FAIRFIELD — At the end of each spring practice in June, new Fairfield Ludlowe football coach Mitch Ross had a unique experience: players coming up and thanking him before departing the field.
For Ross, it was reassuring if not totally unexpected. After a season filled with sizable losses and turmoil, the Falcons had been thirsting for a reboot and bright outlook. Ross, the longtime offensive coordinator at Darien, was seen after just a few months as that savior, promising a blueprint that he hopes will eventually lead to sustained positive results for a team that has had just one winning season in the last eight years.
“One of the things about coming into a program that hasn’t had success recently is that the kids were hungry for it,” Ross said. “They were hungry and very appreciative that there is a whole new program being set up. They are just very, very, very enthusiastic. They are a nice and dedicated group of kids who just needed some dedication and someone to point the way.”
The early reviews have been positive for the first sixth months, but Ross knows it will take time for his vision to reach reality, even if outsiders are skeptical about whether the Falcons can at the very least become a consistent winner.
“They have been working hard,” Ross said. “They have all been training consistently. They have been going to 7 on 7s. We had a great turnout at spring practice and we made a lot of progress. We still have a long long way to go. It’s one step at a time.”
Ross is coming from a Blue Wave team riding a 25-game winning streak and back-to-back state titles to one that has lost 13 straight games. The Falcons’ closest games during an 0-10 season were 21-point losses to Westhill and Fairfield Warde.
There were reports of discontent between the Ludlowe players and coach Vinnie Camera, who announced his resignation after five years. Where others saw a futile situation, Ross saw opportunity and decided to leave Darien after 13 years.
Ross said his decision was a combination of timing, a school within reasonable driving distance — he is a dermatologist who called his practice “a part-time job” — and a town with the infrastructure for rebuilding. Ross was once on the county youth football board.
“Fairfield has great potential,” Ross said. “I knew what I was walking into. I came in with open eyes.”
Ross has been building from the ground up since taking over in early February, with his fingerprints on every aspect of the program, right down to the new uniforms and helmets. Ross said to set the groundwork, he had to start with the mindset.
“The first thing that needed to change was the culture,” Ross said. “The philosophy that I brought over is that football should be a few things. One is that it should be fun. Two is it should be safe. Three it should be able to transfer what you learn on the football field to your life. And four it should be one of their most important activities, including in school and out of school, that the players do during high school. It should be something that stays with them the rest of their lives in a good way, a positive way. We had to really change everything.”
Ross got the players conditioning, in the weight room and in the hallways helping to recruit other athletes in the school on the promise of a new start. When Ross took over, he had 22 players. When spring practice opened, that number was up to 45. Most notable was the absence of screaming that had sapped much of the enjoyment for the players.
“To get yelled at across the field is not effective for anybody,” Ross said. “I brought in a coaching staff and that is one of the things I told them. It doesn’t help them by yelling.”
Workouts were shorter and more productive as Ross worked hard to stress efficiency.
“Things are organized differently,” Ross said. “Our practices are organized down to the minute. We don’t have to have long practices because we run really fast tempo practices. The kids enjoy that. They enjoy working hard in practice and not one that meanders. Work as hard as you can and then get off the field.”
Ross said at a time when football injuries have increasingly come under the spotlight, he has also stressed safety, limiting contact only to one on one drills when players are within a yard of each other.
At New Canaan’s annual Grip It & Rip It Tournament last month, the Falcons received praise from opposing coaches who were watching for having a more professional presence.
Ross said Ludlowe fans should not necessarily expect to see the same formations he used at Darien.
“We played the spread in Darien and I am a believer in tailoring the offense to the players,” he said. “We will make that judgement as things go along.”
Besides having one other public school in town, Ross said the Falcons have had to deal with more skilled players looking at private-school options like Notre Dame-Fairfield, Fairfield Prep and even St. Joseph. That gets to the argument that the elements will make it difficult for Ludlowe to become a regular occupant at the top of the standings.
“That’s obviously ridiculous,” Ross said. “I had heard that. It has very good youth programs. Fairfield would have a problem if you don’t have athletes to make it work. Fairfield could be a powerhouse. You have to stop the flow of athletes.”
Practices will soon start, and the focus will turn to getting ready for the season opener on Sept. 9 at Westhill with the hope of ending the losing streak and beginning a new phase for football at Ludlowe.
“Each game is going to be a challenge,” Ross said. “We’re certainly not going to beat anybody unless we play our A+ game each week. My job is to get them to play their A+ game to win as many games as possible and to be as competitive in all the games.
“It’s been a lot of fun. We started putting in a new program for these kids and it has gone well, they are buying in and there’s now some enthusiasm about the program. We are on our way. It’s a long road but we are on our way.”