Growing up in West Virginia, Nick Saban would peek through the rails at the old WVU Fieldhouse as Jerry West played basketball far below.
Watching West Virginia play football, meanwhile, “was like the highlight of my year,” Saban said.
When Saban leads No. 2 Alabama against the Mountaineers in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, his priority as always on fall Saturdays will be to win a football game — even against his home state program.
He seemed to enjoy waxing nostalgic this week about his favorite boyhood team in memories that include the heartache of listening to his transistor radio when West and the Mountaineers fell 71-70 — yes, Saban remembers the score — to California in the 1959 national championship game.
“You don’t forget stuff like that,” Saban said, “but now I’m Alabama’s coach. I’m an Alabama fan. We don’t really have to be concerned about any of that. We want to do what’s best for our team and the relationships that we have here.
“But we also respect their traditions and the relationships that we’ve developed through the years in West Virginia.”
Those ties will be evidenced by friends and family traveling to Atlanta for the game, people who say they saw Saban’s potential way back when.
That group includes U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a former West Virginia governor, who grew up less than 10 miles away from the Sabans and still calls him “one of my best friends in the whole world.”
Manchin played on youth sports teams coached by Saban’s father, Nick Sr., who also operated a service station while running an ice cream shop/restaurant with his wife in front of their modest home just outside Monongah. Nick Sr., Manchin said, “was a builder of men” and his son was always there soaking it in when he wasn’t helping out by washing cars or pumping gas.
“He had all the genes for it and he had the tutelage of his father, who was very rigid and stoic about how he did things,” Manchin recalled. “You just saw the success come. He saw it by hard work, sacrificing, planning. He knew what it took to succeed, and Nick took it to the next level.
“I always thought he would be the greatest football coach, I believe, in the country today and will go down in history as one of the greatest. And it’s all because of that coal-mining town.”
Nick Sr. died of a heart attack in 1973 when the undersized Saban, spurned by the Mountaineers, was playing baseball and football at Kent State.
Both Manchin and Saban played quarterback in high school. Manchin graduated from Farmington High in 1965, Saban from Monongah High in 1969.
“The biggest mistake WVU ever made was not offering young Nick Saban a scholarship,” said Manchin, whose West Virginia career was ended early by a knee injury. “He was one of the best athletes to ever come out of the area. His size gave them pause to ever offer him a scholarship.”
Sharing childhood memories weren’t the only time Saban showed a lighter side leading up to this game. He also challenged Manchin and others, including Florida coach Will Muschamp, to participate in the ice bucket challenge that’s gone viral in efforts to raise funds to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Manchin’s wife, Gayle, dumped the senator with ice water.
Manchin said this game is one instance where he’ll be rooting against Saban.
Not so for Saban’s sister, Dianna Thompson, who lives in the Marion County community of Worthington and has had three kids graduate from West Virginia.
“That’s a no brainer: Roll Tide,” Thompson said. She has to pull for the man she’s always called “Brother.”
“When West Virginia’s playing anybody else, we cheer for West Virginia,” she said. “But we can’t cheer against Brother.”
If Saban had his way as a teenager, Saturday’s game wouldn’t just be against his old favorite team. He’d be facing his alma mater.
“He really wanted to go to WVU but they wouldn’t give him a scholarship,” Thompson said. “They told him he could walk on but he got a scholarship to Kent State, so he went to Kent State. He would have gone to WVU if he had been offered a scholarship there.”