Part two of the new blog series – A Tree Grows in Charleston: The Bloodline of Citadel Football
I had the recent pleasure of talking with one of the most influential and spirited coaches to ever walk through the Citadel’s historic black gates, kicking off my new blog series titled A Tree Grows In Charleston: The Bloodline of Citadel Football.
The weekly series of conversations and posts is designed to convey the untold stories of some of the game’s greatest teachers, former and present, whose coaching journeys have all passed through the small military school tucked away in beautiful Charleston, S.C.
After breaking into the collegiate coaching profession as an assistant at the likes of his alma mater (and Citadel rival) VMI, William & Mary, Rice and Maryland, Bobby Ross landed his first head coaching gig at The Citadel in December 1972.
“I felt like I was ready for the job having worked under some good people in John McKenna at VMI and Jerry Claiborne at Maryland,” said Ross. “Being a collegiate football player in a Corps, much like The Citadel, as well as some military experience also had some definite influence on me getting the job.”
I could tell by the excitement in his voice after asking the first question, “How do you remember The Citadel?”, that Coach Ross had only great memories of the place where he spent the first seven years of a head coaching career which included a UPI National Championship with Georgia Tech in 1990 and an AFC Championship/Super Bowl XXIX appearance in 1994 with the San Diego Chargers.
His first order of duty: Hire a staff of assistant coaches who would fit the system. Boy, did he do just that.
Ross assembled a young staff of guys who, at the time, were unheard of in the college coaching world, but perhaps now you have heard of a few of them.
Frank Beamer, who is entering his 26th season at the helm of the Virginia Tech football team as the winningest active coach and longest tenured coach in the FBS, started his career as a young assistant under Ross in 1973.
The name “Ralph Friedgen” is immediately associated with the University of Maryland, but the 10-year head coach of the Terps began his coaching career on the Johnson Hagood Stadium field under Ross from 1973-75.
And what about Jimmye Laycock, who carries a 215-160-2 record into his 34th season as head coach of the William & Mary football team? Laycock’s first full-time coaching position came at The Citadel as the offensive backfield coach under Ross.
The list can go on forever from Cal McCombs (Air Force, VMI) to Charlie Rizzo (Wake Forest, Rice, TCU, Houston) to Rusty Hamilton.
“I had a wonderful staff and, in fact, one of the best in the history of college football at the time, but no one knew them because they were just young coaches,” said Ross. “It was a staff made up of great people who were all committed to the student-athlete.”
Ross credits a lot of the success in the locker room and on the field to the importance and significance he placed on making the team a part of the Corps.
“We ended up having a few athletes, such as Kenny Caldwell, who were able to take rank in the Corps and that really helped the team out,” added Ross.
Caldwell, a four-time letter winner as a punter and linebacker for The Citadel, is now a member of The Citadel Athletic Hall of Fame and has remained a permanent fixture on the football field’s sidelines for more than two decades as the team’s orthopedic surgeon.
When asked what his favorite moment at The Citadel was, Ross was able to vividly recall a game against VMI in Lexington, Va., on Oct. 25, 1975.
“We went up there and were extremely ready to play. We had our normal workouts and then our team meeting right after dinner,” explained Ross.
Ross went on to describe the news broadcast that the team had seen on the television before dinner which included a clip of the VMI tight end being very critical of The Citadel football team. He explained how the interview emotionally charged a lot of the players, especially Bulldog linebacker Brian Ruff.
“Brian is one of the most emotional and physical football players that I have ever coached, and I could always tell how emotional he was by how much he was bouncing his leg while he was sitting during the team meetings.
“Well, he had seen the clip on the TV and when we entered the meeting room he was already bouncing around and moving before he even sat down, so I knew he was going to be charged for the game,” finished Ross.
In a defensive battle, the Bulldogs edged the Keydets by a score of 6-3 thanks to the tremendous play of Ruff and his teammates, which earned The Citadel great a traditional dousing of water at the end of the game.
“One thing I always carried with me from The Citadel was the degree of discipline that these kids had. They always played hard, and I mean really hard, and those were the two key factors to our successes,” said Ross. “We never won any championships and we were never world beaters, but we had some real nice, significant wins.”
After a five-year stint with the Bulldogs from 1973-77, Ross left The Citadel to take a job with the Kansas City Chiefs. After four years in the National Football League, Ross returned to college football where he spent his next nine seasons with Maryland and Georgia Tech.
Ross returned to the pros to head the San Diego Chargers after an 11-0-1 season with the Yellow Jackets in 1990, which included an ACC title and a share of the national championship.
In Ross’ five seasons with the Chargers, they won two division titles and made the playoffs three times, including the team’s first AFC Championship and trip to the Super Bowl in 1994 where they fell to the San Francisco 49ers.
Ross left San Diego to head the Detroit Lions from 1997-2000 before closing out his illustrious coaching career at Army from 2004-06.
While The Citadel might not be the first thing that comes to mind when the name “Bobby Ross” is brought up, it sure is the first thing that comes to mind when the legend recalls his own coaching career.
“The Citadel was the most enjoyable coaching experience I’ve ever had and one of the most wonderful times of my life,” finished Ross. “And I must say that I am most proud of the fact that we beat Furman every year that I was there!”
Stay tuned for next week’s story, featuring Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer as he talks about his time and experiences as an assistant coach at The Citadel.
If there is a coach you feel should be highlighted, or if you have any information on a former coach who you think would be a good fit for this series of posts, please reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with some information and I would be happy to help the tree grow!
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