1 The Diamond
NICK SABAN started recruiting in 1962. He was ten years old.
He was acting on behalf of his father, “Big” Nick Saban, who was the founder, general manager, head coach, and director of transportation of the Idamay Black Diamonds, a Pop Warner football team in West Virginia.I
The father-son duo canvassed the elementary and middle schools that served Monongah (where the Sabans lived), Idamay, Farmington, Carolina, Worthington, and Hutchinson—the tiny coal-mining satellite towns surrounding the “big city” of Fairmont, which was the area’s commercial hub. Big Nick’s recruiting pitch to the ten- to fifteen-year-old boys was straightforward: I’m forming a Pop Warner football team. I can teach you to play the game of football and get you prepared for your high school team. Saban, working his way through the schools grade by grade, appealed more to the hearts and minds of his peers: We’ve got football, cheerleaders, and ice cream. Both approaches worked.
In the next decade, hundreds of boys would play for the Black Diamonds and the team’s exceedingly demanding and intense coach. Those boys would earn countless victories but draw very little praise for those achievements.
Even years later, opinions about Big Nick are complicated and varied. “He was, frankly, a total dick,” says one former Black Diamond. Others, like Kerry Marbury, who played for Big Nick in the mid-1960s, view him differently. “It was just tough love. We always knew he cared for us.”
Regardless of how they felt about him, Big Nick’s former players all agree on one thing: The man played an unusually significant role in their young lives.
His biggest impact, though, would be on his only son.
Nick Saban’s hometown is located right on top of a band of coal-rich earth that extends from Pennsylvania to Alabama. By the late nineteenth century, with the steel industry, steamships, and electrical grids in cities all needing coal for fuel—and with newly laid railroad tracks enabling coal producers to meet that demand—this small nook in West Virginia became one of the country’s top coal producers. It also became the site of a tragedy.
At 10:20 a.m. on December 6, 1907—the Catholic calendar’s Feast of St. Nicholas—two massive explosions destroyed the Fairmont Coal Company’s Nos. 6 and 8 mines in Monongah. Officially, 362 men were killed, though the number was likely higher since many of the bodies within the mines were never recovered. The blasts are believed to have been set off by a string of coal cars that broke loose and rolled back into the mouth of the No. 6 mine. The Monongah Mining Disaster, as it became known, remains one of the biggest industrial accidents in American history.
Accidents—and there were many—were merely an unfortunate part of coal-mining life. Most of the miners in the early twentieth century were recent immigrants or sons of immigrants who had come primarily from eastern and central Europe. They absorbed these tragedies, dusted themselves off (literally), and moved on. They had no other choice. There was little—if any—socioeconomic mobility for these miners at that time. Daily wages were counted in pennies. Unions were only in an infancy stage. The mining
companies “owned your soul,” as the old coal miner saying went. They built—and owned—the towns, houses, stores, and baseball fields that surrounded the mines.
Thirteen years after the Monongah Disaster, Nick Saban’s paternal grandfather, Stanko Saban, a Croat, immigrated to the United States from what would later become known as Yugoslavia. Stanko (who would change his name to the more Anglican “Stanley”) first moved to Oregon, but came back east to the Fairmont area. He worked in a coal mine in Carolina, a town located between Idamay and Monongah. He married a woman named Anna. They had four children, one of whom was Big Nick, who was born on June 11, 1927.
Big Nick was a deeply serious boy who decided early on that his primary goal was to stay out of the mines. He was darkly handsome, with thick hair he always kept neatly trimmed. In high school, the 5'11", 200-pounder became a standout athlete in football and baseball, and later played some minor-league baseball. He enlisted in the navy after graduating from high school but decided against a career in the military and returned home, where he devised his strategy to stay aboveground: He started his own business.
Saban’s Service Station was located at the intersection of Route 218, which led to Idamay, and U.S. 19, the main road to Fairmont. Big Nick, with the help of some neighbors, built a small, redbrick, split-level house behind his filling station, right next to a stream named Helen’s Run, which emptied into the sluggish West Fork River, a tributary of the Monongahela River. He later opened another business in a building across the street, trying his hand at running first a restaurant and then a Dairy Queen.
Big Nick married a woman named Mary Conaway, who was from nearby Farmington. Her father, “Pap,” was a coal miner. Big Nick and Mary had a daughter, Dianna (who sometimes goes by “Dene”), in 1950. When Mary became pregnant again soon afterward, the family was convinced she was carrying a boy. Dianna
took to calling the unborn baby “Brother.” Nicholas Lou Saban Jr. was born on Halloween in 1951. To this day his childhood friends still refer to him by the nickname his sister gave him.
“When you grew up here, you expected that you would work in the mines, own a four-wheel-drive truck, get married, and have kids,” says Donnie Evans, a childhood friend and former high school football teammate of Nick Saban.
Big Nick succeeded in carving out a different life for himself. He ran two full-time businesses, an adult baseball team, and, eventually, the Black Diamonds. He was constantly in motion because he had to be. Life in the mines was only one business mistake away. The Sabans weren’t as poor as a few of their neighbors, some of whom survived on welfare, but they had to work nearly constantly to stay above that line—the station was open from 7 a.m. until midnight six days a week, manned by Big Nick, his son, and one or two local boys who were paid $1.25 an hour. Mary and Dianna worked at the Dairy Queen (Mary also worked for a time at a bank). Margins were hair-thin, and there was no safety net in place. When the Saban home flooded—which happened with some frequency in the spring when the snowmelt-swollen West Fork would back up Helen’s Run—they didn’t wait around for insurance. The family simply went to work and cleaned out the silt and garbage, then went on with life.
As determined as he was about his own life, Big Nick wanted even more for his children and, in particular, his son. And that came with a price.
Big Nick, to some, might fit neatly into the stereotype of the stern, no-nonsense, tough-love father of the 1950s and ’60s, a male-dominated era of true patriarchy that has been in a long, slow fade ever since. But to those who knew him, he surpassed that stereotype in spades. His temper was enormous and easy to arouse. He
didn’t hesitate to make a move for his belt. Things went the way he wanted in his house, and that was that.
He also either lacked the time or the desire to engage in some of the simplest of human pleasantries. When the Sabans had guests over, they usually gathered in the living room and talked over glasses of wine. Everyone, that is, except for Big Nick, who would hole up alone in another room and watch television. On the street or at home, he frequently walked by people without saying hello or even looking at them. His lack of social grace was magnified by his physical presence. “He was a big man,” says Evans. “When he walked, there was this boom, boom, boom. You were afraid to be in his way.”
The women who knew him have resorted to comparative math to describe his personality. Dianna once told a reporter that her brother wasn’t “50-percent as intense as Daddy was.” Saban’s wife, Terry, once told a Miami newspaper: “People think Nick is so tough, even to the point that they think he doesn’t have social skills and can’t tell a joke. Well, multiply that by 100, and you’ll understand his dad.” Big Nick sometimes wouldn’t even acknowledge Terry’s presence after she and his son started dating in high school.
Though Big Nick desired a better life for his children, they had to earn it. Saban started working at the filling station as soon as he was old enough to handle a gas pump. It was a true full-service station—he also wiped windshields, changed oil, rotated tires, and washed cars. “I can still see Brother walking out of the gas station with a blue towel in his back pocket as a car pulled up,” says Evans, who worked part-time at the station. “He’d say, ‘Fill her up? How’s that oil doing?’ The thing is, it was never menial to Brother. It was important to do it right.”
The reason for that was Big Nick and his demands. Saban often tells the story about washing cars at the station, that if he left so much as a tiny spot on a car, his father would make him rewash it entirely. (Saban hated dark-colored cars for that reason.) Occasionally, when he was dissatisfied with his son’s work or effort, Big Nick would fire Saban for a few days and suspend his pay. Evans remembers
a cold, rainy day when Big Nick asked him, Saban, and another boy to clean out a drain that was down a hole by the station. There wasn’t much debris in the drain, and the water was getting through it just fine, but Big Nick wanted it cleared anyway. After just a few minutes, the boys had pretty much removed anything that could have possibly blocked the drain. But Saban stayed down in the hole. “He wouldn’t quit until it was absolutely spotless,” says Evans. “We were telling him, ‘Come on, man. It’s fine. Let’s go. It’s cold.’ But Brother said, ‘We’re going to do it right. I don’t want to listen to it later on.’ ”
What “it” was remained unclear to the boys because, though it was obvious to Evans and Saban’s other childhood friends that his father was particularly harsh on him, Saban never talked about it, never mentioned any types of punishments or discipline in specific. But what was clear to everyone who knew them was that Saban was intent on trying to please his father, to truly strive for the impossible perfection that was demanded. To make that quest possible—even survivable—Saban adapted his own behavior. He learned to derive pleasure and satisfaction in the very act of doing. Put another way, Saban, at a very young age, learned to embrace and love the process of doing.
It turned out that the place that put that adaptation to its biggest test—the place where his father rode him the hardest—was the football field.
Big Nick got the idea for a Pop Warner football team after meeting some men who worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and were visiting the Fairmont area to meet with deliverymen. The Inquirer men told him about the Pop Warner teams they had back in Pennsylvania. Big Nick liked the idea of providing the boys in these small towns with an activity, something that would keep them busy and build character. He enlisted his friend Willie Criado, the local postmaster, to help him start the team.
Criado still lives in the house in which he grew up, right across the street from the football field in Idamay. The well-kept, balding,
eighty-eight-year-old holds Big Nick in nearly worshipful regard. It’s with pride that he points out that the two men were born on the same day. Criado says he followed Big Nick—or tried to—everywhere he went. When Big Nick played baseball, the less athletic Criado did, too. When Big Nick joined the navy, Criado tried to enlist as well, but didn’t pass the physical exam. Criado helped his friend in any way he could. “I did taxes for [Big] Nick because he really didn’t like to do them,” he says. Big Nick returned the devotion by occasionally treating Criado to a Pirates game in Pittsburgh. Criado says he thinks he knows why Big Nick liked him: Criado served as a reality check. “With him, it was his way or the highway,” says Criado. “I was one of the few people who could talk to him.”
Big Nick and Criado approached the Pop Warner league in Fairmont to see if they could join it with a team made up of kids from some of its surrounding towns. The leaders of the league were initially opposed. “If we got in, they would have had a five-team league, which would have meant too many bye weeks,” says Criado.
Shortly thereafter, though, one of the Fairmont teams dissolved. Big Nick and Criado got the old uniforms—orange tops and black pants. They decided to name the team the Idamay Black Diamonds. The nickname came from anthracite, the most coveted type of coal—lustrous, carbon packed, and clean burning.
The original idea was for Big Nick to be the commissioner of the team, with Criado as his secretary. They found a field: an unleveled patch of grass and dirt (the back of the south end zone veered sharply up a big hill) right next to the Bethlehem No. 44 mine, where some of the players’ fathers and grandfathers worked. They found three football players from nearby Fairmont State College to volunteer for coaching duties. By midsummer in 1962, after he and his son had done their recruiting, Big Nick believed they had enough boys to form a team. Sign-up and practice would start on August 1, 1962.
That day, Big Nick and Criado were at the service station when they decided to head up to the field to see how many players were coming out. They found a gathering of anxious boys, all holding
their birth certificates, but no coaches. The three players from Fairmont State had failed to show. “[Big] Nick turned to me and said, ‘You sign them up, and I’ll take them to the field and make it seem like we’re doing something,’ ” says Criado. The three coaches were no-shows again the next day, so Big Nick started to run an actual practice, seeing who could throw, who could catch, and who could hit. “Each day, he just got more and more into it,” says Criado. “When the coaches finally showed up a few days later, he just told them to leave.” The Black Diamonds were Big Nick’s team now. He discovered, by accident, that he loved coaching and was good at it and that, in the end, he couldn’t live without it.
Then came the bus. Big Nick didn’t want his players walking or hitchhiking to and from practices and games—some lived as far as five miles away and the roads were hilly, winding, and treacherous—and he believed that providing transportation would act as an incentive for more boys to come out for the team. The bus also happened to provide him with a good deal of control over the team: Being in charge of transportation meant he could determine when practices were held, and he could keep the boys on the field for as long as he thought was needed. Big Nick didn’t allow the kids’ parents on the practice field.
The bus was an old twenty-seater, retired from school duty. Big Nick painted it orange with black trim. Mary decorated the interior with motivational sayings and aphorisms, written in Magic Marker, ranging from the clichéd “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” to the less prosaic “Be nice to people on the way up because you’ll see them on the way down” and “Practice makes players.” Big Nick was a fan of such maxims and frequently spat them out during practices. The kids could be forgiven if two of his favorites seemed to convey a mixed message. “Be like grass—the more manure they throw on you, the stronger you get” was one. “The grass is always greener on top of the septic tank” was the other.
From August through November, Big Nick drove the bus through the hollows on practice days to centralized locations in the towns—a post office, a store, a barbershop—to pick up the kids, then reversed the route after practice. Each trip took up to forty minutes.
The bus had its troubles. “We had to get out and push it a few times,” says Tom Hulderman, a former player. Occasionally, the brakes would give out and Big Nick was forced to use the handbrake while trundling down a hill, which made an awful noise and filled the bus with pungent plumes of smoke.
Saban was the first Black Diamond, of course, but at age ten, he didn’t see the field much in that first year. It was just as well. The Black Diamonds were beaten 48–6 in their first game and recorded only one win in that season. They improved very quickly, though. The next year, the team went 5-5. “Then, this little team from the sticks started kicking ass,” says Nick Demus, one of the local adults who helped with organizing and fund-raising for the team.
In year three, the Black Diamonds started a run that attained legendary status and continued until the death of the team’s founder, becoming so dominant that they came to the attention of a young football coach at West Virginia named Bobby Bowden. When he was in the Fairmont area, Bowden would stop by to see Big Nick to chat about former Black Diamonds that he was recruiting.
All Big Nick needed was time—to get the right boys and turn them into a football team.
One of the key players early on was an African American boy named Kerry Marbury. Marbury lived in Carolina, West Virginia, and was the fourth of seven children raised by a single mother on welfare. Though Carolina was a segregated mining town, Marbury says he didn’t ever feel any racism while growing up. “I didn’t really know what that was until I got to college,” he says. “We all—black and white—played together, ate together. There was no name-calling. You didn’t know you were any different.”
Marbury was one of the Black Diamonds’ easiest recruits. He first met Saban at age five (Saban is a year older), and they immediately became best friends. Saban’s paternal grandparents lived in Carolina, a block or so from the African American part of town, and he spent parts of his summers there. He and Marbury met on a nearby field, where kids from both sides of the line met to play ball.
Soon Marbury was hanging out at the station and having meals with the Sabans.
Marbury played running back and defensive back for the Black Diamonds, and was particularly lethal when returning kicks. Joining Marbury were Charlie Miller and Nate Stephens, who would later be drafted by NFL teams. Perhaps the most athletically gifted player on those early teams was Tom Hulderman, who lived steps from the field in Idamay. He could do it all—run, catch, pass, and kick (his specialty was his uncannily accurate drop kick). Hulderman probably would have been the team’s quarterback if it weren’t for a slight stutter that seemed to flare up at unfortunate times, like in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage. So the starting quarterback job ended up going to the coach’s son. Saban was not particularly tall. (As an adult, various reports have listed him between 5'8"and 5'11". He is closer to the former.) He wasn’t fast, either, and he did not possess a strong arm, but he was smart and driven. “He studied hard and learned the game and knew it inside and out,” says Criado. “He knew exactly what to do in different situations, given the down and distance.”
Big Nick was tough on everyone. “We feared him. We were scared to death,” says Mark Manchin, who played with Saban for Big Nick for three years. “You’d be in the huddle just waiting for the kick in the butt or for the clipboard to come flying at you.”
Criado remembers a practice when he was coaching the defense, and Saban took a shot at a kid who was smaller than he was. “I gathered the defense and told them, ‘Let’s get him. Let’s get him back for that.’ ” But the players didn’t do anything. Whether that was because they feared Big Nick or pitied Saban remains unanswered.
They had plenty of reason to feel the latter. No one begrudged the coach’s son for being the starting quarterback because no one on the team had it worse than Saban. “[Big] Nick was always tougher on Brother,” says Hulderman. “Always.” Marbury says he
“felt sorry for Brother. His father was so much more demanding of him than he was of the rest of us. We all noticed it.”
Saban never talked about it. He felt it, though, at least according to another teammate. “Brother might have a different recollection, but I don’t remember him ever finishing an entire practice without crying. His father just drove him unmercifully,” says Manchin. “I always thought Brother had two options growing up: to become a great success or go crazy.”
Practices, as one of the sayings in the bus declared, were what made a team, according to Big Nick. His were legendary for their physicality and duration. The kids hit hard. They often stayed out until after dark, using car headlights to illuminate the field. “I worked harder in Pop Warner than I ever did in high school, college, or the pros,” says Marbury, who would later play at West Virginia and in the Canadian Football League.
Big Nick particularly stressed conditioning. On the south end of the field was a fifty-foot hill, terraced and steeply inclined. Big Nick sent the boys up and down the hill for what seemed like hours. “You were crab-crawling by the end,” says Marbury. When it got too dark to tell if the players were actually running to the top of the hill, Big Nick demanded they bring down a leaf from one of the trees on the ridgeline as proof.
Football was not supposed to be fun to Big Nick. It was a teaching tool, a way of starting the process of turning these boys into disciplined men. This was Big Nick’s team, molded in his image. “Our practices were no-nonsense,” says Manchin. “No laughter, total commitment, and constant teaching.” The only bit of frivolity came at the end of practice when, traditionally, Big Nick—perhaps sensing that the kids needed to blow off some steam—would take a snap from center and let the kids gang-tackle him. More than one kid saved their biggest hits of the day for that moment.
In the third year of their existence—when Saban was in seventh grade—the Black Diamonds went undefeated and un-scored-upon,
part of what would end up being a thirty-nine-game winning streak. The following year, in a game against a team from Shinnston, Saban didn’t “make weight” (Pop Warner has strict weight restrictions), so another kid filled in at the quarterback position. Early in the game, Big Nick decided to go for it on a fourth down, deep in his own territory. The Black Diamonds were stopped and turned the ball over on downs. Shinnston then scored a touchdown on a passing play. It ended the Black Diamonds’ season-and-a-half-long scoreless streak, though they still won the game handily. “I think [Big] Nick was relieved that we finally got scored on,” says Criado. “The streak was putting an awful lot of pressure on the kids.”
If he was relieved, he certainly didn’t show it to the team. On the bus ride home after the game, a few of the boys started goofing off and laughing. Big Nick immediately stopped the bus and got up and walked back to his players. “I don’t want to hear another sound!” he yelled. “Do you boys realize what just happened to you?”
The Black Diamonds were primarily a running team, so Saban didn’t get a chance to pass the ball often. When he did, he was usually accurate with his throws. His father, though, always found fault in his play, no matter how sound. Even after a touchdown pass, Saban would get an earful on the sidelines—about a missed read, poor throwing form, or a loose spiral. To Big Nick, it wasn’t about the result, it was about perfect execution. And the execution was never perfect. “He drove us really hard, but Nick Senior was a great coach. I cannot say anything clearer,” says Manchin. “With his attention to detail and knowledge of the game, I think he could have been a college coach.”
Big Nick also occasionally doled out little acts of kindness that Criado says no one else knew about, helping out his players and never calling attention to the charity. Criado remembers one kid who showed up with huge rips in his tennis shoes. “[Big] Nick asked the kid when he was going to get new shoes,” says Criado. “The kid said, ‘On my dad’s payday.’ So Nick let him borrow a pair of shoes, and he never asked for them back.”
Some rewards were more publicly given, but only if properly earned. Big Nick treated the boys to ice cream at his Dairy Queen
after some wins, but not all of them. “When he wasn’t satisfied with the way they won the game, they didn’t get ice cream,” says Criado, which happened more often than not.
At the Dairy Queen, the players were graced with the welcome presence of Mary, who greeted each of them with a huge smile. She was “a beautiful, beautiful woman,” says Evans, with long light hair that curled at its ends. She always dressed nicely, and took great pains to present herself well in public, never venturing from her room with curlers in her hair or without makeup. She gave off an air of composure and class. She, too, was athletic, a good golfer who was a cheerleader in high school when she met Big Nick. Her work ethic rivaled that of her husband’s.
Yet Mary Saban stood in stark contrast to her husband. She was warmhearted, nonconfrontational, and rarely raised her voice. She enjoyed social occasions and parties and rousing games of bridge. She was the soft, extroverted presence that smoothed the roughest edges of her husband. Big Nick was the stern, Old Testament–like father who demanded obedience and demonstrated his love through discipline and sacrifice. Mary was the forgiving mother figure who doled out soul-soothing scoops of ice cream.
Whenever Big Nick went off on one of his tirades, or pulled off his belt for a whipping, it was Mary who picked up the pieces, huddling the rest of the family together as if waiting out a hurricane. She showed her emotions openly, not afraid of shedding tears in the aftermath of a Big Nick blowup. That was her sole defiance. Saban turned to his mother whenever the pressure from his father became too overbearing. He could relax a bit with her, something that should not be discounted in its importance. Saban would later tell a reporter that his mother instilled confidence within him. That confidence enabled him to not only survive but even thrive as a child. It made it so the pressure from his father formed him instead of breaking him.
As a child, and as he is now, Saban was shy and introverted. During the winter of eighth grade, he refused to stand up and sing in front of the other students in a music class run by a teacher named Ms. Helminski. So she gave him a D. Big Nick was furious, and his reaction was both swift and dramatic. He first forced his sports-mad son to turn in his basketball uniform, and made him quit all sports until his grades were better. He then drove Saban to the Bethlehem No. 44 mine, right near the Black Diamonds’ field, and, with the help of some miner friends, took his son down into the mine, 550 feet underground. “If you don’t do better in school, if you don’t get a college education, this is where you will end up,” he told Saban. “Is this what you want? Do you want to end up down here for the rest of your life?” Saban started to sing in music class.
In the summer of that same year, Saban attended a 4-H science camp near Fairmont, and first met the girl who would one day become his wife. Saban and Terry Constable, who lived in East Fairmont, hit it off immediately. At least that’s what she thought. She invited him to come bird-watching with her at five o’clock one morning. Saban said yes on the spot. He later realized that he had a softball game that same morning, so he stood her up. (This would be Terry’s first lesson in being a coach’s wife.) Saban would get a shot at redemption a few years later, and he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
By all accounts, Saban was an unusually serious child. “Brother was mature beyond his years,” says Evans. Manchin recalls that it went beyond maturity. “Brother was never a kid. He was an adult when we were ten. I don’t remember him ever laughing or smiling. I don’t remember him being happy. I swear I don’t. He was always so serious and disciplined. I’d spend the night at his house and he’d go to bed at ten o’clock. I’d stay up and watch TV all by myself.” Saban, of course, had to be ready to work the next morning.
Roman Prezioso, another former teammate of Saban, recalls that whenever he went by the filling station, “if Nick wasn’t pumping gas, he and Hulderman were throwing the football to each other over the gas pumps. There was no wasted time. He grew up in that
culture of no wasted time, of a serious work ethic. It was almost like behavior modification.”
Football became a respite of sorts for Saban, despite his father’s unrelenting demands. He had fun playing it, and soon became obsessed with the game. “We’d sit at the Dairy Queen and talk football,” says Evans. “It was always on his mind, and he always seemed happy when we were talking about it.”
In the ninth grade, with some of his teammates moving on to their high school teams, Saban decided to stay and play one more year for the Black Diamonds. Doing so ensured playing time (it was unusual back then for freshmen to play much for their varsity high school teams). There was likely another reason for his decision. Though Big Nick never let Saban relax during practices and games, off the field the game became a safe harbor for the father and son, a space separate from the rest of their lives where Big Nick sometimes loosened up, if only a bit. Big Nick occasionally took Saban to West Virginia practices and games, and the two would endlessly go over different plays and formations, and talk football strategy at the dinner table. Marbury says he used to stay at the Sabans’ and that after dinner, Saban and his father would head into the TV room to watch 8 mm films of games. “They’d ask me if I wanted to join them,” says Marbury. “I’d say ‘no thanks.’ The two of them would sit there and watch for hours and love it.”
Big Nick continued to coach after Saban left the Black Diamonds to play high school football. The team remained a superpower in the region, twice beating a formidable Pop Warner team from Monongahela, Pennsylvania, which was quarterbacked by a talented boy named Joe Montana.
The beneficiary of Big Nick’s great recruiting and coaching with the Black Diamonds was a man named Earl Keener, the head coach of the Monongah High School football team. Many of the best Black Diamonds—Marbury, Hulderman, Saban—went to Monongah High, a three-hundred-student school. Keener was a local boy,
born in Carolina, who enlisted in the navy and fought in the Pacific Theater in Word War II, then was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams (though he never played in the NFL). He was known as a vocal, inspiring coach. His assistant, Joe Ross, was deeper into the X’s and O’s.
Saban made the Monongah High team as a sophomore. Keener initially believed that Saban was too short to play quarterback for the Lions, and started another boy at the position in 1966. “That pissed [Big] Nick off,” says Demus.
Keener’s stance changed after the first game of the season, after the Lions “got our heads handed to us by East Fairmont,” says Prezioso, who was a halfback and senior captain on that team. Prezioso, along with his two fellow captains, approached Keener after the game. “We knew we had this young kid who had come through a very successful Pop Warner team with his dad, that he was smart and a quick learner,” he says. They told Keener they wanted a change.
Keener listened and installed Saban as the starting quarterback. Saban, who also played defensive back, turned out to be as described by his teammates. “He was calm, cool, and collected, and understood the game,” says Prezioso. The Lions didn’t lose another game that season, finishing 8-1-1.
Saban grew into a position of leadership, leading by example. On defense, he hit as hard as he could, flinging himself at the ballcarrier with little regard for his own well-being. As a quarterback, he specialized in making tough one- or two-yard runs for first downs, absorbing hits from defensive linemen twice his size. In the huddle, after barking out the play call, Saban would pause and look at his teammates in the eyes and say: “Let’s beat them on this play.”
Saban still wasn’t fast or big and he lacked arm strength, but he succeeded in spite of those deficiencies. “It was all heart and brains,” says Marbury. The Lions ran a quick and deceptive offense. Saban didn’t throw a lot, but could do so proficiently when needed, especially when opposing defenses would stack eight players near the line of scrimmage to try to stop Marbury. Saban always received a general game plan from Keener and Ross, but once the
game started, he called all of his own plays. Behind it all, though, one voice remained the most significant. “I always had the feeling that his father really was his coach, not Keener, that when he was calling his own plays, he was listening to his father,” says Demus.
Any coaching by Big Nick wasn’t necessarily evident to the naked eye. “Senior would come watch the high school games but he wasn’t one of those parents who yelled from the sidelines,” says Evans, who was a lineman for the Lions. “He just sat and watched him play. But you could tell he was paying very close attention and was making mental notes, particularly about mistakes.” After the games, and whenever they could squeeze it in around work, school, and practices, Big Nick and Saban talked football and watched film together. “I remember stopping by the station during the season and seeing those two watching film,” says Prezioso. “We didn’t have film in high school. I remember thinking, This is unbelievable. But Nick [Jr.] was so far ahead of the other players on the team in terms of understanding the game, and that was all due to his father, who was always teaching him.”
By Saban’s junior season, the Lions had begun to take on his persona. As they won more and more games, he seemed to get more and more intense. “When you messed up, he wasn’t running up and screaming at you. He could just look at you with a look that said, ‘What are you doing? You missed that block. We can’t win games doing that,’ ” says Evans. “When we scored a touchdown or won a game, he wasn’t jumping up and down, high-fiving or hugging people. He was no-nonsense, sort of like ‘we have a job to do, let’s go do it.’ ”
The players who surrounded him made that job easier. Hulderman was a three-time all-state player at split end. In the backfield, “no one could stop Kerry [Marbury],” says Evans. One of the only real concerns Saban had as a quarterback who called the plays was figuring out how to spread the ball around evenly so everyone remained happy. Evans gives Saban credit for getting the best out of the other players on the team. “I mean, Kerry was great, but Brother is the one who helped him perform at that level. He got the best out of him. It was the strangest thing. Here’s this five-eight or five-nine
kid, and all you wanted was his approval. You wanted him to come up to you and say ‘good job’ and pat you on the back. I feel like that was because Brother was always pushing himself, always seeking some sort of approval himself.”
In Saban’s junior year, Monongah made the Class AA state championship game, but lost badly to Ceredo-Kenova. The next year, Saban, Marbury, and Hulderman lead the Lions to the Class A state championship, a 21–12 victory over Paden City. Saban, who made the all-state team, played in that game despite a broken ankle. Later that year, he would also be named all-state in both basketball, as a point guard, and baseball, where he batted .465 as a shortstop.
In the classroom, Saban worked hard on his grades. He loved studying history and was particularly good in Ms. Turkovich’s demanding math class. He graduated as a member of the National Honor Society. “He was different from the rest of us,” says Evans. “I think Brother was already thinking about his future then. He was making good grades in high school while the rest of us were fooling around. He wanted to get out.”
None of his childhood friends remember him ever joining the other boys to drink beer. “He didn’t think you were cool if you drank,” says Evans. “He didn’t approve of it, but he didn’t say anything. He figured you were a big boy and could make your own decisions. That’s what he did: make his own decisions.”
Saban had another thing on his mind, too. Though he and Terry had run into each other a few times during high school, it wasn’t until his senior year when he finally took real notice. She caught his eye at a football game against East Fairmont, where Terry was a “Honey Bee,” which was a dancer for the team. (Terry would later become the “Queen Bee,” which is the on-the-field leader of the dancers and band.) “She had eye-popping attributes,” says Earl McConnell Jr., the current director of the Honey Bees and son of the founders. “She had personality like crazy, she worked very hard, had a good head on her shoulders, and was a beautiful young lady.”
Terry, the oldest of four girls, was a year younger than Saban. Her father was a miner; her mother, a teacher’s aide. After the game, Saban approached her. She apparently forgave him for standing her
up four years earlier. After the football season, during the Thanksgiving break, the couple went on their first formal date, catching Gone with the Wind at a theater in Fairmont. Saban hitchhiked the nine miles from his house to visit Terry in East Fairmont throughout his senior year. He says he always considered her a city girl who took in a country boy. They’ve been together ever since.
Even though Saban’s father had avoided a life in the coal mines, it was impossible for anyone living in the Fairmont area at that time to fully escape the reach of the region’s main economic engine. Mines and miners were a central feature of Saban’s young life. He saw miners every day at the station, clean if they arrived before a shift, sometimes dusted with coal ash if they came by after. Reminders of the hardships and tragedies faced by these men and their families—and, really, the entire community—were everywhere. Saban’s high school building was perched on a bluff just across the West Fork River from the old Fairmont Coal Company’s Nos. 6 and 8 portals, the site of the 1907 disaster. His childhood home is located two miles down the road from the explosion site.
The tragedies never ceased. Just before Thanksgiving during Saban’s senior year in high school—right before his first date with Terry—the Consol No. 9 coal mine exploded near Farmington. (It was the same mine where Saban’s maternal grandfather once worked.) The blast was felt miles away. After fighting the mine fire for ten days, officials decided they couldn’t stop the blaze and made the almost unspeakable decision to seal the mine and trap the seventy-eight bodies within. These horrors and others like them were the sources of nightmares and the subjects of late-night, real-life ghost stories for the children of the area.
The football played by these boys, in some significant way, mimicked life as a coal miner. There were no real divisions according to race and class. The work was physically miserable, and the teamwork absolutely essential: If one person screwed up, everyone paid the price. “[Big] Nick always made it a point to tell us that what one person on the football team did affected everyone,” says Hulderman.
At Monongah High, the team practiced on a dirt field across the street from the school. After practices, if there had been no recent rains, the boys appeared as dusty as some of their fathers did leaving the mines.
For much of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, this broader area of West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—coal-mining and steel-producing country—was football’s breadbasket. Paul Brown, Chuck Noll, and Don Shula all came from the area. Saban’s own tiny Marion County produced, along with him, former NFL players Sam Huff and Frank Gatski, and coaches Fielding Yost (an early-twentieth-century Michigan coach who won six national titles) and Rich Rodriguez. Jimbo Fisher, who was an assistant coach for Saban at LSU and later became a national-title-winning head coach at Florida State, is from Clarksburg, just twenty miles away from Monongah. Football for these children of miners and millworkers was “the first step in the Americanization process,” as David Halberstam once wrote, and one of the first, clear-cut ways for a younger generation of boys to avoid the same working fates as their fathers.
Football was Saban’s ticket out of a place that profoundly affected the person he is today. As much as he took away from Monongah, though, Saban’s story is also seen in relief, in what he left behind.
In late 2004, Saban and Terry returned to Monongah for the funeral of his grandfather, Pap Conaway. One day, they took a drive. Monongah and its surrounding area are hauntingly beautiful, full of hollows and clear, cool streams and narrow roads that twist their way through shadowy hills that close in the area and give it an isolated feel. Most of the old mines are now sealed, leaving only faint scars on the face of the landscape. The clusters of houses built and once owned by the mining companies remain.
The Black Diamonds’ field in Idamay is now named “Nick Saban Memorial Field” (after Big Nick), and it’s one of the better-kept places in town (thanks in part to Saban’s annual five-thousand-dollar donation to the team). Saban’s high school no longer exists—
with a lack of new students from the area, it was consolidated in 1979. His old house still stands, behind the service station, but it is easy to miss, just another run-down domicile in an area where the economic lifeblood was drained decades ago. The service station no longer pumps gas. The Dairy Queen is now Fly’s Bar & Grill, a joint favored by area bikers. Saban told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that at one point during that drive through Monongah, he turned to Terry and asked: “How in the hell did we ever get out of here?”
Many of his former teammates remain. Kerry Marbury now lives near his old home in Carolina. Marbury went to West Virginia on a football scholarship after high school. He played there for Bobby Bowden for two years and, on more than one occasion, flashed his incredible talent. In one game he rushed for 291 yards in just three quarters. But he never got along with Bowden, and left school early, making unfulfilling stops in the Canadian Football League and the World Football League. “I was a lot happier when I was playing football for ice cream,” he says. He and Saban remained close, and served as the best men in each other’s weddings.
After his football career, though, Marbury found trouble. He drifted away from his wife and family, then ended up in prison on drug-related charges. It was Saban who helped him get back on his feet. “He was the first person to call me when I got out. I was feeling so helpless. It was vital,” says Marbury. He eventually finished his undergraduate degree and earned a master’s.
Four years ago, Marbury was diagnosed with a terminal form of prostate cancer. Saban found out, and flew him down to Birmingham for a second opinion. “They treated me like a god down there,” says Marbury. “They were like ‘that’s coach’s friend.’ ” Ultimately, the Alabama doctor confirmed the initial diagnosis. “But it was good to get that second opinion. Once I got it, I decided I wanted to live,” he says.
In the late spring of 2014, Marbury sat at his desk at Fairmont State, where he spent twenty-one years as a teacher and safety coordinator (he retired later that year). Though the cancer was eating
him from the inside, he appeared physically healthy, bald and trim, resembling a young Samuel L. Jackson. A sign on his desk read: “Silence is better than bullshit,” a saltier version of some of Big Nick’s old sayings. “I don’t know where I’d be without Nick,” Marbury says. “I still call him my best friend, though I don’t talk to him that much. I don’t know where I’d be without his father, either. I didn’t have a father of my own. He was stability in my life. He sacrificed a lot for us.” Marbury repaid that sacrifice in part by coaching the Black Diamonds for a few years.
Tom Hulderman lives in the house in which he grew up, a short walk from both the old Bethlehem mine and the Black Diamonds’ field. Out of high school, Hulderman was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and played minor-league baseball for a handful of games before he injured his wrist. He ended up in the mines. His body is broken down. He has a full set of false teeth.
He laughed about those baseball days with the phlegmy croak of a heavy smoker. Those laughs quickly became sobs, though, when the talk turned to Big Nick. “He beat us up with love,” he says. Hulderman puts flowers on Big Nick’s grave twice a year. A Christmas card from Saban and Terry adorned with a big Crimson A and a handwritten note inside sits on the mantel above his television in the basement of his house.
At 11 a.m., Hulderman sat at the bar at Prunty’s Pub in Monongah with one other patron, nursing a drink and watching The Price Is Right. From behind the bar he pulled down a picture of the old scoreboard from Monongah High. It read:
A few years ago Hulderman says he had climbed a ladder to rearrange the scoreboard. “I sent it to Nick,” he says with a grin.
In the bar there were helmets from the Lions and an Alabama jersey signed by Saban. There was also a framed newspaper article about the Lions, accompanied by photos. One was of a young
Saban in his No. 12 Monongah jersey, posing as if about to pass. Next to him was Hulderman, also in uniform, strapping, blond-haired, and handsome, smiling from joy and not sentimentality. Hulderman touched the frame and mentioned Big Nick. Then his ice-blue eyes filled with tears, perhaps not just for the loss of his former coach.
When Saban graduated from Monongah High in the spring of 1969, he received a nomination from West Virginia senator Robert Byrd for the U.S. Naval Academy. He passed all the tests and physicals, but at the last moment he withdrew his application. “I wasn’t crazy about going there and then going into the military for five years afterwards,” he says. The ongoing war in Vietnam certainly played a role in that thinking. Lyndon Johnson had been escalating the war effort for years by then, and though first-year president Richard Nixon would eventually start withdrawing troops, there appeared no end in sight for what was becoming a grim and unpopular war.
Saban also wanted to play football in college. His dream was to play at West Virginia. “But I wasn’t good enough,” he says. Too short, too light, and too slow.
By the summer of 1969, his options seemed to be drying up. A July 20, 1969, article in the Beckley Post-Herald called Saban a “fading star in desperate search of a galaxy” who had “yet to accept a college scholarship” and whose future “looked dimmer all the while.” Keener seemed angry at the insinuation that his former quarterback couldn’t play football in college. “Some big school is really missing out if they don’t give Nick a chance,” he told the paper. “That kid has more heart than anyone I’ve ever seen in 20 years of coaching. All he knows how to do is beat you.”
Saban did have some options, but they didn’t include any big-time programs. Ohio University, Miami of Ohio, and Kent State all offered him scholarships. Though Kent State had the worst football program of the three, Saban felt the most comfortable there. To that point in his life, he’d never spent much time out of West
Virginia, and he had an uncle who lived in Canton, Ohio, just thirty miles away from campus. (Uncle Sid has been attending his games ever since.) Saban accepted the scholarship to play for the Golden Flashes, who had gone 1-9 in 1968 under new coach David Puddington. Saban was determined to try out for quarterback, though he realized he’d likely end up in the secondary. His only misgiving was that he was leaving Terry behind. She had one more year of high school left.
One morning in the summer of 1969, Saban and Donnie Evans loaded into Big Nick’s Dodge and headed north on Interstate 79 to Kent, Ohio. Evans volunteered to make the three-hour drive to drop off Saban at school, then drive back to Monongah.
Evans would stay close to home after graduating from Monongah High. He fooled around with college at Fairmont State for a few years, bought a four-wheel-drive truck, got married, had kids, and spent thirty years in the mines. He eventually put all three of his kids through college. “That’s my claim to fame,” he says.
Unbeknownst to either of the boys on that drive to Kent that day, Saban was just beginning an odyssey that would lead him to the peak of a profession that he had no intention of ever entering.
Saban didn’t talk much during the drive. “He seemed like his thoughts were somewhere else,” says Evans. When they pulled up to the campus, Saban stepped out of the car, grabbed his bags, and said to his friend since grade school, simply, “See you later, buddy. Thanks.” Then he walked away. “That was it,” says Evans. “It was like ‘I’ve got things to do.’ ” I
. Pop Warner is a youth football, cheerleading, and dance organization that was founded in 1929.