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#TGW: The Jackets' Joy Ride

Nov. 12, 2015

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

Bobby Ross arrived in Atlanta on Wednesday unabashedly adrenalized. One of the five children and two of the 17 grandchildren that he and wife Alice treasure live nearby, yet for this trip the Coach found himself tingling again as if traveling to, say, Charlottesville, Va., for something epic, like the grandest of reunions.

Tonight, the great patriarch will smile as broadly as ever at a great gathering.

They were not his children, nor his brothers, but as more than 100 former Georgia Tech football players and coaches with whom the former Yellow Jackets head coach laid siege a quarter century ago are together anew, surely this evening will feel every bit like the biggest, and most especially rare, family affair.

Oh, will there be some stories told before, as and after the 1990 Yellow Jackets are honored at halftime of Tech’s game against Virginia Tech for the great canvas they painted just 25 years back.

Sometimes, it seems like just a few days ago that Tech stormed through a season to win a national championship. Really, it’s been a while, but as Ross chatted Tuesday evening, the jitters of competition and accomplishment merged to start his central nervous system crackling as he went back in time.

This is big. All of these men share a touchstone, a quintessential mark that so many chase, very few gather, and nobody can ever take away.

“Lord, yeah, I’m sitting here looking at a picture right now of our big win over Virginia,” Ross said Tuesday evening, when asked if he had mementoes of Tech’s 1990 season in the home where he is retired in his native Richmond, Va. “Now, I’m looking at a picture of the team, and a couple games.

“It’s very nice, really looking forward to it, seeing the coaches and the players and their children. It seems hard to believe it’s been 25 years. It’s going to be great to see them.”

Seasons come and go, teams change and players move on.

The fall of 1990 does not go away.

Memories of the Jackets’ 11-0-1 campaign, capped when they beat Nebraska 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl to secure the UPI national title, are permanent, practically three-dimensional.

Shawn Jones does not often dwell. He stays busy running his personal training company, Dual Action Sports, with to clients from New York to Florida.

The quarterback has slowed down this week.

He, too, has gone back in time. It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that the sophomore from Thomasville ran for 46 yards on the fourth play against the Cornhuskers and went on to take MVP honors upon passing for 277 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another score.

“If you go back and look at it, you don’t have that many people who can say they were champions,” said Jones, who passed for 8,441 yards and 51 touchdowns and rushed for 855 yards and 19 scores as a four-year starter. “It’s going to be fun to see everybody.

“When you have that kind of experience, you have a definite camaraderie that you only get in that kind of environment.”

“Get the bags packed; we’re going to get fired.”

There was no writing on the wall early the prior fall, no sign of any kind, that the Jackets would go all the way in 1990.

In his third season on The Flats, Ross had little to hang a hat upon, and in fact felt like he was going to wind up elsewhere – the hard way.

The Jackets went 2-9 in ’87 and 3-8 in ’88. After losing their first three games in ’89, Ross was 0-15 in ACC action, and 5-20 overall.

A 21-10 loss at South Carolina was not inspiring, and with a bye coming up, a couple summit meetings triggered winds of change.

“We had two years of losing, and had lost three straight,” Ross remembered. “I had three alumni who said they’d like to meet, and I told my wife, ‘Get the bags packed; we’re going to get fired.’ They were as supportive as they could have been.

“That’s why Georgia Tech is a very special place. They were very, very loyal – all former players. We hadn’t won an ACC game yet, and they were saying, ‘What can we do to help?’ I was expecting to get fired, and it would have been justified based on what we had done.”

More poignantly, before the Jackets practiced on a Monday evening – late to accommodate the class schedules of several players – Tech assistant athletic director for academics Todd Stansbury, a former Jacket player who is now the athletic director at Oregon State, broke bad news to the head coach.

Ross soon told players, “Do it my way, or I’ll hit the highway.”

“We had a couple guys who had missed study halls and skipped classes, and we were running a tight ship on class and things like that as we had to at Georgia Tech,” he recalled. “Todd Stansbury came up to me before practice, and said, ‘Coach, we had some guys miss so and so.’

“I blew the whistle, and said, ‘We’re not asking you to do anything that is not in your best interests. I’m fed up with it because we’ve had some problems with it. You all need to sit down and make a decision: if you can’t abide by what we’re asking you to do, then I’ll leave.”

Players met. A freshman kicker who would go to kick the game-winning field goal in the 1990 upset at Virginia and hit two the following week for a 6-3 win over Virginia Tech didn’t completely understand what was happening.

“I didn’t really know what it was all about at the time . . . it was really kind of a thing where they weren’t accepting Coach Ross coming in and replacing [Bill] Curry,” recalled Scott Sisson. “Those older guys had been recruited by Curry, and they just weren’t really leading the other players until we decided after that.

“The coaches left and it was just the team with the seniors up front and the seniors were kind of driving the conversation.”

Something clicked. The Jackets committed to better honor the term student-athlete, to abide. Three players who would not be around in ’90 led the turn.

“[Players] came out about half an hour later, and three of them . . . what happened within that situation was leadership emerged. That was huge,” Ross said. “Jeff Mathis, Willy Burks, and Sean Smith — all defensive linemen and all seniors – said, ‘Coach, it will be better, I promise.’

“Leadership surfaced, and that’s so vital to any program. From that point on, we were a very focused group of young men. They were very united.”

Jones, like Sisson a freshman at the time, sensed change.

“A lot of guys may not have bought in,” Jones said. “We kind of said, ‘If we’re going to do it . . . you go into each practice and compete as opposed to just trying to finish practice or saying, Here we go again.’ Winners find a way.”

The Jackets slipped into gear. From 5-20 and 0-15 in the ACC, they won seven of eight, losing only at Duke, which shared the ACC championship with Virginia. Then, Tech went 11-0-1 in 1990.

First, the Jackets beat Maryland 28-14, “but that wasn’t the breakthrough game,” Ross said. “It was probably the Clemson game, where we beat [the 14th-ranked Tigers, 30-14, one week later]. It was a surprising type of thing that we could do that. From that point on our confidence soared.”

The Georgia Factor

Winless in three September games, the Jackets went 7-1 in October, November and with a Dec. 2 win over the Bulldogs, 33-22, in Bobby Dodd Stadium.

That was the end. Tech finished 7-4, yet was not chosen to play in a bowl game. Georgia went 6-5, with the Peach Bowl tabbing the Bulldogs — to lose in Atlanta.

“That might have ticked the guys off,” Ross said. “They were very, very focused from that point on. We had no problems with workouts or anything.”

Little about the ’90 season was special early.

After wins over N.C. State (21-13) and Chattanooga (44-9), the Jackets cracked the national rankings, at No. 25, and then beat South Carolina, 27-6.

Ranked 23/18, Tech whipped Maryland 31-3, and took a No. 18/15 ranking against No. 15/14 Clemson.

Ken Swilling wrenched a knee early, and Kevin Tisdel, a 5-foot-11, 173-pound walk-on sophomore from Columbus, asked to return kickoffs.

He took one 87 yards after Clemson pulled to within 14-12 in the fourth quarter.

T.J. Edwards scored a few plays later, and the Jackets held on for a 21-19 win.

Magic was happening, or something like that.

Tech did not roll that day, but found ways. After mustering a mere 218 yards of total offense, including 55 in a second half where the Jackets had the ball for just 6 minutes and 17 seconds, the good guys came out on top again.

“I think the guttiest win I ever had as a football coach was that year, against Clemson; that was one of the hardest games I’ve ever been in,” Ross remembered. “We had a goal-line stand late in the game, a nice return by Kevin Tisdel.

“We really showed our character. Our defense was playing very well, and they were just pulling for our offense. We had a few characters, and we had real character. I think it determines winners from losers, I really do. Part of that character is being united and together and that type of thing. No selfishness.”

After moving up to No. 11, the Jackets slogged their way to a 13-13 tie at North Carolina, and slipped to Nos. 16/14 before taking out Duke, 48-31, on homecoming.

“The Brawl For It All”

Next up, No. 1 Virginia, in Charlottesville.

Tabbed, “The Brawl For It All,” by a local newspaper, the game’s hype was off the charts. A surreal setting prevailed. As the Jackets made their way to the stadium, where vandals had set fire to the turf a night earlier, Virginia fans rocked the Tech buses, threw drinks and hollered more than, “Wahoo.”

The Cavaliers were loaded. Quarterback Shawn Moore, wide receiver Herman Moore and running back Terry Kirby were among the cream of the conference crop at their positions. Defensive end Chris Slade was a menace.

Operating a relatively new, “run-and-shoot” offense that would average a school-record 501.5 yards and 40.2 points per game, Virginia frequently baffled Tech’s defense on national television.

On offense, the Jackets suffered technical difficulties as communications between the coaches’ box upstairs and the sideline were sketchy.

“It was like that AT&T commercial: ‘Hello, Rangoon?” former Tech offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen years ago told RamblinWreck.com’s Jack Wilkinson.

After trailing 13-0 and then 21-7, the Jackets closed to within a score in the second quarter only for the Cavs to score late and take a 28-14 lead to halftime.

Virginia stacked 512 yards of total offense upon Tech, as Shawn Moore passed for 344, Herman Moore caught for 234 and Kirby rushed for 104.

In a story looking back at Virginia’s ’90 season, the former Cavs quarterback recently told the Charlottesville Daily Progress, “Going into halftime, it was like, ‘Good Lord, we’re going to get some second- and third-team guys in the game’ . . . it’s just a matter of time.”

Not exactly.

Shawn Moore lost a fumble early in the second half when a teammate bumped the ball out, and the Jackets converted that into points. Soon, a Moore pass ricocheted off of another teammate, and Tech’s Calvin Tiggle intercepted.

Tech scored again to tie it up, 28-all, and eventually moved to a 38-35 lead before a 48-yard Moore-to-Moore connection set up first-and-goal at the 1.

The Jackets held, and the Cavs helped. Two illegal procedure penalties pushed Virginia back, and after Tiggle deflected a third-down pass, the Cavaliers settled for a tying field goal.

Sisson’s 37-yard field goal with seven seconds punctuated a 41-38 win for the ages, and more forever moments lie ahead.

Wilkinson once recapped:

“As the teary-eyed [head] coach began to speak, offensive left tackle Darryl Jenkins interrupted him. Holding the game ball, Jenkins said, “We decided to give it to someone very special to you.” With that, the players parted and trainer Jay Shoop slowly escorted Bus Ross, Ross’ 86-year-old frail father, toward his son.

Six months earlier, Bus had undergone sextuple heart bypass surgery. Now, crying like his son, he took the ball and told the team, “You have made an old man very happy.”

Most Special Homecomings

The Jackets took flight, singing and dancing in the plane’s aisle on their return to Atlanta. Another raucous bus journey took them from the airport to campus. Students were delirious. There had to be a few thousand fans outside the stadium, mostly students.

Furniture burned in the intersection of what now Bobby Dodd Way and Techwood Drive, flames licking a traffic light. Yellow, metal bars were being paraded about.

“That was nice, very nice, a very special thing,” Ross said. “They had taken the goalposts down in the stadium, and burned some furniture or something. We turned down North Avenue, and it was like a mob. I said, ‘My, look at that.’ Those types of things stay with you forever. We could hardly get off the bus.”

The Jackets squeaked by the Hokies a week later, winning 6-3 as the Hokies made their first visit to Atlanta.

A 42-7 win over Wake Forest clinched the ACC title, and the Jackets went to Athens and won easily, 40-23.

That left the Citrus Bowl, where Tech clamped down on Nebraska’s high-powered running game and Jones engineered the Jackets to another win, and the UPI national championship. Colorado was voted No. 1 in the AP poll. That still doesn’t sit quite right with Ross.

“I didn’t worry about it [before the Citrus Bowl], and I told our squad that too,” he said. “When it was over with, I can’t tell you that I wasn’t disappointed because we had a great season, but I was kind of like, ‘We showed you,’ and I felt good about that.

“I really do feel like we deserved to be the unanimous champion. We had the only undefeated season, and beat a couple SEC teams and a very good Nebraska team. Colorado had one loss, and won one [game] on that fifth down. I didn’t make a big issue out of it because then you forget what you had accomplished.”

There is no forgetting.

“When I look back, I thank God,” Jones said. “We were blessed to be in that position . . . I’ve heard military talk about how you’re with your brothers in battle. When you do see them again, you know we did this or that. It will always be good to see them, your friends.”

Ross will forever reflect on a singular season from a career that spanned nearly four decades in college and the NFL. Today will bring together his greatest band of brothers and sons.

“It might not be that I’m in touch with them every day, but it’s a bonding type of experience,” the coach said. “I think what brings it all together is everybody put so much into it. It was commitment versus contribution.

“I used to say with a bacon and egg breakfast that a chicken made a contribution, but the pig made a commitment, and that’s what Tech stood for. I think it’s a testament to their commitment to Georgia Tech that so many players and coaches are coming back.”

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