By Ron Donoho
Seldom do outsiders navigate the impersonal interior hallways peculiar to San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. The enigmatic Chargers head football coach dwells here—somewhere—and suffers few fools. Gladly.
During a mid-season bye week, however, an interloper has been granted an hour of his time. En route to the coach’s office, the guest halts in a darkened corridor. Is this it? Surely this must be a pit stop, a checkpoint. Where’s the marble-trimmed gold-and-blue lobby? There’s no wet bar. No cappuccino machine. Not even a waiting room filled with blown-up sideline photos of the rock-jawed coach gallantly engineering a Sunday victory. Surely a wrong turn has been taken, an exit sign missed.
Wait—there’s a tiny, nondescript nameplate on a door. Here in the dark, signage is barely readable. A closer look is necessary. Good gracious—instead of Broom Closet, the sign says Bobby Ross.
Here is what you might expect to find inside Boss Ross’ lair:
A plaque commemorating the Chargers’ 1994 season as American Football Conference champions and Super Bowl participants.
The 1992 Coach of the Year Award from United Press International.
A Georgia Tech banner honoring the national co-championship he won coaching the Yellow Jackets in 1990.
Mementos from the University of Maryland, where Ross coached his way to four bowl games in five years and, in 1984, notched the greatest comeback win in NCAA Division I history. (Overcoming a 31-0 halftime deficit, the Terps beat the University of Miami 42-40.)
A mug—or something, anything—recognizing the 1957 Virginia Military Institute team Ross quarterbacked to a near-perfect 9-0-1 record in the old Southern Conference.
But none of these things is present.
Instead, there are rows and rows of blue binders full of scouting reports. A modest wooden desk. Pictures of his five children and 10 grandchildren fill a shelf. The photos are the only distractions in an amazingly spartan setting. In an absence of glitz and surrounded by football and family, Robert Joseph Ross appears quite content.
Be careful, however, not to confuse content with complacent. And don’t look for either attribute in Ross on a football field. The amiable Southerner turns into a Tasmanian devil on game day. Watch his ruddy visage contort in pain as he berates a referee. See him get in the face of his own 300-pound defensive tackle who isn’t executing the game plan. Clearly, Ross’ coaching technique mirrors a philosophy learned as an Army tank commander: Mind the details. Stay disciplined. Cut loose and yell now and then—but don’t get distracted.
Adherence to order has induced success. Only six teams in NFL history have won more games in four consecutive years than the Chargers in 1992-95—Ross’ first four seasons here. Those 39 victories allowed him to enter the season ranked fifth among active pro head coaches in regular-season winning percentage (.609).
Ross also has managed to win games when it matters most in the NFL—in December. Over the last four regular-season campaigns, the Chargers have gone 12-4 in that final month (4-0 in 1992 and ’95, 2-2 in ’93 and ’94). The pinnacle of December dominance came last year. The team entered the month 5-7 and facing elimination from post-season play. Success in four must-wins—including the infamous snowball game against the Giants at Meadowlands Stadium—gained the team access to the playoffs.
Well, here we are again. Do-or-die time. The Chargers had a woeful mid-season—epitomized by a 32-13 loss to the lowly Seattle Seahawks, after which Ross felt inclined to apologize to the people of San Diego for the offensive effort. The daunting December schedule includes a home game with the New England Patriots, road contests with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears, and a home finale against the Denver Broncos.
This is what we have learned from Ross in four years: No lead is safe, no deficit too difficult to overcome. Whether the standings dictate it or not, Ross considers every game a must-win. It’s an inescapable part of his nature.
John McKenna remembers Ross as a leader—one who knew the value of preparation. McKenna, now 82, coached the Virginia Military Institute football team from 1952 to 1965.
A three-sport letterman, Ross quarterbacked the Keydets football team to an undefeated season in 1957. “VMI is a military academy, and football players really don’t have a lot of time for practice,” says McKenna, “so much of Bobby’s preparation came on his own time.” Besides quarterback, Ross played right cornerback in McKenna’s 5-2-4 defense. (Sit down, Deion Sanders.)
In ’57, VMI was in the midst of an 18-game unbeaten streak. The team beat strong Virginia Tech and University of Virginia squads that year. As Southern Conference champs, VMI earned an invitation to play in the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Day, winning the last game of the regular season on Thanksgiving.
The team, however, decided a vacation from the rigors of the service academy was more desirable than playing in a bowl game. They voted to decline the invitation. “I think if we hadn’t taken the vote right away in the locker room—after a Thanksgiving game—the outcome would have been different,” says McKenna. “But they were tired and didn’t have a lot of time to think about it.” McKenna remembers Ross as voting in favor of playing on New Year’s Day.
The following season, Ross broke his ankle in the second game. A team McKenna felt had superior personnel finished 6-2-2. “Yeah, we missed Bobby,” he says. “He was a fine quarterback and a good ball handler. Not a classic overhand thrower, but very accurate. Maybe even better on defense than offense. But it was obvious he really understood the game thoroughly.”
After Ross’ two-year tour of duty in the Army, McKenna helped him get his first coaching job—at Benedictine High School in Richmond, Virginia—then in 1965 hired him as an assistant at VMI. Ross points to McKenna as his coaching mentor. “I asked him for some advice once on coaching,” says Ross. “He just held out a clenched hand. When I asked him what that meant, he said, ‘Rule with an iron fist.’”
McKenna chuckles at that recollection. “What I said was ‘Rule with an iron fist—and a velvet glove.’ Bobby forgets the velvet part.”
Ross spent six seasons as an assistant coach, at the College
of William and Mary, Rice University and the University of Maryland, before becoming head coach at the Citadel in 1973. He moved up to the pros as an assistant under Marv Levy with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1978. Four years later he returned to the college ranks as head coach at Maryland.
John Slaughter was Maryland’s chancellor during Ross’ tenure at the school. A San Diego resident from 1956 to 1975, Slaughter now is president of Occidental College near Los Angeles. He remembers Ross as being “very intense. Clearly he hated to lose. But along with winning, Bobby always valued integrity. He tries to win, and he tries to be fair.”
Integrity, says Ross, was at the core of his decision to leave Maryland in 1986. It was shortly after basketball standout Len Bias died from a highly publicized cocaine overdose. Ross wasn’t involved. “But,” he says, “the media came in and decided they were going to have to look at me as well as [basketball coach Charles ‘Lefty’] Dreisell. Lefty resigned. [Athletic director] Dick Dull resigned. Slaughter told me it might be a year before we had an athletic director to replace Dull. I didn’t know the direction we were going.”
Feeling hampered in his ability to make promises to recruits, Ross resigned. “If you’re going to demand excellence, you’d better be able to give it, too. I couldn’t. Some people thought I was stupid to resign, but I don’t regret it.”
He didn’t have another job lined up, but Marv Levy, by then coaching the Buffalo Bills, contacted him. Ross verbally agreed to take the quarterback coaching job under Levy. Then Georgia Tech put an offer on the table. Ross wound up taking the head coaching job with the Yellow Jackets. Three years later, Georgia Tech had a share of its first-ever national championship.
Then the Chargers called.
“You keep a short list of coaches in your mind—just in case,” says Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, a veteran of 34 years in the NFL, the last seven with the Chargers. Ross had been on Beathard’s mental short list for quite some time.
Beathard was general manager of the Washington Redskins while Ross was coaching in the neighborhood at Maryland. Even so, the two Bobbys rarely spoke. “He doesn’t have a lot of time for visitors, especially when he’s running a football practice,” explains Beathard.
In ’92, Ross kicked off his pro head-coaching career in San Diego by losing four straight games. The media attacked him mercilessly. “Radio talk shows—those are probably the worst thing that’s ever happened,” says Ross. Print media was not much kinder, calling him unqualified, among other things.
But then, as fans well know, the Chargers jelled under Ross and newly acquired quarterback Stan Humphries. They won 10 of the next 11 games, captured the AFC Western Division title and went to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. The naysayers were temporarily silenced.
There was a time, says Ross, when he was willing to spar with his critics. During the latter portion of his time at Maryland, he was even prepared to buy an ad page in the Washington Post. He wanted to set the record straight—as he saw it—on the school’s beleaguered athletic department. “I called and found out how much it would cost. It was $5,000. I had it all ready to go.” At the last minute he consulted with McKenna, who talked him out of running the ad.
Now, Ross has a simple solution for dealing with critics. “I don’t listen to the radio, and I don’t read the papers,” he says.
“I can’t let those things interrupt my train of thought. I can get kind of emotional. And emotion distracts me in terms of what I have to do. So during the season I’m a horse with blinders on.”
Easier said than done, though. Coaches often say they don’t pay attention to the media. But are they fibbing a bit? For example, Ross notes that the Chargers were on a positive roll by winning four of five games to start this season. Then came a disastrous trip to Denver. The Chargers led 17-0, before uncharacteristically falling apart en route to a 28-17 loss to the John Elway–led Broncos. Says Ross: “Against Denver, we didn’t play well offensively. Then the media pounces all over you. Radio talk shows, they throw the coaches out as bait.” Wait a minute. How does he know this if he shuns media contact?
If he had been listening, Ross might have heard complaints about the decision to discard several key players before the beginning of this season, most notably standout running back Natrone Means. Without Means and third-down specialist Ronnie Harmon, the Chargers’ running game has not been as effective this year.
“I’d still love to have Natrone,” says Ross, “but the situation was his holdout” before the 1995 season. “It was a huge distraction. And it looked like that was going to happen again at the beginning of this season. Natrone’s agent told Bobby Beathard negotiations were going to start at $3.2 million per year. It was going to be an ugly negotiation. So we went on without him.”
Though it was widely reported that Means was dismissed because of “team chemistry” problems, Ross says it was more of a salary cap dilemma. “To some extent it was chemistry. But the worst aspect of coaching today is the dollars-and-cents decisions I’ve got to make. I really hate that part. I’d rather be objective and judge this player by what he does as a player, not what he makes. But it’s gotten to that. I have to do it to stay in this profession.”
How much longer will that be? On December 23—one day after the end of the regular season—Ross turns 60. His contract runs through 1999, but he’s not sure how long after that he’ll be in San Diego—or the NFL.
“I like coaching, but my wife [Alice] says it’s gonna kill me. I didn’t enjoy coaching last year. It was a crisis on the field every day. But the competition of game day is a very good thing. Very few people have that in their jobs. It’s challenging and competitive and exciting and emotional.”
Here comes another challenging December. Bolt backers can only hope for a prototypical month from a Bobby Ross–coached team.