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Football a way of life for former Hawkeye, new Kentucky coach

[ 0 ] July 15, 2013 |

BY KYLE TUCKER — USA TODAY SPORTS

Youngstown, Ohio — Don Bucci’s office at Cardinal Mooney High School, with its wood panel walls and decades-old photos of hometown heroes long forgotten, might as well be a time capsule. Last week, on a hot day in this hardscrabble town, Mark Stoops popped it open and traveled back to his beginnings.

Inside, the 46-year-old University of Kentucky football coach walked past a picture of his 17-year-old self, frozen in 1984 with a slimmer waistline and much fuller, redder hair. Stoops headed straight for the closet where Bucci, Mooney’s longtime coach and now its athletic director, keeps the truly ancient treasure.

Dec 2, 2012: Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops spoke to reporters at press conference introducing him as the new football coach at the Nutter Field House. (Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

Dec 2, 2012: Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops spoke to reporters at press conference introducing him as the new football coach at the Nutter Field House. (Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

One wall is lined with tins of 16-millimeter film from games of decades ago. On a shelf in the back corner, Stoops found a projector. His late father, Ron, the defensive coordinator who helped Bucci win four state championships, used to bring home this machine and project film on the family refrigerator.

Stoops unpacked it on Bucci’s desk, took the clicker in his hand and pretended to rewind the same clip over and over again, as his dad used to do during family dinners in the dark. Stoops imagined he was back on Detroit Avenue, where two parents and six children shared a three-bedroom Cape Cod on the south side of Youngstown — all four boys crammed into a single dormitory-style room.

“This is where it all started,” Stoops said. “This is where we learned to watch film. It brings you back to your roots. I think this was part of our destiny.”

Stoops didn’t know that then. He hardly knew what he was looking at in the beginning. He was just a boy amused by the figures flickering on his face whenever he opened the fridge for more milk. But he wanted to be close to his father, and sometimes suffering through the monotony of a film session was the only way.

He wouldn’t realize until much later just how much his dad, his family and this tough town, which has scratched for survival since the steel mills shut down years ago, shaped his life and set him on a course for coaching.

It has led him to Lexington, where in December he became the third of Ron Stoops’ sons to land a head coaching job at a BCS program, joining older brothers Bob (Oklahoma) and Mike (Arizona); Ron Jr. is an assistant at Youngstown State. But Mark Stoops wants never to forget what made him, which is why he plans to put that old projector in his new office at UK.

It’s why all the brothers were back together in their hometown last week, as they are every summer, for a bocce tournament and football camp to raise money for Cardinal Mooney. These visits, like their lives, are a tribute to their father and an embrace of their mother, Dee, who was the glue that kept it from falling apart after Ron Sr. died unexpectedly 25 years ago.

“It’s a tall task to live up to the man and person that he was, but it’s an honor trying to do that and carry on his legacy,” Stoops said. “This town, the way we grew up, the work ethic and blue-collar attitude, I hope is in us.”

‘The wealthiest man in the world’

Mark Stoops is the baby of six siblings, a decade younger than Ron Jr., and he grew up trying to keep pace with the bigger kids both in his family and in the nail-tough neighborhood. The Stoops house was a Hail Mary pass from a cluster of sports fields — although football was often played in the street.

“You were competing in something all the time,” Ron Jr. said. “He was always trying to do the same things we were at a younger age. And oftentimes he would be able to. I know Mark learned that early: If you’re going to run with the big boys, you’ve got to compete.”

That mentality will serve him well this fall as the only rookie head coach in the Southeastern Conference, the toughest football league in America. If he wasn’t born for this, Stoops believes he was raised for it.

Youngstown was built by immigrants and boomed on steel, then shriveled when that industry nose-dived in the 1970s, at which point the city started churning out rugged kids the way it once produced unbreakable beams. One popular game of Stoops’ youth was called “hide the strap.” Whoever found the “strap,” a belt, chased the others around flogging them with it.

That’s a good analogy for SEC football, and Stoops is not the one holding the strap. UK finished 2-10 last season, and Stoops, an assistant coach for Miami’s 2001 national championship team and Florida State’s defensive coordinator the past three seasons, made it clear during spring practice that he’s underwhelmed by the depth of talent he has inherited.

UK football has an all-time losing record. Winning there would be a grind. But if growing up in Youngstown, especially in Ron Stoops’ house, taught Mark anything, it was to grind — and to win.

The family’s patriarch was a football, basketball and baseball star in high school. Ron Sr. played all three sports at Youngstown State and was drafted by the Washington Senators. He lasted just one year in the minor leagues before returning home to teach and coach at Cardinal Mooney, a parochial school whose modest pay meant many odd jobs for the family’s sole provider.

He kept scorebooks, refereed intramural games and painted houses in the summers.

“He really never stopped working,” Mark said. “I always admired his worth ethic. I always admired the type of person he was. But I think part of me said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I look back now and I was wrong. He was the wealthiest man in the world, because he had a beautiful family and a beautiful wife and he loved his life.

“I look back on it now and think how wrong I was to say, ‘Maybe I want more; I don’t want to be painting houses when I’m 50 years old.’ He was very happy. He did exactly what he wanted to do. And now we’re just trying to do what we want to do.”

All the Stoops boys wanted to do back then was shadow their dad. Especially Mark, who constantly picked his dad’s brain about strategy.

“He was a tag-along,” Dee Stoops said. “He lived in the locker room. ‘What’s so special about a locker room?’ I’d say to them.”

USATSI_6821608Like his father, Mark was good at just about all sports. He was a standout in football and baseball at Mooney, bonding with his dad most over the latter because Ron Sr. was the school’s baseball coach. But Mark went on to play football at Iowa, following in Bob’s and Mike’s footsteps.

“He’s one of the all-time great people that I’ve ever had the honor to coach,” said Hayden Fry, the Hawkeyes’ Hall of Fame former coach. “Very intelligent, great personality, a leader on the football team. He wasn’t real large — probably 170 pounds then — and yet he played like he weighed 200. All those Stoops boys were that way. It was in their bloodline.

“Frankly, I never thought he’d be anything but a football coach.”

All three brothers wore the No. 41 jersey at Iowa. They buried Ron Sr. with Mark’s in 1988.

‘A very bad memory’

“It was a real tragedy here,” Bucci said, “for the whole school, for the whole town, because it was so unexpected.”

It was a cold night, Oct. 7 a quarter-century ago, and Cardinal Mooney was playing crosstown rival Boardman. Ron Sr. dressed warmly and wore boots, Dee remembers. The last thing she ever did for her husband was take those boots off before the ambulance whisked him away.

He hadn’t felt well all day and managed only a few bites of a cheese sandwich before the game, but Dee chalked it up to anxiety. Ron Jr. was an assistant at Boardman, and Dad didn’t like coaching against his son. But in the fourth quarter of a tight game, Ron Sr. told his boss he needed to rest.

“Go lay on the bench until the game is over,” Bucci told him.

The game went to triple-overtime. Mooney won. Bucci ran over to revel with Ron.

“He had a big grin on his face,” Bucci said. “And then they took him away.”

Forever, as it turned out. Ron Jr. had left the press box during one of the overtimes to be with his father. Dee was there beside him, too. He agreed to go to the hospital to appease her, said it was probably just the flu. But she knew he was in trouble. “Oh, Ron,” she said, folding his arms over his chest and whispering one final “I love you” before he left.

“They tell me he didn’t make it out of the parking lot,” Dee said. “I don’t think he knew. I know he didn’t know that he was going to go.”

Ron Stoops Sr., the picture of health, still playing basketball with the kids in his PE class and a ringer in an adult baseball league, died of a massive heart attack at age 54. Mark was in his dorm room at Iowa when it happened. The Hawkeyes had a big game against Wisconsin the next day.

“I got a real loud, distinctive knock on my door, probably around 11:30 at night,” Mark said. “I knew something right away. That’s not a good feeling. It’s a very bad memory, that first call that you got, that first gut feeling of your stomach just sinking.”

Mike, a graduate assistant at Iowa then, had gotten the initial call and was there to deliver the bad news to his kid brother, who was 21 at the time.

“That was very hard for Mark,” Dee said. “Their voices on the phone and getting them home … oh, it was just so sad. I’d had 32 years. They didn’t have him too long, and I wanted more.”

Iowa had a huge game against Michigan the next Saturday, but that didn’t stop Fry and the Hawkeyes’ coaching staff from flying midweek to attend Ron Sr.’s funeral — along with hundreds of others who flooded into St. Dominic’s that day. Fry brought Mark’s jersey with him. They folded it neatly and placed it on his father’s chest inside the casket.

“His father was a great man. He was a great coach. He raised great boys,” Fry said. “That was one of the saddest days of my life.”

Bucci tried to console the brothers, telling them their dad died doing what he loved.

“There’s some peace in that,” Dee said. “He’s stayed young all these years. We’ve never seen him age. In fact, I have a joke: By the time I get there, Ron won’t even recognize me.”

‘He would be so proud of them’

Dee doesn’t have any trouble recognizing Ron Sr. She sees him everywhere. Ron Jr. looks so much like him. Mark has his humor, his instinct to take care of Dee.

“I can see Ron in all my kids. I can see him in their values and their Christian attitudes,” she said. “I don’t feel alone and without my Ron all these years.”

She tries to imagine what her husband would think if he could see his family now. There are 17 grandchildren. Both daughters have had successful careers, all four boys are in college coaching, three have run their own major programs. Bob, Mike and Mark all have national title rings as assistants, and Bob as head coach at Oklahoma.

“When I get alone with them, we talk about that,” Dee said. “We don’t allow ourselves too much, because we get emotional, but he would be so proud of them. Especially Mark.”

Bob, Mike and Mark are millionaires. Mike topped out at $1.465 million in annual salary at Arizona, Mark makes $2.2 million at UK and Bob gets $4.55 million at Oklahoma.

“Ron would never in his wildest dreams ever think they would earn that kind of money,” Bucci said. “We kind of watched our pennies over the years.”

That’s not what the boys believe their father would be most proud of, however. Ron Sr. would love the way Mark has tended to his mother all these years — “He’s always been a little bit more sensitive to the fact that she’s alone,” sister Kathy said. He takes his own little red-headed boys, Will and Zack, into the office some days so they can watch their dad work the way he once did.

“The core of Mark is he’s a very strong person, a kind person, a very generous person,” his wife, Chantel, said. “He’s an amazing father, and he’s a really, really good husband.”

Ron Jr. is certain his father is “looking down, smiling very proudly” at the baby brother.

“My dad instilled in all of us, as much as we love sports and as much as we love competition and coaching, the true judge of a person is the character and the kind of people they are,” he said. “That’s what my dad would be most proud of, actually.”

Mark is “our local hero,” Bucci said. “Everyone in Youngstown is proud of him.”

But there’s a touch of sadness in that success.

“I think that whenever they accomplish something huge, or even something small, they always have their dad in the back of their mind,” Chantel said. “Throughout his life, he’s had a bittersweetness of not being able to share it with his dad the way he’s able to share it with his mom.”

Stoops’ latest trip home was coming to an end last week — the business of rebuilding a program in Lexington awaited him — and it was time to close the time capsule. He packed up the old projector and tucked it back into Bucci’s office closet, vowing to return for it.

“Good memories,” he said. “I do stop and think about it, especially when you come back here to Cardinal Mooney. You stop and think about who my father was, the type of man he was and the way he went about his business, and you try to live up to that.”

***

Tucker also writes for the Louisville Courier-Journal, a Gannett property.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

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