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Bobby ‘No-Loss’ Meets Demand : College football: Ross wins the hearts and minds of Georgia Tech fans, players.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He had captured his players’ attention many times, but never had Bobby Ross, Georgia Tech’s football coach, captured all of their hearts. Until last season.

That’s when Ross, a former military man known for his unbending ways, the man dissatisfied Georgia Tech followers once mockingly referred to as “Bobby Loss,” leaned on his team for quiet support and his team leaned back.

The result was a surprising and sometimes magical season in which the Yellow Jackets earned a co-national championship and learned a little more about the private man who led them there.

Since then, Georgia Tech has basked in the attention earned by the national title they shared with Colorado. Already fund-raisers have collected $5 million more than they did in 1990. After a three-year decline, freshman applications are up 22%.

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Things, too, have changed for Ross. Cleveland owner Art Modell was interested in him for the Browns’ vacant coaching job.

“Let me tell you something,” said Ross, sitting in his office and eating a lunch of milk and cookies. “After my first two years here, they didn’t want to see me.”

Actually, everything is up at Georgia Tech these days, including season-ticket sales, national television appearances and, most of all, expectations.

When their season begins tonight against Penn State in the Kickoff Classic, the Yellow Jackets will find themselves ranked in the top 10 of nearly every preseason poll in the country. And according to 20 of the Associated Press voters’ ballots, Georgia Tech should go on to win a second national championship, which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be nearly as improbable as the one it won last year.

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Ross wasn’t thinking about any of this last Nov. 3, the day he revealed something about himself without realizing it. Unbeaten Georgia Tech was at Charlottesville, Va., to play undefeated and No. 1-ranked Virginia. At stake was the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and an outside chance at a national title.

But that was football. Also on Ross’ mind that morning was news that one of his daughters-in-law was going to give birth to a son. Eight months earlier, the same daughter-in-law had mourned the death of her infant child, who had died shortly after receiving a heart transplant. Now this. New life. Ross could hardly contain his happiness.

Adding to the emotion, Ross’ ailing father had come to watch his boy coach a game that would be seen nationwide, one that ultimately would send shivers down the rankings.

When the afternoon was finished, Ross had a 41-38 victory and much more. His Yellow Jackets had overcome a 14-point halftime deficit and won on a 37-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining. But perhaps more special to Ross was what happened afterward.

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As jubilant players celebrated inside the cramped locker room, Ross’ father was led inside and helped atop a chair. In a break from tradition, the Yellow Jacket captains didn’t bother taking a vote. The game ball was presented to the coach, who, with tears in his eyes, handed it to his dad.

“We knew that would be the only game (Ross’) father would be able to see,” said Joe Siffri, an offensive lineman who had battled with the coach for years. “We really wanted to give his father the game ball.”

Later that season, the elder Ross had heart bypass surgery. He is fine now, but at the time, who knew?

Siffri is the same guy who nearly caused a player revolt when Ross replaced the charismatic Bill Curry, who left for Alabama after the 1986 season.

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“A lot of the players who came to Tech came there because of Coach Curry,” Siffri said. “I mean, the campus was in the middle of a city, the school hadn’t had a winning season for a while, the ratio of women to men wasn’t that great and the women that were here were fairly on the ugly side. The big thing that (Georgia Tech) had going for it was Coach Curry.”

Siffri purposely missed team meetings. He loafed. He challenged Ross’ authority.

“I messed up a lot, but (Ross) saw something in me,” Siffri said.

Ross went 2-9 in 1987, 3-8 in 1988 and was 3-3 in 1989 when the team held a players-only meeting. They did so amid an ever-growing booster backlash against the uncompromising Ross.

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Finally, defensive lineman Jeff Mathis stood up and said: “Hey, Coach Ross knows what he’s doing. We’ve just got to all work together.”

Georgia Tech has lost only one game since.

But it wasn’t until last January, when Georgia Tech beat Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl, that Ross truly cemented his standing. And truth is, the victory had little do with the conversions.

Several days before the team was to leave for Orlando and the Citrus Bowl, Ross’ mother suffered a stroke. Again, Ross was forced to mask his heartbreak as his team prepared for a title run. Until a reporter alerted a player to the situation, none of the Yellow Jackets knew of Ross’ inner pain.

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“He never let us see him hurting,” free safety Ken Swilling said. “That’s just the way he is.”

A few weeks earlier, Siffri’s father had died after a long battle with spinal cancer. It was a trying time for Siffri, who found an unlikely friend in Ross.

“That completely won me over,” said Siffri, who has joined Ross’ staff as a graduate assistant. “Coach Ross would commend me on the way I was handling it. He would commend me on what I was doing without saying anything about his situation.”

Immediately after the Citrus Bowl victory, Ross told his team he had to leave to care for his mom. But he didn’t go alone. His players’ prayers followed him.

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“He had a second family,” Siffri said. “His team.”

Ross’ mother recovered. But as one family crisis ended, another began. Marine Lt. Kevin Ross, Bobby’s son stationed at the El Toro air station, was sent to the Persian Gulf War.

A Marine supply officer, the younger Ross was stationed near a prime SCUD missile target. Later, as Iraq began responding with missile attacks, Ross found himself tested once more.

“I knew he was in a supply area,” Ross said. “I heard (the missile reports on the news) and, my God, it just took everything out of me.”

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Kevin returned safely home and Ross, at last, was able to rest easy. Or was he?

Ross worked furiously during the recruiting weeks, hoping to take advantage of Georgia Tech’s high profile. He calls recruiting “a harder season.” That done, Ross conducted spring workouts, followed by intensive preparation for the Penn State game. By his own admission, Ross said he has never been more ready for a season opener.

“If you know me--and you don’t--I’m a look-ahead, rather than a look-behind type of individual,” he said.

“Maybe that’s why I didn’t enjoy the national championship, either,” he said. “There’s that thing in the back of my mind, that things can change rapidly.”

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One of these days, Ross promised, he will stop and admire his work.

But not now. There is a game to be played. And at least 11 more after that. He is worried about his running game and frets about his team’s depth. Ross doesn’t have time for yesterday. For him, a legacy will have to wait.


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