The mountain area in north central West Virginia, from Everettville to Fairview to Worthington to Glen Falls, is a sparse place inhabited by a staunch people.
This place, which is in a three-county area, winding through 33 miles of tortuous roads, can be bleak and beautiful and inspiring, all at the same time. It is a place surrounded by mountains so steep that when you drive down into hollows or dry stream beds, the sun's shine is obliterated. It is a place of majestic views, and a place of solidarity and distress, courage and champions.
It is this place that molded four men who have won 15 national championships in college football.
Michigan coach Fielding Yost (six titles), Southern Cal coach John McKay (four), Alabama's Nick Saban (four) and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher (one) all call this place home.
It is important you have a picture of this place in your mind's eye.
Stories like this will help:
The grandfather of U.S. Senator Joe Manchin III had a job in the north central West Virginia coal mines. The job was to grind a hole and push in a stick of dynamite, light the fuse and run like hell, or lean on a plunger for the electric detonator. He had to make sure to scream "Fire in the hole" and especially had to make sure he didn't stumble. Joseph Mancina, who became Joe Manchin I, was nine years old when he started working in the mines.
And stories like this:
There was another boy, Jack McKay, whose family was figuratively blown up by the mines in 1935. Jack's dad, who was the superintendent of a mine, died of pneumonia when Jack was 13. The dad's five children were split up among relatives because there wasn't enough money under one roof to care for them all together.
And this story:
The McKays originated in Everettville, a mining town that was literally blown up when 111 miners died in an underground explosion on April 30, 1927, of Federal Mine No. 3. The population has dwindled, and the community of Everettville lost its post office in 2002, which has become routine for these mining towns.
Out of these mountains comes Yost, who is from Fairview and won six titles at Michigan (1901-1904, 1918, 1923). Out of these mountains comes McKay, who was born in Everettville and started out as that boy, "Jack," and won four at Southern California (1962, 1967, 1972, 1974). Out of these mountains comes Saban, who was born near Worthington and won four titles (2003 at LSU, 2009, 2011, 2012 at Alabama). Out of these mountains comes Fisher, who was born near Clarksburg and won a title in 2013.
These men learned how to climb up hills, literally and figuratively. Saban's father died at 46. McKay's father died at 46. You could say Fisher's father, John James, was relatively young when he died at 62, but life expectancy in West Virginia is 49th among 50 states, so he had a good run. Life there is harder than most places, thus shorter than most places.
"It's truly called survival. Nothing was easy, nothing was given to them. It's not a prosperous area. It is just the hardest-working people you ever met," said Senator Manchin, 67, who is from Farmington and a close friend of the Sabans. "In the era we grew up in, there were no excuses. It was never somebody else's fault. People could shake your hand, look you in the eye and see your soul and see if you were real or not.
"There was no b------t. If you wanted to succeed you had to be extremely competitive. You had to go after it."
Saban went to high school in a place called Monongah, and his house was at the intersection of Routes 19 and 218 on the outskirts of Worthington, West Virginia, near Fairmont. His father, Nick, ran a filling station, which meant his son Nick, nicknamed "Brother" so the two were not confused, learned to pump the gas, check under the hood, clean the windshield and, for that matter, clean the whole car.
Fisher is from a place called Glen Falls. His father was a coal miner and a farmer, his mother still a teacher after 52 years.
"Maybe (growing up in West Virginia) it hardens you a little bit because it is so difficult on some people," Saban told The Decatur (Ala.) Daily in 2007. "I'd have no issue at all to go back and be what I once was because I don't see it as a bad thing."
Saban's school in Monongah was not far from the site of the worst mining disaster in U.S. history. On December 6, 1907, 361 miners were killed in an explosion. Disasters were routine, but men kept going into the mines. These are Saban's people, and Fisher's people. If the coaches come across as impatient or badasses, well, there's a reason.
"I don't think it is beneath me or anything else," Saban told The Decatur Daily of growing up in that region of West Virginia. "It was an experience that helps develop and mold you into what you are. There is nothing bad about it."
Dadgummit, he loved West Virginia.
It figures a West Virginia guy would succeed the legendary Bobby Bowden at Florida State. You hear Bowden talk about West Virginia with reverence, and he seems just delighted in Fisher's roots in the Clarksburg area. Bowden coached 10 years at West Virginia University (1966-1975), first as offensive coordinator, then as head coach, before leaving for FSU.
Four of Bowden's children attended WVU, including his sons, Terry and Tommy, who were Division I head coaches on the top shelf of the game (Auburn and Clemson). Three of the Bowden children married West Virginia natives.
"They're hard-working people in the first place. They're not spoiled. Nobody is spoiled up there. Nobody. You had to earn everything; that's how you get guys like Nick and Jimbo and McKay," Bowden said. "None of 'em had it easy. They had that background of toughness and fighting."
People made a living there. People died there, in bunches, and they died there already underground. Fisher's father nearly died in the mines after an explosion when Jimbo was two.
"You had a lot of people in coal mines, and they wanted to get out," Bowden said. "Football could carry you out."
Manchin, who was also the governor of the state (2005-2010), desperately wanted Fisher to come home to West Virginia and coach WVU after Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan. The buyout WVU would have had to pay FSU to get Fisher out of his contract, Manchin said, was too steep. When Rodriguez was being rumored on the way to Michigan, Florida State did not dither in locking up Fisher to make sure Manchin did not get his way. Fisher was proclaimed the "coach in waiting" following the 2007 season and would succeed Bowden when the legendary coach was fired/retired after the 2009 season.
Fisher has rewarded FSU's foresight with a national title in 2013 and a shot at another national championship in two weeks. He recently signed an eight-year extension, which Warchant.com first reported was worth $5 million a year.
"Sports is very big there; we all grew up doing it our whole lives," Fisher said. "I think the big thing is probably work ethic. Being from the coal mining areas of West Virginia, being farmers and coal miners, it's extremely difficult life, putting in work and doing the things you've got to do and loving ball. Ball was a big part of our culture. So maybe there is something to that."
Manchin knew he never had a chance at Saban. Alabama's football program had too many resources; the bigger stadium, the lure of the SEC and the fertile recruiting area in the South. Saban was an assistant coach at West Virginia University in 1978 and 1979, and that was as close as he got to leading the program. His offensive line coach at Alabama, Joe Pendry, who is now retired, was Manchin's roommate at WVU.
Willy Criado, 87, was the postmaster in Farmington and a close friend of Nick Sr. He sees "Brother" and sees a mirror of his friend, Nick's father, who died while jogging home one day. The father of the Alabama coach was as much a competitor as his son. He played in an independent basketball league into his 40s, coached an American Legion Baseball team and excelled at football, basketball and baseball. The Alabama coach, Brother, did not just roll out of the mountains and start winning games. There was somebody with skill, an athlete, showing him how to do things.
"We started the Black Diamond team together and pushed those kids," Criado said of the youth football team that still exists in Marion County. "Nick Sr. was a good friend of mine, a good coach. Never cussed, didn't smoke, a good man. We lockered together in school and played sports. A really good man."
Before there was Saban or Fisher, there was John McKay, the man who popularized "student body left" and the I-formation toss sweep and played physical, run-first football on the West Coast at SC. His sister, Gertrude, said McKay and his father, who was also named John, would order the room cleared out on Saturday afternoons in the early '30s so they could tune the family's one radio to Notre Dame football.
When their father died in 1935, he left a widow who was 36 years old. The oldest boy had to quit high school and work. "Jack", or John, McKay, and another sister went to Pennsylvania to live with an aunt for two years.
"We kept afloat," said Punky Kramer, John McKay's youngest sister. "We had good relatives who were close."
Jack came back to north central West Virginia and graduated from Shinnston High School, which is near Clarksburg and not far from the Fisher homestead. One brother, Richie, died in the Pacific Ocean in World War II while on a minesweeper. He is the namesake of Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay.
"I remember John walking into the house the day of Pearl Harbor and kicking the radio and breaking it, he was so mad," his sister said. John McKay enlisted and flew bomber missions in the Pacific theatre during WWII.
John McKay played football at Purdue and Oregon and later coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he is in the College Football Hall of Fame because of a 127-40-8 coaching record at Southern Cal. His 1972 team, which featured an array of All-Americans, was 12-0 and considered one of the greatest teams in the college game for outscoring opponents by almost 28 points a game.
McKay's quips to the media were legendary. After a 51-0 loss to Notre Dame in 1966 he famously said, "I told my team it doesn't matter. There are 750 million people in China who don't even know this game was played. The next day, a guy called me from China and asked, 'What happened, Coach?'"
The man who started it all, Yost, went 165-29-10 in 25 seasons at Michigan while claiming 10 conference titles and six national championships. According to a biography distributed by the Big Ten, Yost was the first coach who had his quarterbacks throw "spirals" with the football when the forward pass was legalized in 1906. Everybody else was trying to pitch it forward with two hands.
Michigan was so prolific on offense in Yost's first five seasons it was dubbed "point a minute" because it crushed teams with a fast pace and actually averaged a point a minute. In 1901, Michigan outscored opponents 550-0 and put together a 56-game winning streak.
Door-to-door, it is 12 miles from where Yost grew up in Fairview to where Saban grew up on the outskirts of Worthington. That's 10 national titles birthed in one remote, rugged county of Marion, West Virginia.
Bobby Bowden is quick to remind you that plenty of other coaches made their way through the hardscrabble life of West Virginia, men that people don't remember, or even consider.
College Football Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder of Syracuse was from Point Pleasant, legendary Lou Holtz is from tiny Follansbee and Rich Rodriguez is from Grant Town.
"Football was very important to you, just something you grew up, and your coach was influential in your life and many times you wanted to be like him," Holtz said.
Joe Manchin said the WVU All-American and All-Pro linebacker Sam Huff did not grow up in a small town that had a name. Huff grew up in a place simply called No. 9. It was a mining camp. There was an explosion in No. 9 in 1968 that killed 78 miners, including Manchin's uncle.
Kids like Saban, and then Fisher, were touched through and through by those tragedies. They were haunted by those tragedies. They were driven by those tragedies.
"You ask how did these guys make it, how did they get where they are," Manchin said. "They didn't want to go in the damn coal mine.
"So think about recruiting and the parents and grandparents of these high school football players out there now. They know these coaches are real. These coaches from up home come from real life and toughness. All the coaches we're talking about from this part of the country, people know they care about their kids. That's how you wrap it up and answer what helps make them successful."
Ray Glier, a 1981 graduate of West Virginia University, covers college football for Bleacher Report. Unless noted, all information and quotes in this story were gathered firsthand, with background on the Everettville mines via Carol Thorn, the Miners Memorial Park Coordinator.