MIAMI -- Bobby Ross said this week that "chances are good" he would have stayed on as the football coach at Maryland if Len Bias hadn't died and the administration at College Park hadn't come tumbling down.
That is a huge if, of course. Guessing what would have happened at Maryland if Bias hadn't died is not unlike guessing what would have happened in the 1994 World Series if there'd been no baseball strike. The landscape was so completely altered that what-if speculation is meaningless.
Still, Ross' positive sentiments about Maryland are bound to frustrate Terps alumni and fans, most of whom equate his name with that now-rare commodity called success. Ross won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship in three of his five years at Maryland, and in the eight years since he resigned he has won a national title at Georgia Tech and now coached the San Diego Chargers to a place in the Super Bowl. The Terps? They have had only one winning season since Ross left. Their post-Ross highlight is a trip to the Weed Eater Bowl.
Yet while it is obvious that Maryland would have won many more games in the past eight years with Ross, that doesn't mean that the Terps' constituency should rue the day he left.
In the first place, no matter what he says now, it's doubtful he would have lasted much longer than the five years he did at Maryland, even if Bias hadn't died. Ross has never lasted longer than five years as a head coach anywhere. His feet tend to get itchy. And, clearly, he was meant for a more prominent stage. College Park was never going to be anything more than a steppingstone for him. Any foundation he built was going to be temporary.
Furthermore, the belief here is that, as effective and successful as he was as a college coach, Ross is more suited to the pros, where he can give himself up completely to winning ballgames without having to worry about whether his players are capable of passing Biology 101.
That is not to say he is blind to the importance of academics and other rules of order in the college game. "We ran a clean program and graduated players at Maryland," he said yesterday. "One year we made the top 10 list of graduation rates put out by the College Football Association, and that's the only time Maryland has ever been there. I'm proud of that."
But it is also true that Ross was more willing to compromise on the character of his players than either of his successors, Joe Krivak and Mark Duffner. There were a few rough customers on his Maryland teams, talented players who didn't exactly do the school proud with their off-field behavior. Several were involved in incidents that required police.
Only later, after Ross was gone and Maryland began holding itself to a higher standard, did that situation change.
Of course, Ross, as every coach does, was just taking as much recruiting rope as the school would give him in those days. Entrance standards, accountability and in-house scrutiny were much more lax then, before Bias died. Ross was just playing by the rules the school had established. But he wouldn't have had that advantage after Bias' death, as he admitted yesterday.
"I personally think we overreacted to that very sad situation," he said, "but it happened, and a lot of things at the school were starting to change. There were grave concerns, as there should have been. I found that I didn't have control over things that were happening."
After he quit without a job, and before he was hired at Georgia Tech, he interviewed to become the head coach at California, a school where academics are stressed. He wasn't a fit.
"I interviewed with the chancellor there, and I forget his name now, but I wasn't sure he wanted to win football games," Ross said. "I like academics, too, but I want to win football games."
Such priorities were fine for pre-Bias Maryland, but not right for post-Bias Maryland.
And while the post-Bias football team has ranged from mediocre to downright poor, its downfall was a necessary price to pay for the school to regain its self-respect.
Standards had to be raised. The sight of football players on the police blotter had to become a no-no.
Ross is a fine coach and a gentleman, but he was never going to understand why higher standards suddenly were necessary at Maryland. He still doesn't understand.
As strange as it sounds, with Ross sitting here having a chance to become only the second coach to win a national title and a Super Bowl, it is just as well for the greater good of the school that he decided to leave.