By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
NEW ORLEANS – Long before Nick Saban took the sidelines as a head coach and well before he won his first of four BCS Championships, the Kent State graduate spent many of his early days as a collegiate assistant coach recruiting the state of Ohio.
It was there that he had his first interaction with the Stoops family that has produced a long lineage of football coaches including current Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, who will be across the sideline from Saban when Alabama faces Oklahoma on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Ron Stoops, father of the Oklahoma coach, was the defensive coordinator at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio, while Bob’s uncle – for whom he was named – was the head coach at South High School, also in Youngstown.
“That was my recruiting area for many, many years,” said Saban, who was an assistant coach and coordinator at Michigan State from 1983-87. “Ron was just a fantastic person and a really good coach who was very well respected by all the players that he coached. Bob was a good friend and he was a little different than Ron in that he was a free spirit.”
Stoops said Wednesday that he can remember Saban visiting the family home in Youngstown on multiple occasions during his recruiting visits.
“Coach Saban used to come through our school recruiting and my father, it was very common for him to have different coaches stop by the home and eat dinner with us in our little bitty house,” Stoops said. “He had a relationship with a lot of assistant coaches and he knew Coach Saban quite well, as did my uncle Bob.”
Both Saban and Stoops, on Wednesday, recollected Saban’s regular card games with the elder Bob Stoops at South High.
“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 do home visits at night,” Saban said. “I was an assistant at this time. So I used to meet Bob at the boiler room at South High School and we 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.”
Stoops, a defensive back at Iowa from 1979-82, was one of several members of the Stoops family who played football at Iowa. He recounted that the Iowa vs. Michigan State series was always one where his family and Saban made sure to visit.
“I remember he and his wife Terry invited my family over after a Michigan State/Iowa game,” Stoops said. “My brother Mark was playing and we went over to Saban’s house after the game to just rest before they had to drive back home to Youngstown. So he has been a friend that way for a long time. And in the last several years, we’ve gotten together different times just to share ideas on defending people and that kind of thing.”
When Saban and Stoops last met in New Orleans, it was Saban’s LSU team pulling off a 21-14 victory for Saban’s first BCS Championship. The national title won’t be on the line Thursday night when the two coaches square off but, then again, this has always been a friendship that has been about more than wins and losses.
“This is a relationship that goes way back for many, many years, and I think it’s because of the respect that I had for the family and the quality of people that they were,” Saban said. “And certainly I have the same respect for the coaching fraternity that comes from that family, and that obviously starts with Bob.”