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September 11, 2004

Army Football Back From The Brink

FROM THE BANKS OF THE MIGHTY HUDSON comes a story as tingly and inspirational as any there is.

The story—which could well be entitled “Bobby Ross: The Savior of Army Football”—involves generous portions of patriotism, tradition, humility, wisdom and passion. Interwoven as well are pervasive themes of family ties, unswerving ethics and senior citizen comeuppance (Ross is 67 years old).

In a superbly written, 5400 word feature article in the latest Sports Illustrated magazine by writer John Ed Bradley, Ross’ remarkable football achievements are dutifully recounted. Likewise, readers get a comprehensive insight into Ross’ commendable character.

Ross’ credentials for college coaching—even at the age of 66—were quite impressive. Consider Ross’ achievements:

• A share of the 1990 national championship with Georgia Tech.

• A trip to the Super Bowl with the San Diego Chargers in 1995.

• Solid stints with the University of Maryland, The Citadel and the Detroit Lions.

Ross was forced to abruptly quit the game halfway through the 2000 season (blood clots in his leg). A ho-hum miracle of blood-thinning pharmaceuticals eliminated his circulatory difficulties, and the over-energetic coach found himself at home bouncing off the walls. He also realized that he missed football, and bad.

So, with the support of his wife and five grown children, he became a coach-available-for-hire at the age of 66. If George Halas, Joe Paterno and Casey Stengel could do it, why couldn’t he?

All well and good; so here was an idle blue chip coach of an impeccable pedigree. But there are special challenges associated with Army football, not the least being rigorous academic requirements and a five year military commitment.

Consider the glory and the plight of Army football:

• A rich tradition as a national power with the morale and support of millions of servicemen, ex-servicemen and their families. Talk about pressure and expectations.

• An appalling erosion in competitiveness over the past decade. Last year’s team had the worst single-season record in college history (0-13). Plus Army has lost 24 of their last 25 games.

• Army has been resoundingly drubbed by the other service academies in recent history; losing 14 of their last 15 to Air Force and 5 of their last 7 to Navy.

• Author Bradley pens a humiliating, but accurate description of the depths to which Army football has descended: “To a younger generation of coaches, West Point is where you go when you have an urge to send your career screeching into reverse.” Gee, Mr. Bradley, do you have to beat around the bush like that?

Still and all, by most accounts, Bobby Ross is the man to pull Army out of its abyss. He has a reassuring maturity and immense experience. He has the energy and passion of a man twenty years younger. He has perspective, humility and pride.

Perhaps most importantly, he has a fundamental understanding of military life. His father was accepted at West Point during the thirties, but couldn’t attend due to the Depression. He spent two and a half years in the Army in the early sixties when the Cold War was at its coldest. One son, Chris, attended the Air Force Academy; another, Kevin attended the Naval Academy (Kevin has joined his father at Army as offensive coordinator). One of his daughters is married to an Annapolis grad.

Former Army AD Rick Greenspan (who just accepted the AD position at Indiana University last week) provided a stirring statement of how and why West Point football is different, “This place touches people. You feel like you’re contributing to a bigger mission. Football is intertwined with the military . . . there are common characteristics between a football squad and a platoon: teamwork, overcoming adversity, dealing with injury. Maybe some of that is lost on young coaches. This is part of what makes it so poetic that Bobby’s here now.”


Who cannot help but to be rooting for Coach Bobby Ross?

(this 656 word excerpt—with accompanying commentary—was distilled from an 8-page, 5400-word, 13 picture feature story in the Sports Illustrated issue of 9-13-04. The writer is John Ed Bradley.)