Always the fiercest competitor

Ask former Cardinal Mooney head coach Don Bucci, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has always been the fiercest competitor.

There is a saying ask a person where they are from - they will probably tell you the state they grew up. But ask someone from Youngstown where they are from and they don't say Ohio – they say Youngstown.

It's a blue-collar city, where family values, handwork, and a no non-sense attitude are taught at a young age.

Perfection is the goal.

It's where Bo Pelini is from. And many of the characteristics the Nebraska head coach brings to the job he learned in the community growing up.

Pelini attended Cardinal Mooney, a private Catholic high school with a tradition of excellence in both the classroom and in athletics.

On the football field, he was coached by legend Don Bucci, who in 33 years collected over 300 wins and four state championships from 1966-99. Spend five minutes with Bucci and it's easy to see the similarities between him and Pelini.

Bucci commanded a family like atmosphere in his program and was viewed as a father-like figure to many of his players during their time of wearing the red and gold. It's probably the reason why so many Cardinal Mooney standouts of old return to Youngstown every year for Camp of Champions, a youth football event started in 2002.

Besides Pelini, many familiar names, who are now coaches in the college ranks, make it back almost annually for the event, including: Carl Pelini (HC-FAU), Bob Stoops (HC-Oklahoma), Mike Stoops (DC-Oklahoma), Mark Stoops (HC-Kentucky), Tim Beck (OC-Nebraska), Vince Marrow (TE coach Kentucky), Ron Stoops Jr. (LB coach-Youngstown State), Frank Colaprete (DC-John Hopkins University), etc.

"It's always a time of the year I look forward to. It's great to go see our friends and meet up with people," said Pelini. "It's a chance to go back home and go back where it all started. We have a good time. It's about camaraderie and doing something I think is important for the longevity of Mooney."

The Cardinal Mooney coaching tree is a deep one and the amount of players Bucci had go on to the college ranks and the professional level is even deeper. But there was one thing that stood out about Bo Pelini as a player. It's a trait that's still noticeable today when watching the head coach walk the sidelines.

"I will stand on this, in all the great athletes we have had go through here, and I'm talking about some outstanding ones, Bo is probably the most fierce competitor that ever played for me," said Bucci. "I had 1,000s of kids play for me, but he was fierce. He hated to lose so bad, that I would worry when we would lose a game.

"On the '85 team he quarterbacked, we lost one game in the state-finals. I was worried about Bo, because he was just so competitive, losing to him just shouldn't happen in his books."

Because of that competitiveness, Bucci remembers what he thought when he heard the news Pelini was hired to be the head coach at Nebraska.

"I feel bad for those kids. He's going to be tough on them," said a laughing Bucci. "I was tough, but during my years of coaching, everyone was. We were just a tough crew of coaches who were hard on the kids – in conditioning, practices, everything.

"I figured he would be an old school type of coach and you watch him now, I think he's developed into that."

Pelini says to be called Bucci's most competitive player ever is something special.

"Coming from Coach Bucci, yeah it's a honor. He was a special coach and a special guy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him," said the fifth-year head coach. "He was a perfectionist and had great attention to detail. I think I learned the right way from him.

"I think there is a reason myself, the Stoops, Tim Beck, Carl, and other coaches came out of there - we were exposed to doing things the right way."

Bucci said that it wasn't just Pelini's competitiveness that stood out during the mid-80s. As a player, he was confident. Maybe too confident at times.

"There is a story that goes around that I didn't realize until later on. In a game, Bo would take his position under center and point to a defensive tackle and say 'you better be ready, because we are running right at you, right now,'" said Bucci. "And that's where we would run the ball. I found that out later on. He was so confident he would tell the other team in crucial situation where we were going. Thank goodness at the time I didn't know that."

In late 2010, Nebraska played Oklahoma for the Big 12 Championship. It was a game that put Pelini and a former Cardinal Mooney player, Bob Stoops, square against each other. The two had met previous times in the regular season, but never in a matchup that had so much on the line.

"I felt really good. I felt so proud. When you get older and you have spent as many years in coaching that I have, you look back," said Bucci. "I remember those guys more from when they were playing than head coaches at these universities.

"I felt like a father and his two sons were out there playing. I didn't make any difference who won or who lost. I was so proud of both of them."


Pelini averaged 18 points and six assists a game his senior year
(Big Red Report/Cardinal Mooney)

While Pelini went on to start two seasons in the Ohio State secondary, not many would have been surprised to see him excel in any sports.

According to multiple members of the Cardinal Mooney staff, including Roy Nard, Pelini's high school basketball coach, Bo was one of the most talented athletes to ever come through the school – getting colleges to not just look at him on the field, but also on the court.

"He was very good at both sports," said Nard. "He was actually a good baseball player as well. He was a center-fielder who could bat. He was also a swimmer when he was younger. I think if he would have specialized in any of those, he would have been very good. But with football, it was his first love and he made the right choice."

Pelini even admits at first he thought of taking a different route than the one he ended journeying on.

"I thought about basketball for a long time," said the school's first 1,000 points career scorer. "If you would have asked me early on, say my sophomore or junior year, I would have probably thought I was going basketball wise, but then it ended up going the football way."

During his senior year, playing alongside fellow Nebraska assistant coach Vince Morrow, Pelini averaged 18 points a game and dished out over six assists a contest.

"As a player, he was very competitive, much the way he is on the sidelines today," said Nard. "You see the same faces that I saw when he played for me. He always loved the challenge. He wanted to guard the best player on the other team, no matter if he was a guard or a forward.

He would ask a lot of questions about why were doing something. I could tell he was really trying to understand everything that was going on, which made me thinking coaching might be in the future for him someday."

Nard says that coaching Pelini was a pleasure, because no matter the situation, the prep was always going to give his maximum effort.

"He was giving 110 percent all the time," said Nard. "We had to slow him down sometimes in practice. He was so competitive for loose balls. I would say, 'Bo, slow down a little bit. We need you Friday, we need you Tuesday. We know you can get it done.'"

Pelini still holds the school with 13 consecutive free throws made in a game and was over 80 percent in his career. Nard says he's also the only player he ever coached who never committed a foul in a game – Pelini didn't mind giving officials a hard time back then either.

"He's right, no I didn't ever foul, I got called for some, but I never actually committed the foul," said a joking Pelini.

Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck was two years older than Pelini at Cardinal Mooney, but remembers the impact Bo had on his senior season.

"He was a really good basketball player," said Beck. "In football he came up about midway through the year. He was playing JV and came to play safety for us. But on the basketball team, he was a starter for us. We had a really good team. We went to the regional finals that year and Bo was probably our best player on our team."

With football over, Nard was given the opportunity to see Pelini's college recruitment unfold his senior season. He recalls one moment, where legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler was standing in a snow storm, hoping to talk to Pelini before boarding a team bus to play in a "big league game."

"He's out there saying 'Coach, I need to talk to Bo.' I remember telling him, 'you can walk him to the bus, that is it, we got a big game tonight,'" said Nard.

"It was crazy, it was Ohio State and Michigan. Michigan State, Coach Saban was recruiting me, he was their defensive coordinator," said Pelini. "Iowa because of the Stoops being there. Notre Dame was recruiting me. I got recruited by a lot of good people and had a lot of good options, but in the end decided to stay home."

Bo Pelini has lived in Nebraska now for six years. By all accounts, the head coach likes the Cornhusker state. He likes calling Lincoln home. But no one can change where they grew up and for Pelini, that was Youngstown, Ohio.

Josh Harvey has covered college football and recruiting for Fox Sports & since 2008. He is now the Publisher of Big Red Report, covering Nebraska athletics.
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