a very bright guy. He'll be fine."

Becoming competitive

Even with its current four-game losing streak, Army has been a lot more competitive than it was last year, when the Black Knights became the first team in Division I-A history to go 0-13.

The offense, similar to the one Ross used in his previous college jobs at Maryland and Georgia Tech, as well as in the NFL, has improved from 115th (270.8 yards a game) to 47th (387.9), but the defense ranks last in total yardage (498.4) and 107th in scoring (34.6 points a game) among 117 teams.

With the exception of a 52-21 loss to Louisville in the season opener and a 40-3 defeat at Connecticut two weeks later, the Black Knights have been more competitive than they were a year ago, when they lost by an average of 20 points.

"I think the team has more confidence now than we did last year because we're seeing results," said Delente Brewer, a senior cornerback from Dallas. "We've had struggles on defense, but as far as the attitude, it's definitely changing because of those two wins.

"Two wins might not seem like much to anyone else, but they boosted our confidence tremendously."

The first win, over Cincinnati on Oct. 9, broke the nation's longest losing streak at 19 games. It was followed with another at South Florida the next week.

Asked to describe the feeling when Army finally won for the first time since beating Tulane in 2002, Brewer said: "It was crazy. The whole corps rushed the field. It was just like a sigh of relief. All that hard work had paid off. One win is a huge step when you're trying to get past a losing streak."

The two victories even got some around here starting to think that the turnaround was ahead of schedule.

Ross knew better.

"I knew after we won the two games, it was a lot like my second year at Georgia Tech," said Ross. "We beat South Carolina; they were ranked eighth in the country. Everyone said, `It's over with. We're ready to move on.' But I never felt that, because I never felt we were at a competitive level yet.

"It's kind of like the feeling we have right now. We lost to TCU out here in the last 41 seconds of the game. We had Air Force through three quarters, and we had two turnovers which just killed us. We need more oomph. We need more talent. We need more strength. We need more athleticism."

Still, Ross has received plenty of support that he is taking the program in the right direction, hearing it from his immediate supervisors as well as visiting generals and soldiers who regularly e-mail him from their posts in Iraq and other parts of the world.

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