After 0-13 season in '03, Ross' Black Knights hope to mimic biggest rival
Posted: Wednesday December 1, 2004 6:24PM; Updated: Friday December 3, 2004 10:03AM
Even though his team is 2-8, Bobby Ross has seen a good deal of improvement out of Army.
For the 10th consecutive year, tickets for the Army-Navy game have sold out, and for good reason. Countless aspects of this 105-year-old rivalry command respect, from the thrill-inducing pageantry of the pregame ceremonies to the unparalleled sportsmanship of players who are destined for far tougher assignments than those awaiting their Division-I counterparts bound for Green Bay or Oakland.
Less of a draw, at least in recent years, has been the quality of football itself. These are two teams who, after all, have had one winning record between them in the previous five seasons. And yet in the past two years, Navy has improved so dramatically -- and Army has fallen so far -- that the Midshipmen have literally run away with the game, posting rushing tallies of 421 and 359 yards in wins of 58-12 and 34-6. As competitions go, these were, despite both team's obvious efforts, duds of the first degree.
The onus is on Army to reverse this trend, and there are signs that this year's game, at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, could provide more interest. Hired after the team finished with major college football's all-time worst record of 0-13 last year, Bobby Ross, who coached Georgia Tech to a co-national title in 1990 and San Diego to the Super Bowl in 1995, has led the team to a more respectable 2-8 record thus far, with three of those losses being by a touchdown or less.
Two, incidentally, was Navy's win count in 2002, under then-first-year head coach Paul Johnson, whose ability to guide the Midshipmen to an 8-5 finish in 2003 and an 8-2 record so far this year has been a source of inspiration for none other than his upcoming opponent.
"We use the Naval Academy and Air Force Academy as our models," Ross admitted last week. " I have to give credit to Johnson and his staff. They turned it around so quickly. It's amazing how fast they have done it."
Have a question or comment for Kelley King? Submit it here.
From one of his first team addresses -- "We are going to bring the Commander-in-Chief's trophy back to West Point" -- the 67-year-old Ross made clear his intentions for a similarly swift about-face at Army. Taking advantage of the service academy's lack of recruiting limitations, he started by convincing 76 players to come to Army. He then dispensed of the spread system installed under outgoing coach Todd Berry, replacing it with a more balanced, two-back attack that would help Army's smallish personnel equalize the playing field against more athletic teams.
Week by week, Ross and his assistants took intricate stats to monitor player progress in every area of the game, yet another step to boil Army down to the characteristics that had once defined the program: toughness and accountability.
On Oct. 9, Ross' Army halted a 19-game losing streak with a 48-29 win over Cincinnati. One week later, the Black Knights beat South Florida on the road, 42-35. Four defeats followed, but they weren't without bright spots, including a 435-yard offensive outburst in a 31-22 loss to Air Force.
These are gains, yes, but Army, even with its unique recruiting challenges, is capable of better. And there is no better opportunity to take a giant leap forward than in a rivalry game so storied that win-loss records are meaningless. To that end, Ross says that he has prepared harder and better for his first Army-Navy game than he did for the Super Bowl.
"From the minute I walked on campus," he said before heading off to an hour-long defensive meeting on Tuesday, "I knew this was an important football game."
When talking about Army and Navy in these troubled times, the words "important" and "football" might not sit comfortably in the same sentence. And yet, it is precisely for overseas alums, several of whom wrote the team encouraging letters in recent weeks, that Ross would like to put on a show on Saturday. For these Black Knights, their archrival's recent improvement is hardly the only inspiration to play well, and with pride.
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.