Bob and John Shoop spent their childhoods in the backyard of their home outside the Pittsburgh suburbs, competing in neverending games of pick-up football -- only taking a break indoors when their mother called out about cooked hamburgers.
They’d eat mom’s chili while staring at the living-room TV, their eyes following greats like Pitt’s Chris Doleman and, every now and then, Penn State’s Curt Warner. They'd decorate their rooms with Pirates and Steelers knick-knacks. They’d live for sports and especially breathe football. But they never thought as youngsters, from the small town of Oakmont, Pennsylvania, that they’d end up as college coaches.
And, even as their careers blossomed, they never thought they’d wind up where they are today, competing as coaches in the same conference: Bob as Penn State’s defensive coordinator, John as Purdue’s offensive coordinator.
“It’s just a little bit weird,” John said with a laugh. “We’re competing directly now with one another so, yeah, there’s a certain level of discomfort.”
Added Bob: “Right after, you realize ‘Holy crap -- we’re in the same conference.’ … It’s a little different, but blood is thicker than water.”
The two brothers took two indirect paths to get to this juncture. Bob graduated with an economics degree from Yale, bought a few suits and took on an internship with Procter & Gamble. John earned a degree in religion from the University of the South and contemplated trading in his cleats for seminary vestments.
But it was difficult to overcome that childhood influence, that continuing love of football. They’d think back to their father standing off to the side during those pickup games and barking orders; he acted like a coach so often that his neighborhood nickname to this day remains “Skipper.” And John would reflect on how often he turned to a coach, as opposed to the clergy, when he faced a dilemma in life.
At different times, they decided to enter the coaching profession. But the eldest, Bob, paved the way.
“There was never anyone less comfortable than Bobby working for Procter & Gamble,” said a laughing Bill Shoop, the middle brother of Bob and John. “I don’t know if he even cared about the job. He was working for Procter & Gamble -- which is a great company -- but there could’ve been nobody who cared less about it than Bobby.
“And once Bobby went back to coaching after school and Johnny saw that, he realized that’s what he wanted to do.”
Success didn’t come at first, of course. But the Shoop brothers couldn’t be pried from the sport. They boasted two different personalities, but they were both driven. John was the one who spoke slowly and deliberately, using phrases like “shoot” and “son of a gun.” He could spend a day recounting stories and making his friends laugh; he could relate to players. Bob was the one who spoke quickly and spent his time in the film room. He’d tell stories, too, but 25 minutes seemed to be his limit before he’d start thinking about the gridiron again.
John carved his coaching path in the NFL -- at stints with the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears -- while Bob traveled through the FCS ranks of Columbia and William & Mary. Eventually, John found a job as offensive coordinator at North Carolina before moving on to Purdue in 2013. Bob found a gig at Vanderbilt before moving on with James Franklin earlier this year. It was a long way from the fall days of, "Kill the Man with the Ball" when the youngest, John, was usually volunteered to carry the pigskin while the neighborhood kids tackled him.
"It's just a little bit weird. We're competing directly now with one another so, yeah, there's a certain level of discomfort."John Shoop, on coaching in the same conference as his brother Bob
So when Bob accepted the job as the Nittany Lions’ coordinator, one of the first people he called -- of course --was John. And Bob recalled with a laugh how that conversation ended:
When you think about the tradition and history of being defensive coordinator, the expectations there are that you’re going to put out a championship product on the field. I hope you know what you signed up for.
No pressure, right? "How about that, huh?" Bob said with a laugh.
Bob is now overseeing Linebacker U, a Penn State tradition, while John is directing Purdue's Cradle of Quarterbacks, which produced college legends like Drew Brees and Bob Griese. The two brothers grew up on Pennsylvania sports -- with a loving father, who didn't mind throwing in a hard foul every now and then in pickup basketball -- and they revered Big Ten football and those traditions. And now they’ve nearly come full-circle.
They’ll text every week and chat whenever they can find time between coaches’ meetings and game-planning. They’ll use one another as resources -- but mostly focus on their families during any talks. How’s band going for Bill’s kid? How are the wives? How’s senior year going for Bob’s son?
Penn State and Purdue won’t face each other this season. But they are slated to face one another on Oct. 29, 2016. That's not a date either has circled; the Shoops haven’t spoken about that since the first phone call nearly eight months ago -- and they don’t plan to speak about it again. That’s when everything comes full-circle, and that’s when their relationship becomes a bit trickier to navigate for a few weeks or months.
“Obviously, the Harbaugh brothers coached against one another in the Super Bowl,” Bob said. “But offensive coordinator vs. defensive coordinator? That’s really a head-to-head matchup. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. So in 2016, it’s on. But, before then, I’m going to help John anyway I can -- as long as it doesn’t hurt what we’re trying to accomplish at Penn State.”
Until that day, Bill and his parents plan to flip between channels every Saturday. And the Shoop brothers plan to make their hometown proud. They’ve taken different paths, but they’ve both reached similar destinations. And now they’re there to prop each other up.
“I think my brothers just kind of loved sports so much that I loved them,” John said. “They loved me into loving sports. I believe that. And I’ll help [Bob] because I love him.”
Said Bob: “To me, this is like coming home. … We’ll help each other out any way we can, as long it doesn’t affect Purdue or Penn State. And I know he feels the same way.”