'No beer ... no women:' Ex-Army football coach Bobby Ross defends his recruiting trips
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — When Army football recruits took a bus trip with head coach Bobby Ross, there was no drinking and definitely no dancing in the aisles like a trip for recruits earlier this year.
Ross came out of retirement to coach the U.S. Military Academy's Black Knights from 2004 to 2006, and he did take cadets and prospects for a ride down New York's Palisades Parkway. But it wasn't for a night of unsupervised fun.
The recruits, their parents and every member of Ross' coaching staff was along for the ride, he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
"There was no beer, there were no women, there was nothing like that," Ross said. "And it was supervised by the entire coaching staff."
The bus trips to the Palisades Mall came under scrutiny last week after an Army report leaked to The Gazette showed unsupervised high school football recruits and 20 cadets used the jaunt as an opportunity for underage drinking and raucous revelry. West Point's superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen said Sunday that all cadets and leaders involved had been punished and that the antics of the Jan. 25 outing won't be repeated.
Ross, 77, is a legend in coaching circles. But before he took to the sidelines, he was on the front lines of the Cold War with the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment where he served as a lieutenant in a unit that was tasked with stopping a Soviet advance into Germany. Ross said his Army experience showed him that athletes at West Point needed to be officers first, and football players second.
"I have great respect for Army athletes," he said.
The leaked report said the Palisades trip dated back to Ross' tenure as coach. The same report said mall trips had few rules and no officer supervision.
Ross is mad about that.
"This is very damaging to my reputation," said Ross, who contacted The Gazette to set the record straight.
Under him, the trips were much tamer, he said. The Palisades Mall had a Dave and Buster's franchise that was the perfect place for the coach to talk to parents and recruits. The group would get a buffet dinner and then Ross would take the stage.
"I would tell them a bit about West Point," he said. "Then we would show them a film on the history of West Point."
Ross may be best known for his years in the NFL. He led the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl and took the Detroit Lions to the playoffs. Before that, he earned top coaching honors for leading the Georgia Tech Bulldogs to a share of the National Championship in 1990.
Before that, though, Ross started his coaching career by showing future officers how to win on the gridiron at the Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.
Building a team that will have to be better on a battlefield than it is on a football field means bringing in great recruits and showing them quickly that their future is about more than touchdowns, Ross said. The trips to the Palisades Mall accomplished that goal by letting coaches tell recruits and their families about the values of West Point, he said.
"I went on every bus trip," Ross said. "We would go somewhere in the neighborhood of five to seven times in the season."
The hottest entertainment for the recruits was a 45 minute break to play video games at the mall, Ross said.
A graduate of VMI, Ross sees his reputation as sacred. For him and his family, much of life has been about duty, honor and country.
The coach's children have served - one is a 1988 graduate of the Air Force Academy.
He said he wanted players who could live up to military ideals. That, he said, was more important than winning.
"That's what I believe in," Ross said. "I believe in the West Point system."
Ross took over the 0-13 team in 2004 after his wife talked him into the job.
"She said it was my patriotic duty," he said.
The Black Knights under Ross showed steady improvement on the field, but never were great. He went 9-25 in his three years.
Ross re-entered retirement in 2006.
"I just didn't have the energy," he said.
That had to do with age, though, not heart, he said.
"I loved my time there," Ross said.