Don Bucci's old pals aren't going to be too happy with him Saturday. His Notre Dame teammates and classmates will be disappointed.
Bucci's loyalties don't lie with the Fighting Irish. Not this week.
Bucci was a backup Notre Dame quarterback in 1952 and 1953, seasons in which the Fighting Irish beat the Sooners.
Bucci hopes for a different result Saturday night. And here's why. He was Bob Stoops' high school coach.
Funny how small the world can be. A guy who had a hand in jump-starting Notre Dame's domination of the Sooners also had a hand in developing the coach who has restored Oklahoma gridiron glory.
And Bucci makes it clear. Water is thicker than sheepskin.
“I could never root against Bobby Stoops,” Bucci said.
Just like the Stoops clan, Bucci was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio. He went off to Notre Dame and played for Frank Leahy, the legendary coach who in 11 Irish seasons lost 11 games.
Two of Notre Dame's greatest victories were over the Sooners, 27-21 in 1952 at South Bend and 28-21 in 1953 at Norman.
“That's when they (OU) had Billy Vessels and Eddie Crowder and that crew,” Bucci said of the '52 game.
Vessels was sensational, mounting a campaign that brought him the Heisman Trophy. He rushed for 195 yards and three touchdowns, monster numbers for those days.
But Bucci remembers the opening kickoff, when Notre Dame captain Dan Shannon nailed OU's Buck McPhail, causing a fumble.
“Kind of set the tone for the whole game,” Bucci said. “From that point on, the rest of the season, they referred to that hit as ‘Shannonized the kid from Oklahoma.'”
A year later, Bucci made the trip to Norman for the season opener, and 59 years later, he mostly remembers the heat.
“It's hard to remember the details,” Bucci said. “All I remember is, it was so hot. Frank Leahy had us put on these Buck Rodgers hats.”
I don't know what a Buck Rodgers hat is, but I know the Heisman Trophy when I see it. Notre Dame's Johnny Lattner won it that year, perhaps in part because he intercepted a late Buddy Leake pass, and the Irish ended OU's 25-game homefield win streak.
“One hell of a game,” Bucci said.
The Sooners didn't lose again, anywhere, for 4½ seasons. On Nov. 16, 1957, the Irish ended OU's 47-game winning streak.
By then, Bucci was coaching high school football in upstate New York, and in 1961 he returned to his alma mater, Cardinal Mooney High School. Became head coach there in 1966, retaining Ron Stoops as his defensive coordinator. Bucci stayed on the job 34 years. Today, six months shy of his 80th birthday, Bucci remains Cardinal Mooney's athletic director.
The Buccis and the Stoopses became fast friends. Bucci coached all the Stoops sons — Ron Jr., Bobby, Mike and Mark. Their families socialized together. Ron Sr. died of a heart attack in 1988, but Bucci's wife and Stoops' mother, Dee, remain fast friends today.
“The boys stay in touch to this day,” Bucci said. He and Bobby Stoops talked this week.
“I'm a Notre Dame man, but I'm all Oklahoma this week,” Bucci said. “Believe me. I know a lot of my friends I graduated with will be a little upset that I'm an Oklahoma Sooner this week.
“But Bobby was always one of my favorites.”
Bucci realized years ago that Stoops was headed for greatness. When Stoops was an assistant coach in 1988 at Kent State, his first full-time job, he returned to Cardinal Mooney on a recruiting trip.
“Usually when a former player comes in, they see their coach, a little bit nervous,” Bucci said. “He came in and I was just amazed at how polished he was and how confident he felt in what he was doing.
“Right then and there, I knew, some day, Bobby's going to be a great one.
“The football end of it was a no-brainer, because of his dad. All they talked at home was football. You knew the football end of it was OK.
“That was a long time ago. He had the personality. He was always a tough competitor. That's for sure.”
Stoops keeps trying to talk the Buccis into coming to Norman for a game, but they don't fly much more anymore.
So Bucci will watch this installment of OU-Notre Dame from his Youngstown home. He saw the first two wearing Notre Dame shoulder pads. Bucci will watch this one with a Notre Dame diploma on his wall, but a Sooner in his heart.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.