YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Before almost 4,000 fans, Cardinal Mooney quarterback Jeff Bruno rolled out and hurled a pass downfield in the fall of 1976. The throw appeared off target of its intended receiver. But as Chuck Perazich of the Youngstown Vindicator wrote, "When you have a Bobby Stoops, you never know what can happen.” The skinny, 5-foot-11, 155-pound Stoops stopped and recoiled toward the underthrown pass. He then leaped over three defenders and snagged the ball with outstretched arms above his head before weaving his way into the end zone. Oh, and Stoops, also a safety, intercepted two passes earlier in the game as Mooney hammered Struthers 34-0. "He probably would be the ideal symbol of Youngstown,” said Don Bucci, head coach at Mooney for 34 years. "I hate to say that, because I'm sure he thinks he was pretty talented. But he was someone with just very average talent, but had a competitiveness and a toughness that nothing was going to stop him from being successful. "That's Bobby Stoops, and that would be Youngstown.” Youngstown, where Bob Stoops learned the values of determination, toughness and hard work that have helped him become one of college football's most successful coaches heading into his 10th season at Oklahoma. "There's something to growing up in Youngstown,” Stoops said. Youngstown was a tough, hard-working city long before Stoops was born there in 1960. At the turn of the 19th Century, iron ore and coal deposits were discovered to be in mass in the area, which would make Youngstown a powerhouse in steel production. For that reason, Youngstown became a popular destination for immigrants from Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe and later the Middle East looking for work, laying the underpinning for the town's ethnically diverse population. By the end of World War II, Youngstown had a booming population of about 160,000 and a bustling economy, thanks to the mills of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co., Republic Steel and U.S. Steel. Those from Youngstown agree the town's blue-collar mentality explains why it has become such a hotbed for developing successful coaches. "This is a blue-collar town with a great work ethic,” said Ron Stoops Jr., the eldest Stoops brother and longtime assistant coach at Mooney. "A lot of these people worked in the mills. They know what a good day's work is all about, and they were willing to make the sacrifice to do that. Coaching is also a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice.” The Stoops brothers — Bob, Mike (Arizona head coach) and Mark (Arizona defensive coordinator) — and the Pelini brothers — Bo (Nebraska head coach) and Carl (Nebraska defensive coordinator) — all grew up in Youngstown and graduated from Mooney. Ohio State's Jim Tressel, Kansas' Mark Mangino and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio all coached at Youngstown State before eventually taking big-time jobs. "There isn't any secret,” said Bo Pelini, who played quarterback for the Cardinals in the mid-1980s. "The culture in Youngstown is about hard work and discipline. A lot of being a coach is principles and background, and those things happen at a young age. "I don't have any doubt my background, where I grew up, the house I grew up in, the family support I had has much to do with what I am today, and Bob would say the same thing.”
On plaques, there's a running list of Ron Stoops Award winners, given every year to the Mooney football and baseball players who best represent Ron Sr.'s morals, character and leadership.
"My dad was a very ordinary guy,” Ron Jr. said. "He was very typical of the males and people in this town. Extremely hard-working, very humble, very family-oriented. Faith was very important. Truly, his life was religion, family, work.”
Discipline was one of the main characteristics Ron Sr. instilled in his children.
"Ronnie was tough on his kids; I thought I was tough on my kids, but wow, oh my gosh,” Bucci said. "He was tough on the field and at home. Ronnie was what you call a tough, taskmaster. Very, very demanding.”
Longtime Mooney teacher Paul Gregory, now the school's alumni director, recalled having coffee with Ron Sr. one morning in the teacher's lounge.
"Ron asked, ‘How's Mark doing in class?' ” Gregory said. "I told him he had missed a couple of homework assignments. Next thing I know, Ronnie was out of his chair and down the hall and has Mark outside the door. I was sitting there, embarrassed.”
Playing for Ron Sr. especially wasn't easy. Especially if your last name was "Stoops.” Ron Jr. was the first to learn this when he entered high school in the early 1970s.
"He never wanted anyone thinking his kids were playing just because he was the coach,” Bucci said. "He wasn't going to play his son because maybe out of 10 passes he might drop one. Or maybe he wasn't as tough as Ron wanted him to be. He wasn't going to play him until I insisted. That was Ron, he wanted perfection out of his kids.”
Perhaps that expectation of toughness from his father explains why many call Bob one of the toughest players ever to pass through Mooney.
"He was never the most talented guy, but he competed his tail off,” Bo Pelini said. "That's the makeup of a lot of guys from Youngstown.”
Bob was a two-way standout at receiver and safety, earning All-Steel Valley honors twice.
"He wasn't big, but very, very competitive,” Bucci said. "When I think of Bobby, I think of someone who wants to knock your head off your shoulders. As a defensive back, he would pray for someone to come across the middle to try and catch a pass.”
In 1976 and 1977, Bob helped lead the Cardinals to back-to-back Steel Valley Conference titles. But he wasn't alone on those teams.
Offensive lineman Ed Muransky went on to play for the Los Angeles Raiders. Bruising fullback Jackie Loew now trains middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, also a Youngstown native.
Despite his high school accolades, Bob, not blessed with imposing strength or blazing speed, had few college recruiters interested in him.
But he caught a break.
Bob Commings had recently made the jump from coach at legendary Massillon High School to coach at the University of Iowa. Commings had also attended East, the same high school that Ron Sr. and Bucci did, and was friends with both coaches.
"Commings took a chance on Bobby, based on the fact that he was from Youngstown, that he was a tough kid, even if he wasn't a superior athlete,” Bucci said.
Even though Commings was summarily replaced by Hayden Fry, Bob didn't disappoint, eventually becoming a team captain and earning All-Big Ten honors. That cleared the way for his younger brothers, Mike and Mark, to later earn football scholarships to Iowa.
"When he got on campus, he'd be sitting back there again waiting, he didn't care how big you were,” Bucci said. "That's why he was a reflection of Youngstown.”
Growing up YoungstownRon Stoops Sr., patriarch of the Stoops family, grew up in Youngstown, attending East High School. After becoming a multi-sport standout at Youngstown State, he was drafted as an infielder by the Washington Senators. He played for a year in the minor leagues, but returned to Youngstown to help raise his family with his wife, Dee. In 1959, Ron Sr. took a job teaching and coaching football at Mooney, which had opened its doors just three years prior. In 1966, when Bucci became head coach, Ron Sr. became defensive coordinator, a pairing that produced four state championships in 22 seasons "I told Ron, ‘You take care of the defense, I'll take care of the offense, and we'll surround ourselves with some other guys and go at it,' ” Bucci recalled. "Every one of our kids graduated together. We would hang out socially. His wife, my wife were always good friends. Our families would go to Lake Erie together, they'd get a cabin and we'd go stay with them.” The Stoopses moved into a three-bedroom Cape Cod home on Detroit Avenue. The two Stoops sisters slept in one room, the four brothers in another and the parents in the last. That house would become a hub for the neighborhood, including the Pelini kids and Ray "Boom Boom” Mancini, later a world-champion boxer, who grew up a block away. "Back in those days, life was simple,” Ron Jr. said. "The doors to our house were open, and kids walked like it was theirs. We went to Pemberton Park, which was just down the street, and played. There was a swimming pool in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter, but mainly the football field and the baseball field were where we played.” Sometimes, the neighborhood kids would go watch Ron Sr. play semipro baseball at Pemberton during the summer. Other times, they would square off in boxing bouts in the basement. "We'd all pair up according to size, rope off the cement basement with steel poles, ding the poles and fight each other for three rounds,” Bob said. "But Ray wasn't in them. Ray was too good — nobody was messing with him.” Over in the Stoops house, the rickety sound of a 16mm projector could be heard during most evenings in the fall. Ron Sr. would intensely break down game film. He set the projector on the kitchen table and used the refrigerator as the screen. "There's no doubt that rubbed off on Bob and all of us,” Ron Jr. said. "It's no coincidence we're all defensive guys. Dad had a certain temper, intensity and we all have it. Offensive guys seem to be more even keel. Defensive guys tend to be a little bit more fiery.” That "defensive” temperament was part of Bob's upbringing. "Bob was a very feisty, tenacious person from the time he was young,” Ron Jr. said. "He was not going to be outdone in most anything. He hung around kids who were older than him, but he was always going to keep up, fight to the death. He had his share of spats with me and his younger brothers, and occasionally he'd be ornery. But he was also very kind. We always got along great.”
Mooney familyProminently displayed on a brick wall inside the main lobby of Mooney High School is a shrine dedicated to Ron Sr.
Remembering YoungstownOn Nov. 1, two kids from Youngstown's south side will be slugging it out as head coaches of two of college football's most storied programs. Oklahoma and Nebraska. Bob Stoops and Bo Pelini. Said Bo, "I guarantee it won't be as competitive as some of those backyard basketball games were back in Youngstown.” Said Bob, "All of Youngstown will probably be here. All the Oklahoma people will be left fighting for tickets.” But the one man who would have enjoyed that game most won't be in attendance. On Oct. 7, 1988, Ron Sr. was still defensive coordinator at Mooney, while Ron Jr. was an assistant coach on the other sideline of rival Boardman. As time expired, Mooney scored a game-tying touchdown but missed the extra point that would've won the game. "When it hit him was when we missed the extra point,” Bucci said. "After that, Ronnie went to the benches and laid down. We came back to win in triple overtime. That was the last smile we ever got out of him.” On the way to the hospital, Ron Sr. died of a massive heart attack at age 54. "He was a great man, somebody I think about a lot,” Bo said. "He touched a lot of people's lives. Bottom line is, I really hope I'm able to touch as many lives as he was able to and have that kind of impact on kids.” Today, Youngstown is not what it once was. The population has dwindled to fewer than 80,000 as the steel jobs have long since split town. Not far from Detroit Avenue is a gravesite representing the town's past and its inevitable future — rubble in a field where the steel mills used to be. Smokestacks no longer dot the skyline, but that hasn't prevented Mooney from undergoing a football resurgence. Under coach P.J. Fecko, the Cardinals won state titles in 2004 and 2006 and finished runner-up in 2005 and 2007. Many of those who have gone on to bigger things haven't forgotten Youngstown. Every summer, the Stoopses, the Pelinis, even Ray Mancini, come back to town to participate in the Bocce Social, which raises money for kids to attend Mooney, a private school. Dee Stoops also still lives in town, not far from where the Buccis do. Even though he's a multi-millionaire now and perhaps the most famous face in Oklahoma, Bob is just another guy in Youngstown. "There's no rock stars in Youngstown,” he said. "I'm treated like everybody else. If you start getting a big head, just go home. Everyone straightens you out.” Recently, Bob arranged and paid for the Superdome's old artificial turf, which was damaged because of Hurricane Katrina, to be transported via multiple 18-wheelers to Mooney to serve as the school's new practice field. The New Orleans Saints logos at midfield and in the end zones are still there. "Some people wanted to get rid of those and replace them with Mooney symbols,” Bucci said. "I said, ‘Hey, leave that, that's the greatest thing in the world. "We've already got Mooney
Ron Stoops, center, coached both sons Bob, left, and Mike at Cardinal Mooney High School. Photo provided