Soon enough, Ross learned the success of Army football and whether the United States was actively engaged in war were often intertwined.
When Ross began to recruit in the winter and spring of 2004, the conversations he had with parents of prospective players often turned toward what was happening in Iraq. Those same conversations would include Afghanistan as well.
"I experienced that quite a few times, parents saying, 'I don't want my son to go to war,'" Ross, who retired after Army won nine of 34 games in three years, said recently. "They wanted them to get a degree from a military school, but they didn't want them to go to war. I think that was a part of it [Army's lack of success]."
Ross, whose first head coaching job was at the Virginia Military Institute during the Vietnam War, recalled one recruit in particular.
"I had a real good safety from Naples, Fla., whose parents did not speak English. I had to take an interpreter with me into his home, and we lost him because his parents did not want their son to go to West Point and fight a war," Ross said. "He was a tremendous kid. He could have been a leader within the Corps, and he was a darn good player."
As Army (2-9) gets ready to play Navy (7-4) on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, looking to break a 10-game losing streak against the Midshipmen, it appears that fourth-year coach Rich Ellerson is running into the same problems that foiled Ross and others who couldn't turn around the program.
After a promising start under Ellerson that included a 12-13 record in his first two years and the school's first bowl appearance in 15 years in 2010, the Black Knights look as if they have regressed despite leading the country in rushing offense and beating Air Force for the first time since 2005.
"I'm a little surprised that the momentum hasn't continued after we went 6-6 and beat SMU in the bowl game," said Kevin Anderson, who hired Ellerson from Cal-Poly in 2009 and left to become Maryland's athletic director in the fall of 2010. "I thought it was on the upward swing and they would have done better."
Anderson said he believes the program has yet to recover from the seven seasons it spent in Conference USA between 1998 and 2004, when it won a total of 13 games and no more than three in one season. "Those were some pretty dire years," said Anderson, who came to Army in 2004. "Trying to get back to where Army football was, it's been pretty difficult. Navy and Air Force -- particularly Navy -- have had great success during the same period, and that might have had something to do with it [too], trying to rebuild."
'There's a way forward'
A 41-21 home win over Air Force last month is certainly a salve to what has been another long season, and has given the team a chance to play for the Commander in Chief's Trophy for the first time since Ross' second year, but though they now use the triple-option offense, it still appears as if the Black Knights can't copy Navy's nearly uninterrupted success of nine winning seasons beginning in 2003.
The spectre of war still casts a rather ominous shadow on West Point's hallowed grounds along the Hudson River.
"There are a lot of challenges ... but we think there's a way forward," Ellerson said before last week's Army-Navy luncheon in Philadelphia. "We are an Army at war, and Mom and Dad and everybody reads the paper. The guys [who] we recruited came for the right reasons -- they came with the eyes wide open, we don't shy away from that."
Army athletic director Boo Corrigan, who succeeded Anderson, said Ellerson "is the right guy" to bring Army back to prominence and is often perplexed by the lack of success that Ross had in his short time at West Point.
"Coach Ross didn't become dumb at West Point. He's a hell of a football coach," said Corrigan, whose father, Gene, was the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference when Ross was in his final year at Maryland and later when he won a share of the national championships while at Georgia Tech.
Ross said he believes other factors played into his inability to turn the program around. There was the remote location of the school, outside little Highland Falls, N.Y., as well as the 19-game losing streak he inherited.
Neither Ellison nor Corrigan believe the success of the other two service academy teams limits the chances of Army getting its share of the same players who wind up in Annapolis or Colorado Springs, Colo., with Air Force. "We're a different destination [than the other service academies]. We truly are," said Corrigan, who spent three years working at Navy earlier in his career. "At the end of 47 months, most likely within 12 months, you're going to be somewhere in harm's way. ... That's where the outcome is. You've got to embrace who we are and what makes us different. The leadership opportunity that it provides is amazing."