Ross' hiring matters because, while the ideal of the student-athlete has always remained real and enfleshed at West Point and Annapolis, the competitive greatness of the two programs hasn't captured America's imagination since the early 1960s. While their academic excellence and service to country have defined the Army and Navy football programs as the embodiment of all that's right with college athletics, the gridiron excellence has suffered over the long arc of history. Not since Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino led the Middies to national prominence, or when Pete Dawkins took home the 1958 Heisman Trophy, have these two football programs been gridiron goliaths. And while it might be foolish to think that Academy football can ever attain those kinds of stratospheric levels ever again, one can legitimately hope for winning, upper-tier football from these two schools with proud traditions in the colorful history of college football.
Paul Johnson has already brought Navy back to a point of considerable stature and quality, although the even-more-difficult work of sustaining that excellence remains to be done. But even if the Johnson Era peters out in Annapolis, Johnson has already achieved something significant through his accomplishment of (temporarily) elevating the profile of Naval Academy football: he created a climate where Army football became a point of focus and concern. By drubbing the Cadets in two straight seasons while making a bowl game last season, Johnson's quickly-engineered turnaround (and boy, with a triple option, a lot of turning around does indeed take place) humiliated the Army (athletic department) brass into action. Just as telling, perhaps, it made the Army job—"That Which Red Blaik Once Held"—a history-laden post at a hollowed-out program in need of a savior, but a savior without the burden of expectations that would exist in a similar reconstruction effort at a program in a power conference such as (especially) the SEC.
At Army, Ross won't have the klieg-light glare he'd get if he tried to take over North Carolina or Mississippi State or Kentucky. Through the simple act of taking the Army job, Ross has earned the lasting gratitude of the West Point community, not to mention more than his share of leverage. And while Navy football has the current upper hand in the Army-Navy rivalry, Ross' newfound presence in West Point gives the Cadet program more star power than its sea-faring rival in Annapolis. Making Ross boss is a seminal moment in the collective history of Army football—and with it, the Army-Navy rivalry and even college football—because it reflects an appropriate amount of selfishness on the part of the Army program. For far too long, a great many wayward Division I-A programs have been conducting a shamefully wasteful and expensive nuclear arms race, lavishing loads of money on facilities and non-academic items in the attempt to build up the bread-and-circuses aspect of college sports. Too much of college sports (and especially college football) has become consumed by money and winning, winning and money, with academic performance and institutional integrity being sacrificed in the process.
But against the backdrop of the football factories that all too often fail to educate their student-athletes (who are dubious as students to begin with in too many cases), Army and Navy have, if anything, erred in the opposite direction of not wanting to win enough, not showing enough of a willingness to put a competitive team on the field. The administration at West Point has done something long overdue: being a little bit selfish and actually saying that it's okay to strive to build up a program, to put forth some increased expenditures in the attempt to provide winning football. The hiring of Bobby Ross has struck a huge blow for competitiveness at Army and throughout the service academies, and that reality can only help college football.
Just watch Army get better.
Just watch Navy redouble its efforts to stay superior in this rivalry.
Just watch the ratings spike for the Army-Navy Game this December on CBS.
Just watch the scene at Michie Stadium on Autumnal Saturdays: passionate crowds, no empty seats in the fourth quarter, and victorious renditions of "On, Brave Old Army Team!" at the end of games.
Bobby Ross' hiring enormously helps the Army football family, but the benefits of this move will ripple and extend throughout Academy football and into the wider realm of college football.