After bumpy start, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ comfort grows with fans

Stephen Ross is at the MetLife Stadium parking lot, surrounded by nearly 200 fans, all well bundled in their aqua-and-orange gear and giddy the Dolphins owner has come down from his visiting owner’s suite to share time with them as they tailgate before the Jets game.

“Ross! Ross! Ross!” the New York chapter of a nationwide Dolphins following chants as the Miami owner shakes every extended hand. “Ross! Ross! Ross!”

Ross is in his element.

Yes, the guy’s a billionaire. Yes, he arrives at most games in a helicopter.

But those fans he’s chatting up get to see he’s one of them. And if they study it closely, they can understand Ross has hit a comfortable stride as an NFL owner

“If fans knew him, they’d know he wants what they want,” Dolphins CEO Mike Dee said. “When they hurt, he hurts. When they’re excited, he’s excited. At his emotional core, the same things that tug at their heart tugs at his heart.”

Maybe it has been this way ever since Ross took over ownership in 2009. But his true agenda and feelings — initially overshadowed by talk of orange carpets and celebrity partners and that plane ride across the nation to see Jim Harbaugh — are showing more clearly now.

And they reflect an owner who has learned some hard lessons and now is doing a good job.

It wasn’t that long ago that Dolphins fans would cringe at the idea of Ross being the team’s owner. He shelved their hokey but beloved fight song. He tried to replace a coach and ended up giving him a contract extension. And, yes, the Dolphins were losing.

Fans were angry at everyone, including Ross, and that’s why last December, as the Dolphins were losing 26-10 to Philadelphia at home, one Miami fan angrily turned to face the owner’s box at Sun Life Stadium, spotted Ross and vented.

“This is horrible, get this fixed,” the man shouted at Ross.

“I agree,” Ross responded. “We will.”

Ross fired Tony Sparano the next day.

Since then, Ross hired Joe Philbin and the team is competitive. The Dolphins finally drafted a quarterback in the first round and the kid is showing promise. And Ross has attacked a problem he didn’t create but also didn’t fix his first couple of years as owner.

In March, after Philbin was hired, Ross called the coach, general manager Jeff Ireland, Dee and Matt Higgins, who is starting a sports company for Ross, to his house in Palm Beach. The owner convened what some fondly call the Berlin Wall meeting.

At that meeting, Ross told everyone he didn’t like the way the Dolphins had been doing business. He told them the Kremlin mentality of secrecy at all costs had to cease. He wanted the Dolphins to be as transparent with fans as possible as long as it didn’t hinder the team’s competitive edge.

That’s where the so-called transparency the Dolphins embraced this season was born.

And Ross decided that if he was asking employees to be more transparent, he should do his part and also connect more.

So when unhappy fans picketed outside the team’s training facility, he called some of them on the phone. When the Dolphins opened the season at home and offered every fan a commemorative cap, Ross stood at one of the gates and personally handed out hats.

He did this even when people who work for him told him it might be a bad idea to expose himself to the public and to criticism. Ireland was stung by such an encounter when a fan infamously told him he should fire himself.

Ross took the risk anyway.

But that isn’t the only reason this owner is getting better and making fans proud.

On Wednesday, Ross donated $500,000 to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York to support Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. The Jets followed suit Thursday by also donating $500,000 to the cause.

So, yes, in some regard, Ross beat the Jets on this one.

In a couple of weeks, the club will announce that the Dolphins Cycling Challenge to benefit cancer research — an event held last week — raised well over $1 million.

The philanthropy is commendable. It can be argued, however, that nice deeds don’t make Ross a better owner. This does:

He did not force Philbin to do Hard Knocks but supported him when the coach decided it was a good idea. He did not force Ireland to draft Ryan Tannehill but supported the idea when the GM said that was the direction to go. He paid the $1 million price tag when Philbin wanted to refurbish the Dolphins’ facility.

Ross runs the Related Companies, a real estate development firm in New York. That’s where he lives most of the time. But he calls Philbin twice a week to stay connected and make sure his South Florida billion-dollar company is pointing in the right direction.

“I talk to him about the team,” Philbin said. “I talk to him about the game plan coming up — how I envision the game unfolding to the best of my knowledge. Mostly that stuff.”

That’s good stuff. But for Dolphins fan Jim Petorak, it’s not as good as that tailgate at MetLife when Ross pulled up in a sport utility vehicle.

“I can’t stress enough what a cool thing that was for Stephen Ross to do,” Petorak said. “Everyone there was absolutely blown away.”

Related stories from Miami Herald