Without a doubt, Merl Ross will be remembered as one of the most loyal and dedicated members of the Iowa State Athletics Department. Nobody in the history of Iowa State athletics can boast a longer and more fruitful partnership with the Cyclones than Ross. Ross spent an unfathomable 56 years (1917-73) working for ISU, donning many hats, but always representing ISU in a first-class manner.
Ross had just finished his two-year business degree at Bayless College and was working on a relative’s farm near Oneida, Iowa, when he received a phone call from ISU athletics director Clyde Williams. The year was 1917, and Ross had never heard of Williams, but he took the job of secretary for the physical training department. Williams later sent a letter to Ross that detailed the requirements of the job:
“The requirements are: Honesty, good morals, and a pleasing and agreeable personality.”
His first salary was $60 a month.
He started out working with ticket sales and management of athletic contests. In 1924, Ross became head ticket manager and in 1932, he took over operations of the business office. His first office was in State Gymnasium, which was just five years old at the time.
Ross handled ticket sales for every athletic event. Since there was no reserved seating for athletic contests, Ross and his workers went to each game with rolls of tickets and peddled them at the gate. In 1920, when Iowa’s strong football team came to Ames, Ross and his staff had their first brush with reserved seating, working until midnight with a lantern and a piece of chalk to mark numbers on all the seats at Clyde Williams Stadium.
Ross also arranged road trips for the athletic teams. For a 1930s game at Kansas, the Cyclones left in private cars on Friday morning, spent two nights in hotels and returned to Ames Sunday night. He arranged a chicken dinner at a church in Leon, Iowa, to keep the total cost of the trip at $350.
In 1960, Ross saw ISU’s first sold-out football game. ISU sold more than 19,000 tickets for that game against the Kansas Jayhawks. After semi-retiring in 1968, he worked three months each year until fully retiring in 1973 at the age of 76.
The athletics department grew from six employees to more than 30 employees during his 56-year career. Ross worked with nine athletic directors and 14 football coaches.
In 1966, Ross was the first recipient of the George Eldridge Distinguished Service Award, given annually by the College Athletic Business Management Association (CABMA) for outstanding service.
Ross stayed in Ames after retirement. He passed away in 1996 at the age of 99.