Ask Bobby Ross about coaching the San Diego Chargers last season, and sooner or later the story gets around to his father.
Leonard Ross, 89, is a retired railroad worker living in Williamsburg, Va. Every afternoon at 1:30, he used to leave his apartment and walk half a mile to a nursing home to visit Ross’ mother, Martha.
He brought a glass of water to her bed, sat by her side, stroked her hands and hair, talked about the days when five children filled their house with laughter.
He sat by his wife’s side for two hours, even though his own health is fragile.
He left town on an overnight trip only once in several years because he didn’t want to miss his daily visit.
And never did Leonard Ross complain that his wife of 63 years had no idea who he was.
Martha was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and lung cancer. On a good day, there might have been a glint of recognition in her eyes. Or maybe that was just the light.
On Aug. 14, she died. Only then did the visits stop.
“My dad . . . yessir, he’s somethin’,” Ross says softly. “Sometimes, I guess, people got to do what they got to do.”
After the Chargers had lost their first four games last season, about the time their rookie coach was looking like a college punk who couldn’t handle the big leagues, Bobby Ross did what he had to do.
He showed his players cheerleading films.
They weren’t the kind you see at the drive-in; they were films of Chargers clapping for each other, slapping each other on the back, whooping and hollering and celebrating.
“We didn’t have too much going right on the field,” Ross said, shrugging. “So we looked for anything, anywhere, which would show any kind of positive emotion from this team.”
His assistants put the five-minute films to rap and rock music and showed them every week. Sort of like “The NFL Meets MTV.”
Thus inspired, the Chargers began playing well enough that the cheering segments were soon replaced with clips of leaps, dives and touchdowns.
“Friday Night at the Movies” became the hit of the season.
“It became the one thing everybody looked forward to, something that brought us all together,” linebacker Gary Plummer said. “When you grow up dreaming about being a football player, you dream that your moves are set to music, like on television. With that little film, those dreams became real.”
As did the dreams of a plain-as-grits Southern football coach who overcame the ominous start to lead the Chargers to 11 victories in their final 12 games and the AFC West Division title.
He even made history along the way, the Chargers becoming the first team in NFL history to qualify for the playoffs after losing their first four games.
For all of this, Bobby Ross, with his baggy pants and cockeyed baseball cap, was voted NFL coach of the year by seven major organizations.
There was probably not a more unlikely hero in the league, or even in football-mad Las Vegas, as Ross learned during his first trip there over the summer.
While sitting at one of the head tables at a dinner where he received another award, he talked to a trustee from UNLV.
“After about 15 minutes, she says, ‘Now what was your name? And what do you do?’ ” Ross remembered. “When I told her I was getting one of those awards, she apologized. I said, ‘What are you apologizing for?’ ”
This is precisely the attitude you would expect from a man whose tastes in restaurants recently stunned even a longtime assistant coach.
John Misciagna, the Chargers’ quality-control coach, remembers Ross inviting him to dinner this winter when they were scouting the Senior Bowl at Mobile, Ala.
“He said, ‘I think I remember this really great place in town,’ then he pulled into a shopping mall,” Misciagna said. “We walked inside to a cafeteria.”
Ross probably will not surprise many people this season as he once again attempts to do the improbable.
Sure, college spirit and a down-home climate infused a last-place, 4-12 team with the belief that led it to a championship. But will those same methods work with new egos and high expectations?
With a 1-1 record--an anticipated victory over the Seattle Seahawks and their customary defeat at Denver--the Chargers face their first important test of the season Sunday at San Diego against the Houston Oilers.
The question being asked most by Charger fans, who haven’t enjoyed consecutive winning seasons since 1981-82, is: Will Ross’ quick fix stick?
“Sure it will,” said Burt Grossman, a defensive end. “It’s weird, but some of the stuff we do . . . it’s like habit forming.”
For the players, those habits include running and blocking until a whistle blows. Complimenting teammates after good plays. Holding hands in the defensive huddle.
For Ross, who had not been in the NFL since spending four years as an assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs more than a decade ago, the habits formed were more basic.
He now knows that an NFL game is stopped with two minutes remaining in each half. In one of his first games last year, he called time out with 2:01 left in the first half.
He also knows that the big defensive end for the Raiders is known as Howie Long, not Huey Long, which is what Ross called him all season.
“Maybe you better not tell him that,” Ross said. “I don’t want him to get mad.”
That was only one of the names fractured by Ross, 56, who endeared himself to employees by behaving like an eccentric uncle.
There is no truth, though, to the rumor that the Chargers did not re-sign quarterback Bob Gagliano ( Gah -liano) because Ross never correctly pronounced his last name.
Some are still waiting for him to correctly guess what day it is.
Because Ross has never quite abandoned the mind-set of a college coach who plays every Saturday, Sundays are Saturdays, and Mondays are Sundays, and so on.
Not that he didn’t have an exact idea about what the team should be doing each day. No matter how lost the coach might look, nobody in the organization pays more attention to detail than Ross.
Once he stunned office workers by noticing that after the walls had been painted, pictures had been hung differently. He might be the only coach in the NFL who takes one step into his office and announces that the carpet has been cleaned.
Misciagna, who spends hours analyzing opponents’ tapes, remembers the time he drew 30 defensive formations used by an opponent the previous week.
Ross looked at the list and remembered a 31st that had been on the same tapes.
“All of this trickles down to the staff, and then to the players,” Misciagna said. “All of this works.”
Ross’ season calendar has become legendary. He assigns activities for each day through the end of the year, and includes that calendar as an important part of the playbook.
“When I first distributed the calendar, everybody was saying, ‘What is this?’ ” recalled Tammy Renich, Ross’ secretary. “I said, ‘This is our lives for the next seven months.’ ”
Ross is just as persnickety on the field, where he will order his team to repeat a play several times until it is done properly.
“We do it right before we walk off the field, or we don’t walk off the field,” quarterback Stan Humphries said.
Sometimes, he even gets involved in those plays. He is probably the only coach in the league who will follow a running back into the line so he can get a better view.
“Like Bobby says, practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect,” Misciagna said.
It looks funny, this middle-aged man in baggy pants running into a group of players twice his size. But the message is clear.
“This is a guy who makes you want to play for him,” Humphries said.
Ross makes a mental note of sacks and sulks alike. Several times last year, he noticed players who appeared bothered by something.
“He would call that player into his office to talk and, sure enough, usually something was going on,” Misciagna said. “He is the most intuitive person I have ever met.”
The players responded in ways that far exceeded even Ross’ dreams, which amounted only to winning more games than they lost.
“The pro coach today always emphasizes the negative . . . everybody thinks pro athletes are robots,” Plummer said. “But we are human beings. By recognizing that, Bobby got the most out of us.”
The players weren’t so trusting when Ross arrived last season with little more than a co-national championship for Georgia Tech--the Yellow Jackets shared the 1990 title with Colorado--on his resume.
But General Manager Bobby Beathard, who, while with the Washington Redskins, had once hired an obscure coach named Joe Gibbs, knew what he was doing.
“Some people said it was a gamble . . . but knowing Bobby like I did, it was one of the safest, easiest decisions I have ever made,” Beathard said. “Like Joe Gibbs, he is a terrific person and a great football man.”
But about those details . . .
One of the first things Ross did was to clock how long it took the players to travel from the cafeteria to the meeting rooms to the practice field at the Chargers’ training camp at UC San Diego.
When one of the drafted players was late for a summer workout, Ross personally checked the airport. The plane had not been delayed, and the player heard about it.
Four important veterans were no-shows at those voluntary workouts. Three are no longer with the team.
“We were trying to establish a basis for the program, some philosophies,” Ross said, shrugging. “We wanted to get everybody paying attention to the same thing.”
By the second quarter of the first exhibition game last season against the Phoenix Cardinals, the only thing anybody saw was disaster.
John Friesz, the Chargers’ young quarterback, suffered a serious knee injury in that game and was sidelined for the season.
In their first regular-season game, against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chargers fumbled the opening kickoff out of bounds on the two-yard line, then punted four plays later.
Dale Carter returned that punt for a touchdown, and Ross’ monthlong nightmare began.
By the time September ended, they were 0-4. A Ross-led offense had scored two touchdowns, and the defense gave up 61 points in the third and fourth quarters.
“I wanted some early adversity to see what our team was made of,” Ross said. “But I was talking about a couple of bad plays. I wasn’t talking about 0 and 4 and losing a quarterback.”
Luckily for the organization, though, both Ross and Beathard had been through this before.
Beathard had watched Joe Gibbs lose his first five games before becoming perhaps the best in the business.
At Ross’ previous job at Georgia Tech, which he began in 1987, he lost 20 of his first 25 games.
One night during that stretch, Ross left his office and drove around Atlanta for nearly four hours, stopping only to pace through shopping malls.
He didn’t buy anything. He didn’t even walk into a store. He just paced. “Yeah, I guess I almost quit,” Ross said. “But then I thought about something I learned from Marv Levy. Just keep your eye on the target.”
No offense to San Diego retailers, but last year during his moments of great distress, Ross traveled no farther than his right pocket.
At the bottom of that pocket, with the loose change and paper scraps, was a Virgin Mary medal.
When Ross was in trouble last year, he reached into his pocket and held it.
“Maybe if I can get a couple of Hail Marys in there, I’m all right,” Ross said.
He did a lot better than that. The Chargers rebounded from their poor start to win four games in a row, then, after a two-point loss at Kansas City, won their final seven regular-season games and the division championship.
They shut out the Chiefs in the first round of the playoffs before being overwhelmed by the Miami Dolphins in the conference semifinals, 31-0.
The Chargers sent five players to the Pro Bowl, led by Junior Seau, Leslie O’Neal, Anthony Miller and Gill Byrd.
Bill Arnsparger, the defensive coach Beathard coaxed back into the NFL after an eight-year absence, was again hailed as a genius.
But much of the credit was given to Ross. “We had a better football team than in the past, we just needed somebody to pull them together,” Beathard said. “The players saw that Bobby was a fighter, and that he was for real.”
That last quote was read to Donnie Ross, Bobby’s younger brother, and he smiled.
His mind went back to a man who was so poor he never owned a car. A man who turned down an appointment to West Point because his father had lost his job and he was needed at home.
A man who joined the railroad only days after resigning from the academy and retired 56 years later. A man who lived detail by detail, rising every morning at 5, even on days he could have slept.
His mind went back to a man named Leonard who, to this day, is still the toughest thing in the Ross household. “Yep, everybody always says it,” Donnie Ross said. “Bobby, he’s just like Daddy.”