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Maryland's Ross Resigned Because of Uncertainty, Delays in Program

December 07, 1986|TONY KORNHEISER | Washington Post

Monday, the University of Maryland lost a football coach who said he had no other job to go to. Apparently, Bobby Ross preferred having no job to having this job.

Announcing his departure, Ross said this wasn't "a real happy day" for him. But when was the last day he was truly happy at Maryland? When was the last day he stood up and said: "I like this place, I like this job."

Ross hasn't been happy at Maryland for some time, through this whole season, at least. Everywhere he looked--on those rare occasions when Ross looked up from his game preparation--he saw uncertainty. Because there is no permanent athletic director, Ross couldn't know who he'd be working for. Because money is committed elsewhere, Ross couldn't be sure when the promised improvements to the football facility would begin.

Because the athletic director and the basketball coach already had gone, because the chancellor hadn't pledged his love recently, and because the school had given him a deadline to declare his intentions, Ross didn't know how he stood with the administration, the same administration that just last month issued a statement condemning his behavior after the North Carolina game as "an embarrassment to this institution."

So he quit. And both he and Maryland are better off that he's gone. What is gained by having an unhappy employee no matter how proficient he is at his job?

Sometimes, no matter how carefully you pin your wash to the clothesline, a mean wind blasts through and blows it all away. Real life has a nasty habit of compromising all those fancy plans you've made. Leonard Bias' death was such a mean wind, and for six months now it has howled through the halls at Maryland, scattering the wash.

Leaders are found and personalities revealed in times of crisis. After Bias died, the institution of Maryland athletics and everything connected to it was, justifiably, examined. This was a startling intrusion of real life into what is normally a highly controlled, insulated environment.

Ross reacted by retreating deep into the shadow of his work. Rather than come to the fore and in a statesmanlike way speak out on serious issues, such as academic integrity, for the most part Ross kept his head down and his eye on the target--to win games. Everything else was a distraction. When the task force report was issued, Ross said he wasn't going to read it until after the season.

Like most college football coaches, Ross wasn't in the university business, he was in the football business. He often said he would stay at Maryland if the school gave him the chance to compete for the national championship on an equal footing with schools such as Penn State and Michigan. Toward that end, Ross wanted improvements in Byrd Stadium--which, it might surprise you with all we've heard, is still standing--and recently he had mentioned the need for an indoor practice facility.

Dick Dull agreed with Ross, which is why Ross signed the four-year contract last January. And though Dull is gone now, according to Charles Sturtz, interim athletic director, these requests "were not unreasonable." But they weren't going to happen as soon as Ross wanted, and this troubled him. The timetable that Ross was working under apparently wasn't the same one the administration was working under. Just days ago, Ross said apprehensively, "I don't know where they're coming from."

Where they're coming from, still, is Bias' funeral. The end of the cortege is in sight, but it's moving slowly. "We've had a time of turmoil and crisis," Sturtz said. "We hope we're near the end of that period." With such disturbing revelations of academic laxity in the basketball department fresh in our minds, it hardly seems the appropriate time for the university to dedicate itself to a rearming of the football program. Regardless of what promises might have been made, everybody at Maryland--including the football coach--should be sensitive to anything that even hints at an affirmation of athletics over academics.

Leaving aside the questions of propriety, Maryland's athletic budget now is being taxed by such new and novel line items as paying Lefty Driesell not to coach and not to do a television show. To please Ross, Sturtz said curtly, would require time and resources. "At this time we have more time than we have resources."

Maryland made the right move in choosing Ross. He ran an honest program and a distinguished one. He turned an ugly duckling into a swan, putting a passing offense on the field. A Ross team gave you more bang for your buck. His record was 39-19-1. He went to four bowl games. Even with no indoor facility, Maryland established itself as a legitimate top 20 team under Ross. (In fact, last year Maryland did compete for the national championship on the same level with Penn State and Michigan. The Terrapins were beaten on the field, not by it.)

But for the last two years, Ross has appeared restless, pouty, and in search of public affirmations of Maryland's affection. Although he said he wasn't looking elsewhere for a job, he declined to sign the 10-year contract that was offered him last year, signing the four-year contract instead. Now, less than one year later, he's leaving. All season long there was public speculation he might bolt, and he did nothing to silence it. His apparent anguish over this frustrating season boiled into rage in the notorious referee chase-and-grab incident after the North Carolina game, and to this day his apology was for how it looked, not what he did.

Bobby Ross is a fine coach. Maryland will be lucky to find another as good. But this wasn't about coaching. This was about getting caught in the whirlwind. Real life events conspired to make Ross unhappy at Maryland, and real life is too short to spend it thrashing.

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