July 10, 2008

Coaches remember their Youngstown roots

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio Bob Stoops is relaxed, rested and ready for anything but football as he emerges from a back room at the MVR restaurant. He's quickly circled with well-wishers.

"What's up, Bobby?" shouts a voice near a bocce ball court.

The vaunted coach of the Oklahoma Sooners is "Bobby" around here, not "Bob." Stoops smiles and sticks out his hand. Everyone knows your name at the MVR (Mahoning Valley Restaurant), tucked in a nook along narrow Walnut Street.

MVR is an iconic eatery in an iconoclastic rust-belt relic of a city. But it's Stoops' city, and that's why he's here in late June with hundreds of others at the seventh annual Golden Cardinal Bocce Social.

"It's a great event," Stoops says. "We get a chance to come back here, see friends and family and raise some money for a good cause. But I'm not playing in the bocce tourney."

Most in this crowd of 400 or so are, rolling bocce balls, smoking fat cigars, drinking beer from long neck bottles and talking.

Oh, are they talking

There's Carl Pelini, the Nebraska defensive coordinator and brother of the new Huskers coach, laughing and hugging. Tim Beck, Nebraska's new running back coach, lines up a shot.

Where's Bo? Nebraska's first-year coach is in the back, scribbling his signature on footballs that will be auctioned off later in the day as part of the event.

Other celebrities are here, too. There's Kirk Herbstreit signing autographs. Todd Blackledge is talking to some fans who want his view on the 2008 season.

The mission is to raise money for scholarships so kids can attend private schools. That's why Bob Stoops and Bo Pelini are here. Same for Carl Pelini and Beck. Arizona coach Mike Stoops couldn't make it, but Wildcats defensive coordinator Mark Stoops is here. Ron Stoops, the eldest brother, is on hand, too, running the event. Their common bond is Youngstown's Cardinal Mooney High School, a small but proud institution that played an integral function in shaping each. It's all about giving back because, as the saying goes, God gives to the givers and takes from the takers.

"Mooney means so much to a lot of the people here," says Ron Stoops, who is an assistant coach at the high school. "It's great to be able to help kids and give something back."

The event, which had a $135 entry fee, funds scholarships worth up to $1,000. And while many of the kids who receive them will attend Mooney, the scholarships can be used at other private schools, too.

"Cardinal Mooney means a lot to me," Bo Pelini says. "There is a brotherhood among us. It's important to us, and I think it's important to Youngstown."

The Bocce Social coffers are augmented by an auction. What Ohio native wouldn't want an autographed A.J. Hawk jersey? There also are signed Brett Favre and Brady Quinn photos, and footballs bearing the signatures of legends such as Joe Paterno and Rex Kern. There's an autographed Troy Smith jersey. And if helmets are you thing, you can choose from among several. And check out the autographed photo of middleweight champion, Youngstown's own Kelly "The Ghost" Pavlik. There also is lots of Youngstown State paraphernalia.

"Get our picture," Bob Stoops says to a photographer as he slides into a booth with Bo Pelini and others. "And make sure you get the Youngstown State helmet lamp in it."

Folks nationally may have forgotten about this burg located in the heart of the Mahoning Valley, but there once was a day when Youngstown bustled and belched smoke. From the 1930s through the '60s, the population hovered around 160,000. Youngstown was a well-oiled machine fueled by factories such as Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Republic Steel and U.S. Steel. The heavy lifting and pounding was done by muscled immigrants from Italy, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Greece, Syria and Lebanon. When the 5 o'clock whistle blew, the tired trudged to places like MVR. Founder and owner Carmine Cassese was waiting for them. They set their lunch bucket on the bar, wiped their brow and had a tall, cold one. Maybe two.

But the steel industry is mostly gone, crumbling in the 1970s. Today, less than 90,000 people call Youngstown home. Driving into town on Interstate 680 and winding through streets, you buzz past the Museum of Industry and Labor a fitting homage to yesterday's glory. You can spot a few billowing smoke stacks along the modest skyline. But the city and region still are trying to fit into its post-steel industry clothes. It may never happen but it doesn't matter on this day.

This is home: Youngstown O-H-I-O. Stoops can feel it. He's not his usual guarded self on this day, showing playfulness the nation never sees on Saturdays in the fall.

There's toughness about this place that courses through the veins of Stoops, Pelini and anyone from the area. You don't quit. You only work harder. And if that doesn't work, well, you work a little harder, forging a living and gathering at places such as MVR to play bocce.

What, you expected people who trace their roots to the blast furnace to play golf? Yeah, right. And their favorite thing to talk about at MVR is football. The mills can fold, but football can't be taken from the can-of-beer folks in Steel Valley, which includes Youngstown and Warren in Ohio and stretches to nearby Pennsylvania hamlets Farrell, Sharon and New Castle - the home of Kansas coach Mark Mangino. The Jayhawks' boss usually is here, but he couldn't make it this summer because his son Tommy is getting married.

The Stoops family understands the area's love affair with football. Ron, Bob, Mike and Mark have been whisked away to gridiron glory, but they haven't forgotten. They know where they are from. They know where it all started. The Pelinis, too. It was on a field not far from here, at 2545 Erie Street: Cardinal Mooney High. There, legendary Don Bucci coached the Cardinals for 34 years before retiring in 2000. Be relentless be tough be demanding be loving and never forget where you're from.

"Youngstown is a great place," Beck says. "Being able to come back here is an honor. This is a close-knit place, and Mooney is a close-knit school."

The guy running the bocce tourney balances along a narrow passage between courts, turns and yelps into his bullhorn, "Pelini's team is up on Court 14. Please report to Court 14."

And so it goes on a muggy Youngstown Sunday afternoon. A bunch of guys having fun and thinking of a cause greater than themselves.

"This is beautiful, isn't it?" Ron Stoops says.

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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