Stoops father's legacy extends beyond football field
The blue shag carpet just couldn’t contain the thuds and thumps of four rambunctious boys at bedtime.
“It was quite the rumpus,” said Dee Stoops, a mother of six, including the four brothers who were creating the clatter reminiscent of a Barnum & Bailey circus — elephants included — in their shared upstairs bedroom.
“Their dad would march up the steps and they’d know they were in trouble,” she said, laughing. “He was stern.”
But by the time Ron Stoops Sr. would get back down the stairs of the comfy Cape Cod on Detroit Street, “he’d be laughing and chuckling about what he’d seen.”
Ron often would get upstairs and find his four sons wrestling, swinging around pillows and tube socks filled with other tube socks that they’d turned into makeshift weapons.
This ordinary moment familiar to so many fathers — bedtimes filled with both exasperation and good humor — embodies Ron Stoops Sr.
Serious and demanding, with equal dashes of soft and silly.
Ron Stoops Sr. was an ordinary man living in an ordinary 1,390-square-foot house in an ordinary town in northern Ohio.
He was an ordinary man teaching history and physical education at a Catholic school near his home. He was an ordinary man who had to take up odd jobs — house painting, scorekeeping and intramural officiating — to make ends meet.
But this ordinary man, who died unexpectedly nearly 30 years ago at age 54, left an extraordinary legacy.
That legacy includes all four sons going on to become college football coaches, three of them head coaches at Power Five programs.
There’s Bob, who recently announced his retirement after 18 seasons and a national championship at Oklahoma, and Mike, who was head coach at Arizona for nearly eight seasons before joining Bob as defensive coordinator for the Sooners.
There’s Mark, who spent many nights of his formative years sleeping on that blue shag carpet after being kicked out of a shared bed, starting his fifth season at Kentucky.
And Ron Stoops Jr., who coaches special teams for Youngstown State, after many years of guiding defenses and teaching (much like his namesake) at various high schools in their hometown.
The boys’ mother sees hints of Ron Sr. in each of her four boys who shared that upstairs room on Detroit Street, the one with the powder-blue walls and red trim, with the handmade drawers carefully notched into the sloped frame by a family friend.
Dee spent 32 years married to her beloved Ron and raised four boys and two highly successful daughters in that house.
“It’s really hard for me to talk about him because he didn’t like to talk about himself,” Dee said quietly.
But she added later: “I thank God every day that he lived long enough to influence those children.”
Lessons in details
When you hear that one father raised four sons who all became college coaches, a picture emerges of a demanding, aggressive, win-obsessed man.
Erase that picture.
“We grew up just hanging out, just being with him, being in locker rooms, going to games,” Kentucky’s Mark Stoops said. “It became part of us. But it wasn’t our identity. We were just normal people.”
Their father, a longtime successful head baseball coach and a football defensive coordinator at Cardinal Mooney High School before he passed away in 1988, rarely raised his voice.
“He didn’t lead them into football or coaching,” Dee said. “But they loved the locker room and the atmosphere. … They loved being with him.”
We grew up just hanging out, just being with him, being in locker rooms, going to games. It became part of us. But it wasn’t our identity. We were just normal people.
Perhaps it was this town they grew up in, an old steel town that has seen its population dwindle with every census since 1950, that made the brothers so fiery and competitive.
But Ron Stoops Sr. made them many other things just by being himself.
“He loved to be busy,” Ron Jr. said recently while sitting in the athletic director’s office in the basement at Cardinal Mooney. The office, with its brown wood paneling and floor-to-ceiling team pictures, probably hasn’t changed much since the Stoops brothers played there from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s.
“(Dad) had to have a bunch of jobs to pay the bills, to raise kids on a Catholic school teacher salary,” Ron said. “All of these little salaries added up to us being able to have a nice Christmas.”
Watching their dad work hard and take pride in every job he did rubbed off on the Stoops kids.
“We picked up a lot of his lessons that he was teaching and we didn’t even know it,” said Mike, the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma.
The younger Ron recalls going out with his friends on Friday and Saturday nights as a teenager and seeing his dad shining his shoes for the coming week.
Mike remembers watching his father keep score at basketball games with red and blue markers. Each color meant something.
“His book was impeccable,” the third son said. “The way he cleaned, whatever he did, it was impeccable.”
When the ordinary things are done well, extraordinary things can happen, Bob learned from his dad.
“He was very detailed in anything that he did,” Bob said in an interview before announcing that he was stepping down at Oklahoma. “I’m sure that did innately rub off or work its way into us and whatever we’re doing.”
Kentucky’s head coach spent his summers on a 40-foot ladder, painting eaves on “nasty old houses” with his father.
“It was an honest day’s work,” Mark said. “We have such fond memories of that, the toughness of it. … It was a big piece of who we are. We learned you have to work for what you get, that nothing’s given to you.”
As a teenager, Mark recalls tossing wadded-up tarps into the trunk, only to be reminded by his father that there was a better way to finish a job.
“Those are the lessons I remember more than anything,” Mark said, citing the super-specific way to wash brushes, too. “He wasn’t a drill sergeant, just stringent and tough. Do it right, take care of your things, or just don’t do it.”
Those lessons extended well beyond his own children.
“The man was more than just the Stoops’ father,” Vince Marrow said. “He was father to a lot of us.”
The Kentucky recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach recalls sitting in the back of Stoops’ American history class at Cardinal Mooney and being called on to read a passage from the textbook.
It was a textbook, of course, that Marrow had forgotten to bring with him. When he confessed that he didn’t have his book, Stoops called him out in front of the entire class.
“This guy is one of the greatest athletes I’ve seen, but he’s not going anywhere because he can’t even remember to bring his books to class,” Marrow recounted in his best Stoops voice.
That encounter left Marrow with his shoulders slumped, crying in the back of the class.
“I’m a 6-4, 200-pound guy, an All-State, an All-American player, and he just broke me down,” Marrow said.
But to a kid who had lost his own father a couple of years before and was seeking discipline, the exchange changed everything.
He grew to see Stoops as a surrogate dad, like so many students at Cardinal Mooney.
“I’ll be thinking of my father on Father’s Day, but the next guy I’ll be thinking of is my Coach Stoops,” Marrow said.
The Marrow textbook story didn’t surprise Don Bucci, the longtime athletics director at Mooney who was the head coach for 20-plus years while Ron Sr. coached the Cardinals’ defense.
Players wanted to do great things for their coach Stoops.
“When they did something wrong, he’d let them know,” Bucci said. “That’s the key. He was the type of guy that if you made a mistake, he’d get on your back, but then 10 minutes later, he’d be over talking with you. He’d never toss you aside. He’d always build them back up again.”
It’s the type of coach that all of the Stoops brothers said they try to be.
“That was such a strength of his: Guys wanted to play for him, they wanted to please him, and he always got the most out of people,” Mark said.
Over and over, the stories have been told of the Stoops family eating dinner in the dark while Ron Sr. projected 16-millimeter game film on the refrigerator.
“We thought nothing of it,” Mark said. “We’re sitting in there in the dark and that clicker. I got to go in and grab the milk and he’s got to go back and forth until I got the milk.”
The scouting reports he compiled from those makeshift film sessions were incredibly detailed. Ron Stoops Sr. was ahead of his time in that way, said Tony Congemi, a secondary coach and assistant baseball coach under him at Mooney.
“All of our players — looking at formations — knew what plays were coming,” Congemi said outside his classroom at Mooney. “On the scouting reports, he would have how many plays they ran out of this formation, how many out of this one, the tendencies, offensive tendencies.”
A large crimson sign hangs outside the old gym at Cardinal Mooney. It unapologetically promises: “Great futures start here.”
No doubt they did. Under Bucci and Ron Stoops from 1960 to 1988, more than 100 players went on to earn football scholarships at the Division I and Division I-AA levels.
A 2015 Cardinal Mooney guidebook lists more than 50 players who became college and high school coaches.
So many of those names are recognizable: Bo and Carl Pelini (Youngstown State), Tim Beck (offensive coordinator at Texas) and Mike Zordich (defensive backs coach at Michigan), among others.
“He’d have thought their football success was great,” Bucci, the athletic director at Mooney, said of the players who became college coaches. “But financially, he would’ve had a great laugh. We all worked for peanuts.”
All 1,390 square feet of the Stoops’ childhood home on Detroit Street would fit easily into the 2,500-square-foot finished basement of Mark’s current house in Lexington’s Beaumont subdivision.
We’re all kind of amazed he was able to do everything he did and still had such a beautiful life. You wouldn’t think that, but he did. We never felt like we struggled or anything. I’m sure it was a major struggle for them, but he made everything work.
Ron Stoops showed his children that life was about more than money and square footage.
“We’re all kind of amazed he was able to do everything he did and still had such a beautiful life,” Mike. “You wouldn’t think that, but he did. We never felt like we struggled or anything. I’m sure it was a major struggle for them, but he made everything work.”
‘I can feel his spirit there’
If the Stoops brothers hadn’t learned that life was about more than wins and losses by the time they reached college, they witnessed it on the day they buried their dad.
Ron Stoops Sr. died in an ambulance from a massive heart attack suffered just after a three-overtime victory over crosstown rival Boardman. He meant so much to so many people.
The three Stoops brothers — Bob, Mike and Mark — who went to Iowa and played for Hayden Fry made sure their shared No. 41 Hawkeyes jersey was draped over their father in his casket. Bob quietly left his Rose Bowl championship ring with his dad, too.
“You didn’t realize how many people he affected until he passed away,” Mark said of the packed house at Saint Dominic. “It was unbelievable, the outpouring of support. People just packed the church and came to the wake. It was really kind of an inspiration to all of us, to say, ‘Wow. What an incredible person he was.’”
Ron Stoops Sr.’s legacy lives on in the halls of Cardinal Mooney, where there is a baseball practice facility and a scholarship in his name.
“When I go back to Mooney and recruit, walk the halls, I can feel his spirit in there,” Marrow said.
That spirit thrives in Ron’s six children and 17 grandchildren.
They’re like a living love letter to Ron Stoops, this ordinary man with an extraordinary legacy.
“I’m sure he’d be very proud and excited and would have great joy in it,” Bob said. “He would get a kick out of it and would have a lot of joy in it. And I’m sure he’s got the best seat in the house, watching it all.”