WEST POINT, N.Y. - A middle-aged man approached Bobby Ross after a recent practice, asking the first-year Army coach to sign his football and offering words of thanks for giving him and others some hope for the future.
"It's been an enjoyable season," the man told Ross.
"I don't know how much fun 2-8 can be," Ross answered with a smile.
It could well be 2-9 after tomorrow's game against 8-2 Navy at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, but many of the goals Ross set when he came out of retirement last December have been met by the Black Knights this season.
"We have gotten better, we are more competitive, so that part of it's been good," said Ross, 67, sitting in his spacious office overlooking Michie Stadium last Friday afternoon.
"But it's a tough place to coach, it really is. I felt like coming in I knew a lot about the place, and I do know a lot about the place. But there have been some things I learned, too, as I've gone through."
Ross has experienced some of the same obstacles his predecessor, Todd Berry, faced before being fired in the middle of last season after a 3 1/2 -year tenure produced five wins in 40 games. Ross said he thought some of the problems had been "exaggerated" to cover up the losing, but realized they were part of the job.
"What I learned over the summer was that we lost a lot of the development of our players that we had made in the offseason [because of] the [military] training they go through," Ross said. "The progress that some of them had made in the spring, some of them still haven't gotten back to where they were."
Another issue for Ross has been the admissions process.
At a time when there has been a reported 20 percent decline in applications academy-wide, Ross said of the process: "I knew it was complicated, but I had no idea how complicated and how extensive it is and how thorough it is. The medical part of it is so intense, I guess that's the word I want to say."
Former athletic director Rick Greenspan, who hired Ross before taking the same job at Indiana University in the fall, said he didn't try to hide the reality of coaching at Army.
"It's a very complex place," Greenspan said in a telephone interview from Bloomington earlier this week. "It's certainly learnable, and Bobby is a very bright guy. He'll be fine."
Even with its current four-game losing streak, Army has been a lot more competitive than it was last year, when the Black Knights became the first team in Division I-A history to go 0-13.
The offense, similar to the one Ross used in his previous college jobs at Maryland and Georgia Tech, as well as in the NFL, has improved from 115th (270.8 yards a game) to 47th (387.9), but the defense ranks last in total yardage (498.4) and 107th in scoring (34.6 points a game) among 117 teams.
With the exception of a 52-21 loss to Louisville in the season opener and a 40-3 defeat at Connecticut two weeks later, the Black Knights have been more competitive than they were a year ago, when they lost by an average of 20 points.
"I think the team has more confidence now than we did last year because we're seeing results," said Delente Brewer, a senior cornerback from Dallas. "We've had struggles on defense, but as far as the attitude, it's definitely changing because of those two wins.
"Two wins might not seem like much to anyone else, but they boosted our confidence tremendously."
The first win, over Cincinnati on Oct. 9, broke the nation's longest losing streak at 19 games. It was followed with another at South Florida the next week.
Asked to describe the feeling when Army finally won for the first time since beating Tulane in 2002, Brewer said: "It was crazy. The whole corps rushed the field. It was just like a sigh of relief. All that hard work had paid off. One win is a huge step when you're trying to get past a losing streak."
The two victories even got some around here starting to think that the turnaround was ahead of schedule.
Ross knew better.
"I knew after we won the two games, it was a lot like my second year at Georgia Tech," said Ross. "We beat South Carolina; they were ranked eighth in the country. Everyone said, 'It's over with. We're ready to move on.' But I never felt that, because I never felt we were at a competitive level yet.
"It's kind of like the feeling we have right now. We lost to TCU out here in the last 41 seconds of the game. We had Air Force through three quarters, and we had two turnovers which just killed us. We need more oomph. We need more talent. We need more strength. We need more athleticism."
Still, Ross has received plenty of support that he is taking the program in the right direction, hearing it from his immediate supervisors as well as visiting generals and soldiers who regularly e-mail him from their posts in Iraq and other parts of the world.
"There is a huge passion for us to win in football, and it comes primarily from our ex-players," Ross said. "They have deep inner pride. They'll reiterate their desire to see us do well. They're not after us to win as they are for us to be competitive."
War - off the field
Ross said he understands the games - even the Navy game - are viewed with a different perspective given the current atmosphere here regarding the war.
"We are very close to the war," said Ross. "We had the chief of staff of the Army up here last week. We had the guy who caught Saddam Hussein come by to visit me. We've got a flag down in our dressing room in a case - it's a flag from a battle in Afghanistan where three troops were killed that a West Point general brought up to us."
But Ross also said he doesn't believe the war will affect his program in a negative way.
"I was at The Citadel in 1973 [toward the end of the Vietnam War] as the head coach, and it was a lot tougher than it is now [to recruit]," said Ross.
As for this week's game, how can a coach who has taken his team to the Super Bowl, as Ross did with the San Diego Chargers in the 1994 season, and won a share of the national championship, as he did with Georgia Tech in the 1990 season, get overwhelmed by the hype of Army-Navy?
"I think it will be kind of like the Super Bowl, really," said Ross. "You spend all that time on it, when you get to it, you're down to another game. But I'm looking forward to it. I see it as a national game. But we had big games at Maryland and Georgia Tech and places like that."
Decision to return
The biggest support Ross has received has been from his wife, Alice. Living happily in retirement in the mountains outside Lexington, Va., the past couple of years, Ross hadn't thought about coaching again until he was contacted twice last November, first by Duke and later by Army.
Going through the interview process in Durham initially led to Ross' turning down Greenspan's offer to talk.
"I kind of was not quite turned off by it, but I didn't want to go through it again," said Ross. "Either you are interested or you're not. If you can tell me after the interview, but don't drag me on. After that, I said, 'It's over with.' Maybe [Duke] didn't like me because of my age. Maybe they didn't like me, period. It didn't matter."
About 10 days later, Greenspan called again and the day after the Army-Navy game, the two flew here together in a private plane to finalize the deal. Ross didn't seem to mind that Frank Solich, who had just been fired at Nebraska, had been Army's first choice.
In accepting the job, Ross talked about the long list of great military leaders who have come out of West Point, as well as great coaches. He also mentioned how his late father earned an appointment to the academy back in the early 1930s but stayed home to work during the Great Depression.
What attracted Army to Ross, aside from his coaching record, was that he came from a military background.
It began at Benedictine High School, a military-style school in Richmond, Va., and continued through his undergraduate years at VMI. Ross spent nearly three years in the Army. His first college head coaching job was at The Citadel, where his assistants included Ralph Friedgen (Maryland) and Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech).
Two of his sons, as well as a son-in-law, are service academy graduates. One of them, Kevin, joined his father's staff here as offensive coordinator, allowing Ross and his wife to live near two of their 14 grandchildren. Ross and his wife are also raising one of their other grandchildren.
"The move has been great for my wife," said Ross, who lives in a house originally built by Army coaching legend Red Blaik. "She's really taken to the place."
Kevin Ross, a 1988 Naval Academy graduate, thinks that his father has adjusted well to his new surroundings.
"I don't think it took more than a nanosecond. He's definitely fallen right back into it," said the younger Ross, who spent the past three years on Al Groh's staff at the University of Virginia. "It's a seamless transition in terms of football. He's on top of things all the time."
Health is 'pretty good'
Though the return to coaching has invigorated Ross, the hours he puts in can wear out a man half his age. Ross, who will turn 68 on Dec. 13, has not cut down on his 15-hour workdays, but has cut out those five-mile runs during the season so not to wear down his legs.
In his final season with the Detroit Lions in 2000, Ross found a searing pain in his right leg was caused by a couple of blood clots. He spent five days in the hospital. Told by a team doctor that he needed to coach practice from a golf cart, Ross decided to retire instead.
"My dad lost both legs because of circulation problems," Ross said. "He wasn't a diabetic. I was experiencing the same thing. It scared me, to be very honest with you. I'm over that now. My legs are still tired, but it's more from being on them than the health problems. Overall, I'm feeling pretty good."
'Huge fire that burns'
Though Ross joked at his introductory news conference nearly a year ago that one of the reasons he took the job was he had tired of what he called the "honey-do" lists in retirement, he talks now about how he missed the competitiveness that comes with coaching.
"I wasn't lost in retirement. A lot of people think I was because I came back," he said. "I wasn't busy, but I tried to stay busy. I just felt like I had some more energy to give, and I wasn't using it all. My day would be over by 5 o'clock. Coaching-wise, your day's just about starting at that time."
Greenspan saw that the moment he talked with Ross about coaching Army.
"I know that Bobby to some comes across as grandfatherly and phenomenally at peace, but he's got a huge fire that burns inside him," said Greenspan. "His goal is not to walk away from a year saying, 'We didn't lose as bad.' I don't think he's ever aspired to a morale type of victory."
That is what he is trying to convey to his players.
"From all the years of coaching, he has perfect timing when to say, what to say and how to say it," said Brewer. "He knows what to say to motivate us. He's a pretty intense guy. You probably wouldn't think it because of his age. All he wants to do is win. He's all about establishing a winning atmosphere up here, and he won't stop until he does it."