Winning coach, winning mentor

Memorabilia from Dave Ross’ basketball coaching career fill his home’s basement in Cedarburg, where he has baskets honoring his daughters Rachel and Kennedy, and photos from his 2014-15 Bulldog team that made it to the state championship game. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff


The basement of Dave Ross’s Cedarburg home features a mini-basketball court. His daughters’ names appear in large letters on each backboard. Team photos cover the walls. Autographed basketballs sit in cases on the floor. The display tells part of the story of a coach who has mentored and inspired high school athletes for 27 years. Ross is that coach.

Girls’ basketball teams coached by Ross have won 379 games. More than 300 of them came in the 20 years he has been Cedarburg High School’s head girls’ basketball coach. Before that, as coach at Port Washington High School, his teams recorded more than 70 wins.

Ross started as an assistant boys’ coach and realized the head coaching job wasn’t going to open up for a long time. When the girls’ job became available, he jumped at the chance.

Success came slowly. He won one game in his first season, two in the next and four in his third. Port lost 42 straight conference games and Ross was ready to hang it up in his 30s.

“It was really bad ingredients,” Ross said. “The kids didn’t have enough opportunity to develop skills and I was a new coach.”

A talk with a rival coach who was inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2019 encouraged him. Ross asked Grafton’s Bob Maronde what he was doing wrong.

“Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re working harder than anybody,” Maronde told him.

Sure enough, things turned around. Skilled groups of girls came through, and Port advanced to state twice in a three-year span, in 1998 and 2000.

Ross remembers the Port gym packed with 1,000 people in the final home game of the year in Port. The game was advertised as the last chance to see the Pirates play at home.

“It was crazy,” he said. “It was a great tribute to all the hard work.”

A similar experience years later at Cedarburg warmed Ross’ heart. His assistant coach’s daughter told him the student body chose to go to the girls’ game instead of the boys’ game.

Ross and the Bulldogs advanced to the Division 2 state championship game in 2015. His daughters Rachel and Kennedy were on the team, and Rachel sang the National Anthem at state.

“When you win, there’s a lot of variables,” he said. “You have to have talent, dedicated kids, parents and administrators.”

And there’s another key component. “The thing that’s really important is family,” Ross said. “You can’t coach without the tremendous support of family. My wife has been on this journey the entire time. She helps with all the special event nights and comes to all the games. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t work.”

Coaching has gotten easier in one sense. Game footage used to be only accessible to coaches who knew each other and often involved driving long distances just to get tapes. Ross was once told to meet someone in a blue car at a gas station at 9 a.m. on a Saturday to get tape on a future opponent. What sounded shady ended with the two coaches diagramming plays on a hood of a car.

Beyond the wins and losses, Ross said, are relationships. His team once wondered why he hugged an opposing player before a game, but Ross said he has become friends with families of people from several teams.

“I have met so many wonderful people coaching, and I’m talking opposing fans too,” he said. “My wife and I become friends with them. We hang out and laugh about stuff.”

Ross’s day job is also dedicated to children, sparked by an experience when he was young, which is the other part of Ross’s story.

During a family trip to Iowa, he remembers visiting a playground with his brothers and sisters when he was 5 or 6. A bus pulled up and a bunch of children got out. Something was different, and Ross got a little scared at first — some of the kids were older — but he soon became comfortable.

“It was kids with handicaps,” he said.

When his brothers and sisters wanted to leave, Ross said he wanted to play with the kids. “I didn’t want to take off on them,” he said.

Instead, he devoted his entire career to children. He earned a master’s degree in special education and was a special education teacher for five years in Kenosha and 27 years in Port Washington. Today, he is a senior mentor for Harrigan Development Services in Mequon.

The goal in working with people with special needs, he said, is teaching them to routinely make good choices.

“I have a funny way of working with kids. Don’t let me be the puppet master and pull the strings,” he said.

Ross teaches people to learn to do the right thing on their own.

When someone does something wrong, he said, it doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person.

“Maybe that’s the only thing they know,” he said.

Ross helps them realize there are more reactions to situations than just one, and each has consequences.

That skill has to be practiced, “just like a free throw,” he said.

Ross got an early introduction to teaching as the fourth oldest of the 12 children of Charlie and Ann Ross of Port Washington.

“My parents were unbelievable teachers,” he said.

Ross, a 1978 Port High graduate, starred in football, baseball and basketball for the Pirates. He made the basketball team at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at guard but left when the coach told him he wouldn’t play since other players were promised scholarships.

He ended up playing in various leagues five days per week, regularly icing his legs before doing it all again the next day.

His interest in coaching was evident when he was young. In a fourth-grade essay, Ross wrote that he liked to hit home runs and run the bases in baseball, “But most of all I like to be captain so I could tell the kids what to do.”

But he does it with reason. Ross explains why he puts his players through certain drills. “I want them to know why they do it. Not just to run,” he said. “If people buy in, they’re going to do anything for you.”

His best teams ended up leading themselves, including calling some of their own plays. During a sectional final against Beaver Dam, the Bulldogs weren’t shooting well. During halftime, Ross heard one of his team captains yelling.

“We cannot let our coaches down,” she told her teammates.

Ross stays in contact with many of his old players who know him by his whistle. When he sees one from far away, he whistles, causing an instant head turn and a friendly wave when the two see each other.

Many former players text him for his birthday or Father’s Day.

“It’s so sweet. It goes beyond a game,” he said.




Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login