Like Father, Like Son: For Nick Saban, There's No Greater ComplimentDecember 28, 2017
MONONGAH, West Virginia —He found the five garages nearly 45 years ago, tucked behind old houses on a stretch of Miner's Row. Five garages packed floor to ceiling with what appeared to be useless throwaways to just about everyone else but would come to mean everything to the young man who had just driven home to bury his father.
No one knew about the garages and what his father had stored in them, Alabama coach Nick Saban says now. But he was determined to find out.
Times were tough in the early 1970s in those small mining towns up and down State Road 218. There were strikes at the mine, and when you're trying to raise a family and there's no food on the table and nothing makes sense anymore, there was always Nick Saban Sr.'s Gulf service station on the corner of State Road 218 and U.S. 19.
It may as well have been a bank.
"I walk in those garages, and there's tags on junk everywhere," Saban says. "An old bald tire had a tag that read, 'Bob Moore, $5.' That thing wasn't worth a nickel. He was taking people's junk and giving them money to survive."
And no one ever knew, Saban is asked. Not even his father’s wife?
"He didn't want any attention," Saban says.
As Alabama begins yet another postseason in the College Football Playoff, Saban doesn't like to talk about the millions he and his wife Terry have raised for his charity, Nick's Kids, or the 17 houses he built for victims of the Tuscaloosa tornado of 2011, or rehash the countless stories of helping others and changing lives for the better. The story, he says, is those who need help, not how they get it.
Just when you think you have the Death Star of college football all figured out, that he's an obsessive, controlling, meticulous perfectionist, along comes a refreshing reality to knock it all sideways.
"If I break down crying while I'm talking about Nick Saban and his dad, well, I'm not a damn bit ashamed of it," says Tom Hulderman, a childhood friend of Saban’s. "That's how much those two men have meant to me and so many others."
Twice a year, Hulderman finds his way to Mount Calvary Cemetery. Once there, in his mind's eye, he still sees the line out the church door for the funeral mass 44 years ago and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at the burial. He still feels the pain of a community rocked to its core from a sudden, sickening loss when a 46-year-old Nick Saban Sr. dropped dead of a heart attack while jogging home one evening.
Right up on that small hillside and across the street from those garages is the gravesite of Nick Sr. On each visit, Hulderman wipes the headstone perfectly clean and places flowers in front of the black granite stone that reads, No man stands as tall as when he stoops to help a child.
"Not a day goes by where I don't think of him," Saban says of his father. "We were inseparable; we did everything together. Sometimes I think, 'Would he be proud of what we've accomplished?'"
He stops mid-sentence, pursing his lips and tapping his finger on the arm of his chair in his palatial office overlooking the football kingdom he has built at Alabama. He swallows hard to continue, because no matter where and how his life has evolved or how successful he has become as a football coach, he's still a 22-year-old who lost his father way too young.
"I think he'd be more proud," Saban says, "by what we've accomplished away from the game of football."
Nick Saban calls Willie Criado every June 11 to wish him happy birthday, a fond connection releasing a flood of emotions. Most recently, Saban went all 21st century for Willie's 90th birthday, using FaceTime to talk to his dad's best friend.
"Bet you didn't think [Saban] would, what's it called, face what? With a 90-year-old man," Criado says with a laugh. "He calls all the time to see how I'm doing, and I'm sure a lot of that is because of the connection to his dad. That boy loved his father like no one else."
Willie and Nick Sr. were born on the same day in 1927, grew up and went to school together. And in 1962, with kids scattered all across those small mining towns and little to do but wait for the fallout from the next mine strike, Nick Sr. and Willie decided to start a local Pop Warner team. They were called the Black Diamonds, a nod to the rich earth mined beneath their feet.
Nick Sr. bought an old school bus, fixed the carburetor, painted it and drove it up and down 218 to pick up kids and take them to the field. They'd practice all afternoon, and he would drive them back home at night, sometimes pulling into his own driveway at 9 p.m.—with Nick Jr., who everyone called Brother, always in the front seat.
Nick Sr. bought the equipment and uniforms, the cleats and balls. He paid for travel and food.
They didn't win a game in year one, won half of their games in year two. By the third season, they weren't scored upon and their opponents didn't cross the 35-yard line. They eventually won two Pop Warner state titles and had a 36-game winning streak.
"The happiest I have ever been playing football," says Kerry Marbury, one of the all-time greats in college at West Virginia who played with Nick Jr. and Hulderman on the Diamonds. "He taught you about life, about the responsibility of becoming a man and doing the right thing. He had slogans on the inside of the bus, and the one I remember the most was 'treat people kindly on the way up because you might need them on the way down.'"
Earlier this summer, a day before Alabama would begin fall camp in its quest for a fourth straight appearance in the College Football Playoff, Saban was walking around the north end-zone suites at Bryant-Denny Stadium with a smile as wide as the expectations in Tuscaloosa. The annual Nick's Kids Foundation event was in full swing and later distributed more than $500,000 to 150 charities.
Since arriving at Alabama in 2007, Nick's Kids has raised more than $7 million for charities in the state of Alabama and the Southeast. Saban later said the event is "my favorite day of the year."
"This is who he is; it's who his dad was," says Sid Popovich, Saban's uncle and a father figure of sorts for Saban since his father died. "It was never about coaching for Nick's dad. He just wanted those kids to have a better life. That's Brother, too."
Don't get Joe Manchin started. He knows the side of Nick Saban few get to see. So when pressed about it, he opens up.
Years ago, before Manchin was governor of the state of West Virginia or its U.S. senator, and long before Saban was synonymous with championship football, they came home one summer and decided to go bale hay at a local farm. The farmers needed help, and for two boys who grew up on the back roads of 218, that's what you do when someone needs help.
It didn't take long to figure out why the farmers needed help. The place was a mess, and those working the farm—"a couple of mountain boys from our hills," Manchin says—were, too. Saban found empty liquor bottles hidden in tree after tree, and soon enough, the workers were nowhere to be found.
"Brother just laughed and said, 'Hey, we gotta help this [farmer] out,'" Manchin says. "People say to me, 'Nick Saban? He looks like he's never happy.' No, this is the Nick Saban I know: He is a beautiful person with a beautiful heart.
"I can't tell you how many times I get a call from him and he'll say, 'Go check on so and so; I hear he's having a tough time.' He still cares about the people he grew up with, or the kid who never got the opportunity he did."
Like the child in Fairmont, West Virginia, fighting brain cancer, his family driving back and forth to Boston for treatment and running out of money. Dave Fazio, equipment manager for the Diamonds and Saban's friend from childhood, was part of a group raising funds for the child and did what needed to be done: He called Saban.
"Two days later, a big package landed on my porch: an autographed football helmet, pieces of expensive jewelry, a book about the history of Alabama football, hats, shirts, everything," Fazio says, all of which was sold to raise money for the family. "He doesn't just do it for me, he does it for a lot of people around here, but you never hear about it."
After Saban's best friend Marbury fell on hard times, violated probation and served a brief stint in prison, Saban and his wife Terry had a letter and a check waiting for him the day he walked out of prison. "I went right back to school, got my degree and then got my master's," Marbury says.
He later became a professor and worked for years at Fairmont State but has been battling prostate cancer, off and on, for almost nine years.
"If the cancer doesn't get you, the worrying about the bills will," Marbury says. "But anything I need, Nick is always there for me. It gives me the will to want to live when someone wants you to."
A year from now, they'll celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest sporting events to ever happen in this area. Saban, Hulderman and Marbury were stars on Monongah High's 1968 state championship football team, a group they still talk about here, a group that galvanized all of those small mining towns and gave them something to cheer about. More than WVU up the road. More than that then-terrible Steelers team in Pittsburgh.
This was their team, their love, their passion. Saban was the quarterback and called his own plays. Of the 31 players on offense, Hulderman says 28 either still live in West Virginia...or are buried here. So when the mines lost jobs and families stopped settling and the four high schools in Marion County consolidated into one, Monongah Lions history slipped away and North Marion High School was born.
North Marion had been fundraising for more than a year to complete a renovation of the football fieldhouse, construction that will bring the facility up to date and as good or better than any other high school facility in the state. When the fundraising hit a lull late last month, Saban wrote a check for $13,000 to complete the effort—and the Nick Saban Sr. weight room was born.
"Things like that mean everything to everyone in this area," Hulderman says. "The weight room is terrific for those boys. Brother will never turn his back on his home. You can't put a price on that."
Alabama will play Clemson on Monday in a CFP semifinal, and the Tide are two games from Saban's fifth national title since 2009. Early last month, three more Saban assistant coaches accepted FBS head coaching jobs, bringing the number to 10 for those who have made similar leaps since 2015.
After a big push in the early national signing period two weeks ago, the Tide are poised to have another top-five recruiting class and possibly another No. 1 class. The machine keeps churning and moving, and the wins keep piling up—while what's truly important is never too far from reach.
"For my dad, it was always what kind of person are you? What kind of compassion do you have for others?" Saban says. He leans back and folds his arms and looks in the distance. The 22-year-old who lost his father much too young is never too far away.
"Every son wants to fulfill his dad's hopes and dreams,'' Saban says. "I hope I have.''