Bob Stoops’ uncle and Nick Saban go into a bar.
Sounds like the start of a bad joke. But no. It’s the start of a crazy story that all parties swear is the truth.
The night the original Bob Stoops and Saban sat in a Youngstown, Ohio, bar, so engrossed in football talk, that the place was robbed and they didn’t even notice.
Saban has told the story before and repeated it a few days ago. I called the original Bob Stoops – from here on to be referred to as Uncle Bob – and got the full story. And he says Saban did not embellish.
Dangdest story you ever heard.
From 1983-87, Saban was an assistant coach at Michigan State, the school that later hired him as head coach. Saban’s recruiting territory was the Rust Belt of western Pennsylvania/northeastern Ohio, including the hardscrabble city of Youngstown.
Even 40 years ago, before Bob, Mike and Mark Stoops launched coaching careers, the Stoops coaching fingerprints were all over Youngstown football.
Ron Stoops, the father of Ron Jr., Bob, Mike and Mark, was a revered high school coach in Youngstown, at Cardinal Mooney High School.
Ron’s youngest brother, Uncle Bob Stoops, was a coach at South High School who would go on to coach 16 years at Youngstown State.
And as Saban frequented Youngstown looking for ballplayers, he became friends with Ron and Uncle Bob Stoops.
“Ron was just a fantastic person and a really good coach and very well respected by all the players that he coached,” Saban said before the OU-Alabama Sugar Bowl nine seasons ago. “And (Uncle) Bob was a good friend. He’s a little different than Ron in that he was a little bit of a free spirit.
“So I remember that when I would be recruiting there, most of the time when the schools close, you have to wait until people get home from work before you can go do home visits at night. I used to meet (Uncle) Bob at the boiler room at South High School and used to play cards, gin rummy, until I could go on a home visit. That was the kind of relationship I’ve had with them.”
Uncle Bob, now retired and living in Youngstown, even added to the story, saying that after gin rummy, he and Saban would occasionally play golf before those scheduled home visits.
“They hit that area hard,” Uncle Bob said of Michigan State. “Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Cleveland, Canton, Warren. That was the stockbed of football players. Now they get ‘em all down South, I guess.”
Saban “recruited a lot” in Youngstown, Uncle Bob said. “Bobby’s dad (Ron) was a great high school coach. He had all kinds of players.”
Saban became tight with the Stoopses. When Mike and Mark followed Bob to the University of Iowa in the 1980s, the Stoops family would visit Saban’s home after Hawkeye games at Michigan State, before making the 294-mile trip back to Youngstown.
“He was real close to the family when Bobby and them went to Iowa,” Uncle Bob said. “He was real close with my brother Ron.”
Ron Stoops Sr. died in 1989 after suffering a heart attack on the field near the end of a Cardinal Mooney game. Thirty-three years later, Uncle Bob talks glowingly about his big brother.
“Bob’s dad was a super guy,” Uncle Bob said. “Just a super athlete. He could do anything. He could just do it all.
“That’s where all the boys got their determination and education to everything. He never said a word (and Bob Stoops has confirmed that Ron Stoops was not near as fiery as his sons), but underneath he always wanted to win and compete. He was my hero.”
Cardinal Mooney was a powerhouse program. But Youngstown South had its share of ballplayers, too. Uncle Bob coached players who became captains at Wisconsin and Ohio State, respectively.
So Saban didn’t skip South when he came to Youngstown.
A few days ago, on The Next Round, a Birmingham-based podcast, Saban retold the Youngstown bar story.
Saban and Uncle Bob went to a Youngstown bar, “Talk of the Town,” to have a beer and talk some football.
“We’re drawing plays, talking football, arguing about stuff,” Saban told ESPN in 2015. “Someone came in with a shotgun and held the bartender up and left. We didn’t know what happened.
“The police came, and the bartender said ‘don’t ask these guys what happened, because they didn’t even see it.’”
That’s called focus. We knew Saban had it. Now we know it even more.
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Uncle Bob says Saban tells the story straight, but Uncle Bob tells it even better.
“I do remember,” Uncle Bob says with the Youngstown accent and cadence that sounds exactly like his nephew. “Oh geez, telling that story, you wonder if anyone thinks you’re BS-ing. ‘He’s embellishing that.’”
“We were in this bar,” Uncle Bob said. “Just talking football. We were moving salt shakers, anything we could grab, talking football.
“I remember vividly, there was a guy across from us, it was a snakelike bar, and the guy gets this glass, he smashes it on the ground.
“I happened to be looking over that way, all of a sudden, I see him smash that, and he was really mad.
“I said, ‘Hey, buddy, is something wrong?’
“He said, ‘Hey, you (expletive), we just got robbed!’
“I’m like, ‘You’re blanking me.’
“He goes, ‘No, they had a shotgun pointed right at you two blank-holes.’”
About 20 minutes later, the police arrived, and the bartender told the cops, “You don’t have to talk to those guys, they don’t even know what’s going on.”
Uncle Bob says he can see the scene in his mind to this very day.
“I didn’t believe it,” he said of the robbery. “I had to come home and read the newspapers. Sure enough, it was in the paper the next day. It was crazy.”
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Uncle Bob had quite the coaching career himself. He spent 14 seasons on the Youngstown State staff of Jim Tressel, who went on to coach Ohio State to the national championship and who recently retired as president at Youngstown State. Uncle Bob also coached two years under Jon Heacock at YSU, the same Heacock who now is the defensive coordinator whiz behind Iowa State’s football revival.
Uncle Bob easily tells great stories from those Youngstown years. Of going down to Canton for coaching clinics to hear Woody Hayes one night, Bo Schembechler the next and John McKay the next.
Of coaching in Ohio when only 12 teams made the state playoffs, and his 10-0 South team was left out. “Now there’s probably 500” in the playoffs.
Of going about a half mile up the road to join his brother for Cardinal Mooney’s lunch hour, where he could get delicious spaghetti and good rolls.
South High School closed in 1993. Nick Saban became Nick Saban. The Brothers Stoops became the Brothers Stoops. And Uncle Bob kept enjoying the hardscrabble city of Youngstown.
“I had a good, crazy life in football myself,” said Uncle Bob, including the night he and Nick Saban walked into a bar.
Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.