Ross is much the same as Bennett. "He is the most driven, competitive person I've ever known," says Friedgen. In 1982, when Ross was a first-year head coach at Maryland, his assistants were shocked to find him vacuuming the football offices before recruits visited. His micromanagement never waned. Last May a group of Detroit players were grinding through a voluntary conditioning workout at the Lions' practice facility when Ross came down from his office and simply watched, as if the players were children. This fall he stopped assistant John Misciagna in a hallway of the practice facility and complained that the pictures on the walls hadn't been updated. "You're dealing with a unique person," says Misciagna, who also worked with Ross at Maryland and with the Chargers. "We tried to get him to delegate more, but he had to keep himself involved in every phase of the program."
Ross coached this season with two blood clots in his right leg, which forced him to wear heavy support hose. He has suffered from back trouble for several years. People close to him thought the end might be near, and when consecutive losses to the Indianapolis Colts and the Dolphins dampened a 5-2 start, Ross was gone. He embarked almost immediately on a cross-country trip to visit his five children and 13 grandchildren, during which he has remained virtually incommunicado.
There are coaches who endure, however, often by embracing the credo Less is more. The Florida State football team of Bobby Bowden, 71, will play for its third national championship in eight years on Jan. 3. "I don't really coach much anymore," Bowden says, meaning that he delegates heavily to a talented staff. Bowden deflects praise and criticism with dadgummits and the like. Dick Vermeil flamed out two seasons after taking the Philadelphia Eagles to Super Bowl XV in 1981, but he returned in '97 with a Bowden-esque philosophy and last season, at age 63, guided the St. Louis Rams to the NFL tide. "First time around I was 85 percent hands-on and 15 percent leader," says Vermeil, who retired again after last January's Super Bowl. "Second time I was 85 percent leader and 15 percent hands-on."
Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum, 64, has been in his position for 30 years and has no plans to retire. While Bennett would sit in hotel rooms on game days, his stomach in knots, Crum has been known to go fishing. It's his recipe for survival.
It's not likely that ambitious coaches will learn from Bennett and Ross. Less than a month after Ross's meltdown, his good friend Friedgen was driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, searching for players to help revive Maryland's moribund program. Friedgen hadn't slept much or eaten well since taking the Terps' job a few days earlier. "I'll make every mistake that Coach Ross made," he barked into his cell phone in rush-hour traffic. "It's the only way I know."
The furnace door is open.