"It isn't going to be easy," says Alice, "but when you're with Bobby, you'd really rather be the underdog, because that's when he's at his best. I doubt there's a coach in the country who's won more games that he's been picked to lose than Bobby has."
Last year, after the academy dismissed Berry, it offered the job to Frank Solich, the former Nebraska coach. Solich turned it down. Next on the school's list was Ross, who says he didn't mind being second choice. "I've never been first for any job I ever got," he says. "That's ego, anyway, and I don't let ego enter into it. I felt like, Look, you know who I am. If you want me, you want me. If you don't, you don't."
In other words, Ross didn't want to suffer through a long interview process that would force him to do anything as unseemly as boast about his career. Before being approached by Army, he had traveled to Durham, N.C., and been interviewed for the head job at Duke, but the school ultimately gave it to a younger man, 40-year-old Ted Roof, who had performed well that season as the Blue Devils' interim coach. Ross had wanted the Duke job, and he returned home disappointed and convinced that his age would keep him unemployed. "That's the end of it," he told Alice. "It's over with, I'm getting the message."
By the time Army's athletic director, Rick Greenspan, telephoned him last November, Ross had decided to stick to his life of honey-do's and mowing the lawn. Greenspan asked him to watch Army's game with Navy on TV. Immediately after the Black Knights' 34-6 loss, the AD called Ross back and invited him to fly up to West Point for a visit. "Alice really needs to get me out of the house," Ross told Greenspan when he arrived.
A short time later he told Greenspan about his father's appointment to West Point. "I could tell Bobby felt like he should be here, like he was living a bit for his dad," says Greenspan. "That's kind of how this place touches people. You feel like you're contributing to a bigger mission. As a football coach you have your job, but you're also involved in something much more meaningful. Bobby understands that football is intertwined with the military and that 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."
Greenspan offered him the job, and Ross said he needed 24 hours to mull over the decision with his wife. Alice didn't hesitate to tell him what she thought. "I let him know it was his patriotic duty to coach that team," she says. "I feel sorry for the soldiers over in Iraq and Afghanistan who have to keep hearing that the Army football team lost another game. That has to be demoralizing, and it has to stop."
At his first meeting with the Army players, Ross detailed his expectations and his plans for the future. The players were gathered in a lecture hall, scattered in the seats. "First of all, we are going to win," Ross said to begin his presentation. When he finished, some 30 minutes later, he asked if there were any questions. Linebacker Greg Washington stood up and said he had four questions, the first being why Ross thought he was the right man for the job.
"I just wanted to test him," says Washington, a senior from Fayetteville, N.C. "We knew he'd come out of retirement, and the guys on the team were wondering about his reasons for wanting to coach again."
"Coach answered in his typically humble fashion," says Greenspan, who attended the meeting. (Last week Greenspan left West Point to become athletic director at Indiana.) "He said he'd been around the game a long time and had a reasonable understanding of the military. 'You may not know this,' he said, 'but I coached in the NFL and in college, and I had some success, and we were able to win a championship and go to the Super Bowl.' It was a fairly protracted answer because Bobby was summarizing 40 years of coaching experience. But through it all he was very matter-of-fact, and you could see the guys starting to come up off their seats. Their expressions changed. It was like, Holy smokes! This guy knows what he's doing.
"When Bobby finished he turned to Greg and said, 'I'm sorry, but what were your other questions?'