June 30, 2011

Coach Ross: West Point through & through - Part I

Joe Ross is a military guy. You can look it up. And he's a football guy. You can look that up, too.

So it's not surprising that when he gave the public sector a shot in New England a few years ago, he realized that his background simply had to be his future. And so when coach Rich Ellerson reached out to him in 2009, Ross happily marched back home.

This will be his third year as special teams assistant, in addition to working with fullbacks, a position he knows well from his playing days at West Point.

But to refer to him in generalities as a military and a football guy would be a disservice. If you looked up the word leader, Webster could do a lot worse than listing his bio.

Ross spent 14 years in the service after a three-year run as a Black Knight football player - a captain as a senior and the ESPN Hero of the Game against Navy in 1994.

In condensed form, here is some of what Ross experienced before retiring as Major in 2008: At Fort Hood he served as rifle platoon leader, executive officer and support platoon leader. He commanded Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment for nearly two years and completed a deployment to Kosovo.

He went on to get a Masters in Athletic Counseling. He returned to the Point in 2003 as the liaison to the Army football team and Director of Military Enhancement Program at the Academy's Center for Enhanced Performance. He designed and co-taught an upper-level course for 21st Century Warriors and conducted team-building workshops with a variety of teams, including the New Jersey Nets. As part of a Presidential committee he designed a holistic care plan in 2007 for transitioning wounded soldiers back into the Army or civilian life.

Then, in 2007, he served on a 10-member panel selected by the Superintendent to help develop a strategic plan for continuing the winning tradition of Army football.

When he completes his dissertation - "I just need to get off my butt and write my paper, and I'm done,'' he will have a doctoral in Organized Psychology. The paper is in, Ross said, "How goal settings affect your cognitive emotions and your performance.''

So again, why is this guy a football coach? "It's always been a passion,'' he said. "The next best thing to leading soldiers is leading football players. It's the same process, the same fulfillment. A had a year in the corporate world and quickly realized that.''

His passion is evident in his enthusiasm about his position responsibilities, starting with a deep roster at fullback with returning junior Jared Hassin, junior Dan McGue and incoming prep grad Larry Dixon.

"We have three studs,'' he began, "and a lot of depth. I would feel comfortable with any of them in a game. We're not losing a lot when Dan and Larry are in a game and Jared is not. They play the game fast, they play it mean, they're explosive, and with an attitude they're going to get five yards or more and they're gonna be dominant blockers.''

Ross was just that as a Cadet. In the Navy game his senior year, when he played all he running back positions, ran for 120 yards, and, he said, 90 percent of his blocks were knockdowns.

As for the kicking game, he's excited. "First of all, Alex Carlton is back, and he's an absolute stud and will be one of the top kickers in the nation. He's mentally tough, has a great leg and is accurate.

"And I love the competition between Kolin Walk and Chris Boldt,'' he said about the punters. "They are making each other better and I think we'll see a good performance in our punt game. Our kickoff game, I really like how (Eric) Osteen has come on in the spring. He has a stronger leg than Matt Campbell and that will really help our kickoff coverage team. I think we can be a lot better than last year.''

As for the upcoming season, Ross remained positive about its potential.

Asked what we will see at Michie Stadium this season, Ross said in measured words, "A very experienced offense, an athletic team. Disciplined. Explosive, and will hit you in the mouth.''

The Same, But Different

Army was 15-18 during the three years Ross played, but they did knock off Navy all three seasons. One year after he graduated the Black Knights went 10-2 and nearly beat Auburn (though not national champions that year) in the Independence Bowl. Coach Bobby Sutton was named the Bobby Dodd "National Coach of the Year.''

Ross wasn't completely gone from the hill after graduation. He was an assistant strength coach right out of the Academy before returning to the academic side along with his program assignments.

"A lot of things have happened from a strategic standpoint, and it's changed drastically in the last five years to allow athletic teams to be more successful, and implemented systems from the military, academic and physical standpoint, and that's a lot of hard work from the Superintendent, the Dean, Commandant and Athletic Director,'' Ross said, "and a lot of thinking outside the box by the academy itself, and I applaud those who are part of that.

"And coach Ellerson is doing what coach Young and coach Sutton did, and in a more efficient way whereas it gives players more time to be good at all three colors of Cadet life. I think he just 'gets it,' and is passionate about West Point. And when you're passionate about something normally you perform your best.''

Examples of the three colors (academic, military, physical) display the dramatic changes.

On the academic side, Cadets can now take advantage of three summer school programs that can reduce the load come football season.

The military piece used to have sophomores spend eight weeks of BEAST at Camp Buckner, now it is four weeks, along with juniors and seniors. Because of that Cadets are available for internships, based on specific interests and majors.

When Ross was in school, only juniors and seniors were allowed to work out and lift, and do 7-on-7 drills for two weeks prior to official practice. Now it's sophomores, juniors and seniors. "That's what I mean by strategic changes,'' Ross said. "They benefit every Cadet, not just football players. These are probably the most significant changes since General MacArthur was at West Point. He was Superintendent and made changes where every Cadet is an athlete and every Cadet will play a sport. That changed the culture of West Point, and in my opinion the last five years have been the same significant changes.''

Not The Only Changes

Ross pointed out that today's social networking has created added demands on the corps, especially for athletes who have to manage their time more than the general population.

"Things that gave me problems don't exist anymore,'' he said. "And the reason they don't is technology. Technology has changed everything. When I was a Cadet the toughest thing for me was social disconnect. We didn't have cell phones, emails, no TV - in a sense that the phones you had were pay phones, and one TV room that just seniors used. So basically we would talk to family members every few months, or see them at break.

"Now, every Cadet has a phone, a computer, they can text and watch TV on their computers. So now there are more distractions that take you away from your studies. Back then I would focus on studies, get done, go to sleep and just focus on football and academics. Today they still have the every day life they left at home still in their face. So part of their transition is learning how to say no to those distractions. I don't want to make excuses for them, but everyone wants a piece of their time.

"What I will say,'' he pointed out, "is that coach Ellerson has done a magnificent job helping our players manage that time to succeed in all three colors, and he has done it in such a brilliant way that players are more successful in all three colors than ever before since I played to now. I've never seen it done better.''

Success Helps Leadership

Plebes find out quickly that just about everyone in their class was a valedictorian or team captain. That's when the Academy begins breaking people down before bringing them back up higher than ever.

"The first thing you're going to learn is how to be a follower,'' Ross said about first-year students. "No matter how great a leader you were in high school, your first year, all you're going to do is follow. They won't have any leadership experience.''

Sophomores, he noted, will be in charge of one or two people. All sophomores. Once you're a junior things begin to change.

"You might be in charge of 12 people, you might be in charge of 30 people, you might be in charge of 130 people, or maybe you'll be in charge of 4,000. A lot of times,'' Ross said, "that's based on how well you're doing academically. They try and put people in leadership positions when they are excellent academically. They try not to hamper guys who are struggling academically. You might have a stud leader who might not be doing great academically, so they might not put him in those challenging leadership positions.''

Electing leaders in football is essentially based on performance. Usually captains are not named until the halfway point in a season, if not later. Until that point different seniors are appointed leadership roles in each game.

"Every senior should be a leader because they were trained and were taught how to be a leader the first three years in the Academy,'' Ross said. "So since this is a leadership laboratory, since West Point is a leadership laboratory, and football is one of the best components of that, every senior is going to get a chance, and then finally late in the season the team will vote on guys they think have done the best job.

"Again, in my experience, I think the greatest honor that I ever received at West Point was being selected team captain, because being selected by 130 other leaders on the team and for them to say you're one of the top two guys, you can't get better than that, and it's still the same today.''

Beast Remains The Same

You hear the horror stories over the years, surviving in the mountains, staying up more than 24 hours, dealing with the elements, combat boot blisters, physical demands like never before, getting sick, being screamed at by officers.

And it's only Day Two.

More than one Cadet football player has said the experience can't even be explained.

Ross has his own thoughts on those lazy summer days. "For football guys, it's fun. It's easy, and they excel at it. I'm dead serious. In all military training,'' Ross offered, "the closest thing to it is football. And that's why I say it's fun because they quickly realize it's similar to football, and quickly realize it's about teamwork, camaraderie and about being very athletic and so forth, and they quickly realize that the leaders that are in charge of them are just like football coaches.

"Honestly, a lot of these guys who had passionate dads growing up through middle school and high school, they were a lot more intense than they'll face (in BEAST). Football players like to be tested. They like physical challenges. If they didn't like it they wouldn't be football players.''

You can look it up.

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