CAROLINA, W.Va. (BVM) — Just west of the city of Fairmont, W.Va. sits the small census-designated town of Carolina, W.Va. An unassuming mountain town that may be remembered more for its contributions to the coal mining industry than anything else, the town of just over 500 people has ties to one of the most successful coaches in the United States, regardless of sport.
A short five-minute drive from the center of town will take you to a football field sitting upon a hill, with one end zone slightly elevated compared to its counterpart 100 yards away. Here in the small town of Idamay, W.Va. sits Nick Saban Memorial Field. While one would be correct if they assumed it was that Nick Saban, it’s not quite right. The Alabama head coach did play here once upon a time when he was growing up in his hometown of Carolina only a few miles away from the field, but it is not named after him. It is named after the older Nick, “Big” Nick Saban Sr., the coach’s father.
Big Nick is a football legend in these parts of West Virginia for being the pioneer who brought Pop Warner to the area. Big Nick would drive around these typically remote and isolated areas offering parents and their children the opportunity to play football under his tutelage as a member of the Black Diamonds football team. Perhaps it is because of this it is unsurprising to see the younger Saban’s ability to recruit players to his own unit in Tuscaloosa. He learned from the best.
Although one may not know by looking at him, Alabama’s Nick Saban, known as “Brother” by the community members who remember him, still holds the many lessons he learned from his youth with him on the sidelines of the Crimson Tide. As the legendary coach etched his name further into the record books on Jan. 11 with his seventh national championship victory, passing previous record holder Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most in college football history, it doesn’t take much to see the resemblance between father and son.
Big Nick was described by former players as a disciplinarian who demanded full effort and respect from his players. His son grew up the same way, with stories of his hardworking attitude as the all-state quarterback for the 1968 state champion Monongah High School permeating to this day. While his father may have been the idyllic coaching mentor for a young coach, Brother wasn’t interested in that career path when he was with his father.
Instead, the younger Saban would go to Kent State University where he would start as the freshman team quarterback before moving to defensive back for the remainder of his collegiate career. In 1973, Kent State coach Don James offered Brother a position as a graduate assistant coach. Nick Jr. was not interested in coaching, but accepted the position because his wife, Terry, had another year left and in that first year of coaching, Saban would fall in love with being on the sideline.
Although Brother would go on to the many accomplishments college football fans recognize him for today, there is one person who didn’t get to see those glories. On Sept. 22, 1973, Big Nick would die after a sudden heart attack. He was 46 years old.
While his first coach may not have been able to witness his prodigy’s accomplishments, the people familiar with the Saban family can see that Brother is the made in the mold Big Nick created. While the confetti rained down on the Crimson Tide players and coaches at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Brother was cool as a cucumber, relishing the moment, but not letting his emotions get the best of him. He was happy, but still reserved because he knows the only thing better than winning a game is the next win.
Perhaps these ideals were instilled in a younger Saban on the football field that now honors his late father where a stone near the field now reads, “In memory of Nick Saban, Founder of Black Diamonds, Coach 1962-1973.” Perhaps it was something that he learned during his time growing up in the small town of Carolina and the hardworking community that surrounded him. Nobody in the towns of Carolina, Idamay, or Monongah can know for sure, but what they do know is Brother is one of the best coaches they have ever seen, right up there with Big Nick.