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"What do you think if I look into it?" he asked Alice not long after she caught him reading that book during the daytime. He didn't have to tell her what it was. "I don't think much will come of it," he went on, "because I am old, and they're not going to be interested. But what do you think?"
And that is how it started.
Not much more than a year later, in December 2003, Ross abandoned his retired life in Lexington, Va., and landed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., as coach of perhaps the weakest program in Division I-A football. Last year Army went 0--13, the worst single-season record in major college football history. The Black Knights have lost 24 of their last 25 games. In recent years they have also been dominated by the other service academies, losing 14 of their last 15 games with Air Force and five of their last seven with Navy. The lone coach to have had a winning percentage over .500 at West Point in the last 30 years, Jim Young, finished his eight-year run there in 1990. Though Young's percentage was only .566, he's revered today by Army fans who regard his six winning seasons and three bowl appearances as proof that the Black Knights can still compete with the nation's top programs.
Army had three coaches between Young and Ross, and their winning percentages were .445, .125 and .000. The last of them, John Mumford, served as interim coach for seven games last season, after the academy fired Todd Berry last October. "If you coach, you coach to win, first and foremost," says Mumford. "And to be part of an institution with a history as storied as this one's ... well, when you're in the Army there is no second place. So it's very disheartening what we've gone through here. No, horrible might be a better word to describe it."
To a veteran coach like Ross, who's old enough to remember when Army was the best football school in the country, the job comes wrapped in the stars and stripes. It represents a chance to serve your country. But to a younger generation of coaches, West Point is where you go when you have an urge to send your career screeching into reverse. The academy's high academic standards prevent coaches from recruiting many top high school players, and the players who get in are obligated to spend five years in the Army after they graduate. About half of the players approached by the coaches reject the school because they don't want a future in the military.
The war in Iraq has cost Army a few potential recruits as well. "Maybe two percent of those I contact bring up the war," says offensive coordinator Kevin Ross, Bobby's son. "To those kids I say, 'All right, then. Good luck.' I don't waste any time on them. You can't talk those kids into coming here, you know? And then I put the phone down and say, 'Thank you very much. Somebody else will defend the blanket of freedom you're sleeping under tonight. Don't worry about it. We'll take care of it for you.'"
Air Force and Navy face similar problems in recruiting, but other factors have contributed to their success against Army. Air Force, a member of the Mountain West Conference, wins games because it has had a fine, innovative coach in Fisher DeBerry for the past 21 years. Air Force and Navy are also more attractive to teenage prospects who grew up on movies and video games that glamorize the lives of jet-fighter pilots and make the Army's work look far less appealing by comparison. Navy has struggled on the field almost as much as Army in recent years, but as an independent it has the freedom to schedule weaker opponents. Army's Conference USA affiliation, on the other hand, prevents it from padding its schedule with confidence-builders. Each season the Black Knights are locked into eight conference games, plus Air Force and Navy, leaving them only one week to schedule a pushover. Army will leave Conference USA after this season, which should help the school find more wins. "I don't know of any reason why we can't be a top 25 team," says Mumford, "even with the things we have to overcome."
"It takes a special person to come here," says Connor Crehan, a junior reserve quarterback from Plainfield, N.J. "We might not get the top players in the country, but that's no excuse. We still get players who are good enough to win ball games."
Bobby ross was born in 1936, and as he grew up in Richmond, he listened to Army games on the radio and followed the team in the paper. The Black Knights were then a football power and a symbol of the strength of the U.S. armed forces. They won national championships and produced Heisman Trophy winners, and celebrities traveled up the Hudson River from New York City to attend home games, adding more glamour to a place already dripping with it. The Ross family had a gossamer-thin connection to the academy. When Bobby's father was in high school, he won an appointment to West Point. To a child of the working class there were few greater honors, but Leonard Aloysius (Bus) Ross was forced to decline the opportunity, what with his family needing him to work.
Bobby would have the military education that his father was denied. He attended Richmond's Benedictine High, an all-male military school run by Benedictine fathers, and then he enrolled at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. Two of his three sons would graduate from military academies--Chris, now a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, from the Air Force Academy; and Kevin, a former Marine, from the Naval Academy--and one of Bobby's two daughters would marry an Annapolis graduate. Bobby's familiarity with military schools makes him especially qualified for the Army job. And while some civilian schools might've been turned off by his age, the academy wanted an experienced Division I-A head coach who'd had success rebuilding troubled programs. Army also wanted someone who understood the special challenges faced by cadets who couldn't always put football first.