By: Greg Gulas
Read Part 2
When you talk Cardinal Mooney athletics, football is the sport that immediately comes to mind and it was Don Bucci the coach who put the school on the so-called proverbial map.
As a program, the Cardinals have won eight state titles overall but it was Bucci who guided the team to their first four crowns, his very first coming in 1973 when they were a Class AAA entry while his fourth and last arrived in 1987 when the OHSAA (Ohio High School Athletic Association) reclassified them as a Division III team.
In between, state titles also arrived in ‘80 and again in ‘82 as Division II powers while Bucci-coached teams also finished as state runners-up in 1985, making the play-offs a total of 10 times (‘73, ‘76, ’80, ’81, ’82, ’85, ’87, ’90, ’96 and ’99) under his direction.
“Coach” passed away February 11 at age 89, leaving behind a legacy that produced a 306-89-5 mark in exactly 400 games coached, a sparkling .771 career winning percentage that still ranks him as the 12th winningest coach all-time in the state.
Bucci’s practices were historic, sessions that didn’t seem to end until a play was executed the way in which it was designed or when perfection was achieved.
His blueprint for success was copied by opposing teams yet hardly ever achieved, definitely not sustained for any length of time.
He molded our youth into football gladiators, youngsters who became leaders upon graduation and men who later had families of their own of which CMHS was most proud because they continued to give back to the community and school that prepared the for life beyond the gridiron.
Many testimonials have been written about Bucci, players and assistants alike recalling stories and tales about his attention to detail because that was the only way he knew how to achieve perfection.
As a member of the media, I judge people how they treat me and speaking from experience, proudly note that Coach Bucci was one of the most approachable coaches at any level.
Win or lose he answered your questions, never beat around the bush and was honest to a fault while providing a quote or audio-video clip in a timely fashion so that you could return home or to the office to file your story for the nightly sports or following days’ newspaper.
When he retired from coaching and moved over to the school’s athletic director chair – he served in that capacity from 1999-2020 – the transition was a smooth one as he assisted and oversaw all Cardinals’ boys and girls sports with their scheduling, head coaches and their respective staffs with their many needs while ensuring that they were compliant with the state, both academically and athletically.
He hired Carey Palermo as the CMHS boys head basketball coach and while it took Palermo several years to put his stamp on the program, they will enter this year’s tournament as the two-time defending District champions.
“Coach Bucci is someone that I really admired,” Palermo said. “He was a part of the board that hired me seven years ago and his biggest concerns when I interviewed for the job were, ‘would I be at Cardinal Mooney long term, and would I stress fundamentals, accountability and work ethic. Also, would I make it a point to help my players attend college and closely monitor my players’ academics.’ That always stood out to me because I knew right then that it was more than about winning for a man who won so much.
“I always felt that I had his support. My first few years we really struggled and I struggled as a young head coach but he always had my back and stuck with me. I remember receiving an anonymous letter from someone who was obviously a parent, wanting more playing time for their son while complaining about our program. I remember showing it to him and him giving me words of encouragement and advice, then tearing the letter up and throwing it away. I asked him how I should respond and his reply was simply you won’t find anonymous in the phone book.”
Former Campbell Memorial football coach, Ed Rozum, who had three head coaching stints at his alma mater, was a part of Bucci’s staff when he first realized he wanted to become a grid coach.
“When I first started my coaching career, I had the pleasure of serving on Coach Bucci’s staff, that coming during the 1976 and 1977 seasons,” Rozum added. “I coached their offensive and defensive lines back then and felt that if I was fortunate enough to get to coach a team of my own, I wanted to emulate Don Bucci and his Cardinal Mooney program, everything from his practices to his pre-game preparation to his in-game style and off-season rituals.
“He built a top-notch program and it was because of hard work. There were no shortcuts.. His practices were long but boy were his teams ever prepared. I had the great fortune of coaching against him on four occasions, going 2-2 and every game was a knock down, drag out affair. His preparation was second to none, his teams were always well-coached and their technique was seemingly flawless.
“He took average players and made them better, good players and made them great and it was all because of his attention to detail and the staff that he had assembled around him. My son went to Cardinal Mooney as a freshman and what a great experience he had.”
Print and electronic media representatives loved his style.
John Darnell is the CEO, editor-in-chief of The Boardman News, a weekly newspaper that devotes expanded coverage to Boardman and Cardinal Mooney High School’s, and Youngstown State University.
”When I returned from the U.S. Army in 1972, one of the first people I got to know was Cardinal Mooney head football coach, Don Bucci,” Darnell stated. “He always had time to speak with me, often times providing ‘life lessons’ while we talked. For example, he would talk about running football plays correctly and the importance of teamwork on the field, then relate that concept to the same thing in life – ‘Do the best you can and always give it more than 100 per cent.’
“If you do that then you will succeed, the coach would say. That’s the way the kids he coached practiced, run the same play over and over then over again until it was perfected. For me, it was no surprise when Coach Bucci’s teams would come out of the halftime locker room and stage a long and lengthy touchdown drive (mostly on the ground) in the third quarter. On the defensive side, I can remember a play-off game, I believe it was against Euclid, when a Mooney defensive player stopped all-state running back Robert Smith for a seven-yard loss. Running off the field the player remarked something like, ‘Coach, how did you like that? I stopped him behind the line of scrimmage,’ to which Mr. Bucci replied something to the effect, ‘You could have stopped him 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage!’
“During Coach Bucci’s tenure at Cardinal Mooney, Friday always featured spaghetti on the lunch menu. It was always a pleasure to go to the school and speak with him during that special lunch time because you never knew who would be there visiting with him. I can recall having lunch and conversation with many college coaches, among them Earle Bruce from Ohio State and Gerry Faust who was at Notre Dame at the time.”
Dana Balash, the Dean of area sportscasters and the sports director at WFMJ-TV, Channel 21, has featured the Cardinals and Bucci-coached teams on his popular ‘Friday Night Overtime Report’.
“Coach Bucci was a class individual. Going back to my days of calling high school football in the mid-to-late ‘80s on AM-1390, WFMJ, he was always considerate and professional,” Balash noted. “At that time, he didn’t know me yet he treated me with respect because he knew it was all about the kids. Even after his retirement from coaching we kept in touch. He always made it a habit of saying hello when he saw me on the sidelines.
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“When he couldn’t get to games he would call me and ask about the game. Don was not only an outstanding coach but he was an even better person. Outstanding is the word I would use to describe him. The area lost a superb individual in Don Bucci.”
Bob Hannon, former sports director of WYTV-TV, Channel 33 who currently serves as president-chief professional officer for the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, enjoyed watching Bucci-coached teams when covering them on a Friday or Saturday night.
“Don Bucci was one of my all-time favorite coaches because he always took time for an interview and always welcomed you at practice,” Hannon said. “Don became a good friend and I will always cherish the memories of watching his teams compete and win state championships.”