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Meet a Utah man with a diverse family, Christian faith and college coaching aspirations

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Ronnie Ross, graduate assistant manager for the Utah Valley University men’s basketball team, hugs and plays with daughter Jasmine, 8, after a team practice at his house in Cedar Hills, Utah County, on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

CEDAR HILLS — Ronnie Ross leaned back in the sofa, covered his face with his hands and let out a long parental sigh.

The 40-year-old had just arrived just home after a long day. He was pulling out his laptop to start writing a paper when his wife and six children gathered nearby to discuss logistics for a variety of activities and ball games coming in the next 24 hours.

His homework would have to wait and there wasn’t a minute to spare. Ross was due to coach his 11-year-old son’s basketball game in less than an hour. Although tired, he didn’t object, mostly because what he had to do involved his family and his favorite sport — basketball.

“This is how our family functions,” Ross said with a smile as his 8-year-old daughter Jasmine began playing with toys atop his shaved head.

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Josiah Ross, 6, and Jasmine Ross, 8, play with dad Ronnie, graduate assistant manager for the Utah Valley University men’s basketball team, at their home in Cedar Hills, Utah County, on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

The lighthearted family scene is a long way from rural Louisiana, where Ross’ mother struggled to care for him and he was taken in by a kind man in his hometown community. At that point, the devout Baptist had no idea that decades later he would end up in Utah, married to a Latter-day Saint wife with six children, including a young man who had nowhere else to go.

Only God could have orchestrated this blessed life, he said.

“I’ve always believed in God, always believed that if you do good, good things will happen to you,” Ross said. “You might want something, and it might not happen when you want it, but God is an ‘on-time’ God and he’s going to put you where you need to be.”

Louisiana to Utah

Ross grew up in Jeanerette, Louisiana, a town 30 miles southeast of Lafayette, under difficult circumstances.

His father left their family, and for many years his mother struggled with a drug problem. When he was 14, a man in the community named Richard Picante, who was known for taking in needy youths, learned about his situation and provided him with a more stable home. He recognized something special in Ross.

“He became my dad, just looking out for me,” Ross said. “He did it for a lot of kids. ... We’re like brothers. Instead of going to a foster home, being moved to Baton Rouge or New Orleans, he kept us in the city and his family helped us out.”

Picante enabled Ross to excel on the basketball court, where he drew interest from former University of Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus. Ross wanted to come play for Utah but failed to meet NCAA academic requirements with his ACT score. So he went to John Wood Community College in Quincy, Illinois, where he became an all-American.

After two seasons in Illinois, Ross was at a basketball camp in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he met then-Utah State University assistant coach Randy Rahe, who later became the head coach at Weber State University. Ross could have returned home to play for Louisiana State University or the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, but was impressed with Utah’s cleanliness and the Aggie coaching staff. He also wanted a fresh start in a new environment so he eagerly agreed to come to Logan, he said.

Finding Sherie

Aggie basketball fans should remember Ross, who played point guard for Stew Morrill’s Aggies from 2001-03.

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Utah State’s Ronnie Ross (1) drives the baseline looking for a shot against Weber State’s John Hamilton (22) on Dec. 21, 2002, in Logan, Utah.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

With a lineup that included notable players like Desmond Penigar, Cardell Butler, Spencer Nelson, Nate Harris and others during the 2002-03 season, Utah State compiled a record of 24-8 before falling to the No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by a slim margin of 64-61.

A more significant event for Ross came when he met his future wife, Sherie, at a campus party three days after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Sherie Johnson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Oregon, was feeling depressed from the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and not interested in the party, but a roommate convinced her to go anyway. Looking back, she’s grateful she did.

“It’s funny to say we had a lot in common because we’re so different and come from such different backgrounds, but we had a lot in common, sports being the biggest one,” said Sherie, who added that her all-time favorite birthday present was receiving tickets to an NBA basketball game. “He was struggling in some classes and I wasn’t, so I started helping him and our friendship grew from there.”

Appreciating differences

Ronnie and Sherie were married in 2008. Both of their families were accepting of an interracial, interfaith marriage, but some expressed concerns over what the couple might be forced to endure.

For Sherie, the most difficult part was understanding her husband’s upbringing, which was completely opposite of hers. In the South, she said, an African American man can get in big trouble for offering a white woman a short car ride in a rainstorm. There are certain places Ross was not allowed to go because of his race. She recalled one time when they were pulled over by police for “no reason whatsoever” and their car was searched. At first she couldn’t believe it.

“I didn’t get it but it was normal to him. He knew exactly how to deal with it — don’t make any certain movements, keep your hands up, do exactly what they say. And I’m like, ‘Crap, this guy has no business pulling us over,’” she said. “Those sorts of differences were eye-opening to me.”

All Ross needed was his grandmother’s blessing.

“My grandmother told me that ‘If you love someone, no matter their race, gender or religion, at the end of the night, nobody’s gonna pay your bills or worry about you,’” he said. “It’s just you and your wife and you love that person and don’t care about anyone else.”

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The Ross family poses for a portrait at a basketball court near their home in Cedar Hills, Utah County, on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Their approach to faith and religion is simple.

“We try to pick the good out of everything,” Ronnie said. “You take the good and at the end of the day you treat people how you want to be treated.”

The family takes turns attending Baptist and Latter-day Saint services, although their six children have been primarily raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ronnie respects the Latter-day Saint faith for its positive values, youth activities and family-centered focus. He’s a big fan of activities like the Pinewood Derby and loves the concept of food storage, but admits he’s sometimes turned off by “boring” church talks. Regarding missions, he’s not sure if his kids will serve two years or 18 months, but he often tells them, “Your mission for God is every day.”

Sherie Ross and the children share equal respect for the Baptist faith. Balancing their religious beliefs hasn’t been as difficult as she expected.

“I think the key is that we’ve been very open,” she said. “We agreed that the children’s faith would be their decision and we would not push them either way. ... We’ve focused more on the reason for the religion than the rules.”

‘Blessing in our family’

When Ross was at Utah State, he recalled the team gathering for dutch oven peach cobbler at Morrill’s home. He remembers looking up to see Morrill walk by holding a Black child in his arms.

Ross expected the child’s African American parents to appear but none did. Ross was confused. “‘Y’all didn’t have that baby, Coach,” he thought.

Morrill explained that not only did he and his wife Vicki raise their own four children, but they delighted in caring for foster children. As of Morrill’s retirement in 2015, the family had taken in more than 90 children, mostly ranging in age from newborn to 5, while they awaited adoption.

“Sometimes people need help and you try to be there for them,” Morrill said.

Given his own experience, the memory left a lasting impression on Ross and helped prepare him for a similar opportunity years later.

After graduating from USU, Ross played professionally overseas for teams in Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Hungary and Switzerland. He retired in 2011 and his family lived in the Layton area.

Ross wanted to get his 6-year-old son Jordan playing competitive basketball but he didn’t want to commute to Salt Lake City. So Ross and a friend started their own youth basketball club, Utah Elite.

Jordan and one of his teammates, 8-year-old Isaac Vaha, became best friends.

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Ronnie Ross, graduate assistant manager for the Utah Valley University men’s basketball team, watches son Jakobe, 11, shoot hoops near their house in Cedar Hills, Utah County, on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

As they played, Ross noticed that family members weren’t picking Isaac up after practice and games. In giving rides, Ross observed the boy’s living conditions and it reminded him of his own experiences. Isaac also started to confide in his coach about trouble at home and the family embraced him like one of their own.

While playing in a basketball tournament in Las Vegas, Ross said police raided the boy’s home and found drugs. Isaac’s mother spent time in prison for a drug conviction. His father wasn’t around. Young Isaac had nowhere to go.

By this time Isaac had endeared himself to the Ross family and they didn’t want to see him placed in foster care. They requested temporary custody, fully expecting a family member would step forward.

But over the next three years, no family members did. Eventually Ronnie and Sherie entered into mediation and reached an agreement that gave them full and permanent custody and guardianship of Isaac, who was then 11.

“We did that so he still had his parents and that he knew we would forever be there for him,” Sherie Ross said.

For Ronnie Ross, there was no hesitation as he recalled the words of his old college coach.

“You help people when they need to be helped,” he said. “I was that same kid.”

The Rosses both agree that Isaac has been a wonderful addition to their family, helpful, respectful and a good fit.

“All of our children love him like their brother, they don’t know any different,” Sherie Ross said. “He’s absolutely a blessing in our family.”

Isaac, now a 17-year-old star tight end for Pleasant Grove High School with a multitude of college scholarship offers, is equally grateful for the Ross family and their unwavering support.

“I am so blessed,” Isaac said. “They are just really, really good people, not selfish, always wanting others to be at their best. ... I am so blessed to have them in my life.”

Jordan Ross, a sophomore at Pleasant Grove, already with a few offers to play college basketball, knows it’s not every day that your best friend becomes your brother. Sometimes people ask why they have different last names. Jordan acknowledges the difference, but makes one thing clear.

“He’s still my brother.”

Graduate assistant manager

What does God have in store next for Ronnie Ross?

Along with a busy family life, more work for sure.

The 40-year-old wants to get into coaching college basketball. In July he accepted a position as a graduate assistant manager with Utah Valley University’s men’s basketball program. In addition to being a mentor on the team, he’s pursuing a master’s at UVU in public service.

“I haven’t been in school since 2003, so it’s almost like I’m a dinosaur,” Ross said.

UVU head basketball coach Mark Madsen said Ross’s knowledge and experience has already had a significant impact on the Wolverines.

“There’s a lot of mentorship away from basketball that happens,” Madsen said. “A lot of times players want to pick his brain and hear about his experiences.”

While getting started, Ross has already sought advice from his old coach, Morrill, and good friend Chris Burgess, a former player who paved a similar path a few years earlier and is now an assistant men’s basketball coach at BYU.

Burgess said everything he needed to know about Ross he learned when they played hoops together. Ross consistently fed Burgess the ball.

“I’m telling you right now, if that first game we played, if he’s shooting every single time and not giving me the ball, we’re probably not friends, right? I’m probably going to find me another point guard. But he made it a point to get his big fella going. I was like, ‘I love that about you, you’ve been well coached,’” Burgess said.

“We laugh about that ... but you can learn a lot about an individual by playing with him. We connected right away. ... Ronnie cares about people. He cares about kids.”