Bo Pelini and Mike Stoops aren't blood brothers, but they are brothers of Youngstown, Ohio. And that may be an even stronger bond.
Each traces his roots to the tough, gritty northeast Ohio town that most of America has left in its rear-view mirror. The steel-mill smokestacks that once belched with productivity are, for the most part, dormant. Jobs are scarce, and times seemingly always are tough. That's the reality Stoops and Pelini grew up in. That's also the reality that shaped who they are and how they have built their teams.
Now, a million figurative miles from Youngstown, Pelini's Nebraska Cornhuskers and Stoops' Arizona Wildcats meet in idyllic San Diego in Wednesday's Holiday Bowl.
"We certainly have a family history that goes way back," Stoops said. "We have a close relationship."
The Pelini and Stoops families have been friends since the children attended grade school together in Youngstown. One of Pelini's older brothers, Mike, was a high school classmate of Mike Stoops. Another of Pelini's older brothers, Carl, serves as his defensive coordinator with Nebraska. And all the Pelini and Stoops boys played football at Cardinal Mooney High, where Stoops' father, Ron, was the school's defensive coordinator.
"I've talked with Bo and Carl a lot over the years about defense, just our philosophy of what we want to do," Stoops said. "I think we coach very similar in a lot of ways and build our teams around our personalities. A lot of that goes back to our families and our roots in Youngstown. [Bo] and Carl have been great friends of ours for many, many years."
Earlier this season, there was a "Youngstown Bowl," as Pelini and the Huskers squared off against Bob Stoops, Mike's older brother, and his Oklahoma Sooners. The Huskers took a 10-3 victory.
"I've talked to Bob, and he just raved about their guys up front," Mike said. "Their defense - we know they've got an outstanding defense. That's the first thing that jumps out at you when you watch them play. That's going to be a huge obstacle for us. We're going to have to find a way to move the football."
Mike Stoops sees Bo Pelini every summer when they take part in the annual Golden Boccie Social fundraiser for their old high school.
"I've known Mike for a long time," said Pelini, who's a win away from Nebraska's first 10-victory season since 2003. "We're close. We always have been and always will be. It will be good to go out and see him. He's doing a great job, and I've got a tremendous amount of respect for him.
"We had a lot of brothers. Mike and I both had older brothers. Our families have been intertwined for a long time. I've known the Stoopses since I was real young. We've known each other for a long time. This is going to be a fun game."
The family connections in the Holiday Bowl extend to both staffs, as the defensive coordinators for both teams are brothers of the head coach.
The Holiday Bowl will be Mark's last game on the Arizona sideline, as he has taken the same job at Florida State.
"I just felt like Florida State was the right situation for me," Stoops told the Arizona Daily Wildcat. "I think with the tradition that they have and the players in the state of Florida, it just felt like it was the right move for me."
Mark Stoops, 42, was secondary coach at Miami from 2001-03 before his brother hired him away to be an assistant at Arizona.
- TOM DIENHART
This is a rematch of the 1998 Holiday Bowl. It also is a tale of two programs on the rise. But the top storyline is Pelini-Stoops, a reunion of two roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-dirty coaches in what may as well be dubbed the "Blue-Collar Bowl."
"It'll be interesting," Stoops said. "Philosophically, we are similar in a lot of ways in how we structure our teams. Our discipline and toughness are what we stand for. We always are putting out good defensive efforts. It will come down to which offense can make some plays."
Pelini has worked wonders at Nebraska, leading the Huskers to the Big 12 North title in his second season and losing by one point to Texas in the league championship game. It has been a quick rise for a Nebraska program that endured tumult during the four-season Bill Callahan era.
"There was some disappointment ... that we weren't going to a BCS game, but this is a tremendous bowl game and one that we're happy to play," Pelini said.
There was a time not long ago when it looked as if Stoops - who is in his sixth season in Tucson - never would enjoy a breakthrough at Arizona. He entered the 2008 season on one of the hottest seats in the nation.
"It was pretty hot," Stoops said. "That was really hard - hard on our players and coaches. We had played good football the last three or four years when you looked at it. Look at our schedule strength. We played a top-10 schedule the year before and this year."
But Stoops responded to the win-or-else pressure in 2008 and guided the Wildcats to an 8-5 record and their first bowl trip under his watch, which was a win over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. The 2009 season has been even better, as Arizona is 8-4 and finished tied for second in the Pac-10 with a 6-3 record that was highlighted by a season-ending victory at USC.
"We have been able to accomplish a lot of things we all are proud of this season," Stoops said. "But we aren't finished yet."
Nebraska features the nation's top defender in tackle Ndamukong Suh, who won the Outland, Lombardi, Bednarik and Nagurski awards while also being a Heisman Trophy finalist. Suh is the leader of a defense that ranked ninth in the nation overall (284.5 yards per game) and set the tone for the Huskers' surprising run this season.
Arizona counters with a defense that ranks No. 2 in the Pac-10 and 21st in the country (315.8 ypg). Despite those lofty rankings, no Wildcat earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors. Tackle Earl Mitchell, linebacker Xavier Kelley, safety Cam Nelson and cornerback Trevin Wade garnered second-team accolades.
The defensive mentality that defines Pelini, Stoops and their programs was forged in Youngstown, and the game in San Diego figures to be a defensive slugfest.
"You have to score some points," Stoops said. "And they have been hard to come by versus them. And we have played pretty sound defense. It will come down to offenses trying to get the ball into the end zone. It'll be a pretty intense game."