It was 2014 and he had been hired to properly launch the football program at Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) in Vladivostok, Russia, a city of 605,000 on the country’s Pacific coast not far from the borders of China and North Korea.
“It’s an international school close to Asia and they play American football in China and Korea and Japan, so if they wanted more students, a football team would help,” he explained.
“But besides those footballs, they had no equipment and the players knew almost nothing. They wore motorcycle helmets and said they’d watched YouTube videos and tried to imitate that on the field.
“At the first practice, I said, ‘OK guys, show me what you got and I‘ll go around and start fixing things.’
“But the first time the quarterback dropped back and passed, somebody yelled ‘Fumble!’ and it turned into a big wrestling match. Guys were picking each other up and slamming them to the ground. The ball was rolling around and guys would pick it up and then they’d get thrown down and another guy would grab it.
“Finally I’m going, ‘Wait, what are y’all doin’? This is NOT football!’”
The memories of those chaotic days made him laugh:
“Right then I knew I had to start from scratch. I met with all the guys in a classroom setting and I’d have a period with linebackers, then one with defensive backs, then receivers, one position after another.”
When it came to equipment, he said they went to China and “bought it right out of the back of the warehouses” of some of the well-known suppliers whose factories are in China.
Their lessons learned, FEFU’s Wild Pandas routed a rival school in the opener, 48-6.
They went on to a winning record that first season, drew large crowds and only wore their motorcycle helmets on their rides home.
After three seasons in Russia – initially as the first American pro football player in the country and then as something of a Pied Piper of the sport, holding clinics from Moscow and St Petersburg to Siberia and Vladivostok – Rome returned to the States an eventually became the coach at Virginia University of Lynchburg.
Once again, he faced a challenge.
The small, historically black school (HBCU) in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountain had a 44-game losing streak when Rome took over the head coaching job from Jimmy Joe, the former Central State assistant, who had teamed with his brother Billy, the Marauders head coach, to build the football powerhouse that CSU was in the 1980s and early 1990s.
But VUL had no scholarships and not much offense or defense.
“The year before I got there they were outscored 428-28,” Rome said.
He said when he took over students were protesting the firing of Joe and just 37 football players showed up to meet him.
Playing Pied Piper again, he said he ended up with 124 players in the program even though there are just 300 students in the school. The team won four games that first season, including a 31-14 upset of NCAA Division II Fort Valley State of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAC.)
Although VUL went winless again last season, it did have a pro prospect in running back/kick returner Tomas Newman.
In fact, while Rome was talking with me in the CSU Hall of Fame Room on campus, he missed a couple of calls from NFL teams inquiring about Newman. Later he opened his phone and scrolled down his recent calls, showing a dozen from pro teams.
“If we can do that at VUL, the smallest school in the nation playing football, then we can do that here,” he said.
And then, it hit him. He was surrounded by gleaming trophies, especially the golden laurels from the Marauders’ three NAIA national championship teams in 1990, 1992 and 1995.
“They’ve already done it here and that’s what we need to get back to,” he said.
That’s why the school hired the 33-year-old Rome to replace Cedric Pearl, who went 19-41 in his six seasons as the Marauders head coach. He did have two 5-5 campaigns, but last season went 3-7 as the team dropped four of its last five games
After all that great success in the early ‘90s, CSU – in part, because of finances – dropped its football program in 1997.
Since the 2005 reboot, the Marauders have never had a winning season. They’ve lost 107 of 146 games and Rome is the fifth head coach.
‘It talks to your soul’
Rome grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and played college football at North Carolina. The Tar Heels converted him from a celebrated high school quarterback into a 250-pound fullback, but he still had one moment of aerial glory
His freshman year at UNC he threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to his roommate, Brandon Tate, a former stellar kick returner for the Cincinnati Bengals.
After college, Rome had brief tryouts with the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. In between them he played two seasons in the United Football League with the Las Vegas Locomotives and won All Pro honors and two league titles.
When he first went to Russia in 2013, Rome played for the Moscow Patriots football team. Soon he was tasked with promoting the sport nationwide.
“Every week I’d take a train to a different city,” he said.” It grew me up so much over there. I had to learn to fend on my own. I know how to read Russian and I speak enough to order a meal and get through the day.”
Once back at VUL, he saw that Tara Owens had been hired as the athletics director at CSU in 2018. She had been the women’s basketball coach at Norfolk State, his dad’s alma mater.
He knew very little about Central State and said after Owens’ hiring, he did some research on the school, learned its history and was impressed.
Although he went to North Carolina, he had developed a special affinity for HBCUs, first through his dad and then his cousin, Dr. Kevin Rome, who is the president at Fisk University. And while in Chapel Hill, he also would go to functions at nearby North Carolina Central.
“There’s something special about an HBCU,” he said. “The family atmosphere, the bands, all that. It talks to your soul.”
‘I like what I’m seeing so far’
When he saw the CSU position opened up after the past season, Rome applied.
Then he did something else.
“My wife, LaTosha, and I made a secret trip up here,” he said with a smile. “We just drove up and spent two days checking out the campus and everything. No one knew we were here. I wanted to see how everything worked and when I saw some football players out of the practice field training on their own, I said: ‘You know, I can work with this.’”
He made his way through the interview process and Monday morning the school announced his hiring. He and LaTosha and their six-month old son, Bobby III, were on hand after making a nine-hour drive through rugged weather that got them to the Wilberforce campus a few hours before dawn.
He shared his expectations with the players when he met with them and then sat down with the three assistant coaches from Pearl’s staff who are still here.
He said he’s going to concentrate on recruiting in Ohio. He talked about the state’s wealth of talent and recalled the players North Carolina coach Butch Davis recruited from here.
“And there were 89 players from Ohio in the NFL last year,” he said. “The talent is here and I like what I’m seeing so far here at the school.
“The more I look at it, the more I realize there’s still meat on that bone.”
And even if there’s not a lot, he can adjust.
He showed that in Russia,
“Yeah,” he grinned. “I love borscht.”